Modernism & Metal

We take the magic of metal for granted today but if one steps back to the early days of Modernism, this now staple of design stood as a shining symbol of what the future could be. Denounced by some, ardently praised by others, it unequivocally opened up new avenues in engineering that shifted the collective conception of what living in the future could look like. We have pioneers like Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand to thank for the initial push toward this future furnished with glinting tools for living. Done correctly, they stood to enhance our efficiency, ease our day-to-day, and herald the notion of life as an art form. For the visual vernacular that came to embody this thinking, we owe a debt to Modernist maestros such as Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Tom Faulkner honours their legacy in his creations, in the hope that this recognition of design as an apparatus for artful living may ripple into the future.


Marcel Breuer in his Wassily Chair


The use of metal rang in the machine age. Its application in design was, in a sense, an affirmative reaction to a move towards mechanisation, as well as a key driving factor in this process. Charlotte Perriand viewed metal as symbolic of progress and modernisation of the world at large. In her 1929 manifesto, Wood or Metal? she passionately defended metal as a superior material to wood in design, forward-facing and pregnant with possibility. Her beliefs were outwardly symbolised through an idiosyncratic tendency to sport strung ball bearings as a necklace. Her long-time friend, Fernand Léger immortalised Perriand’s sartorial statement in his 1929 painting, Still Life with Ball Bearings.


                     Fernand Léger’s Still Life with Ball Bearings (1929)


In the same Modernist spirit, Le Corbusier viewed metal as a new frontier in his instumentalisation of interior architecture and furniture as means of improving day-to-day life. Design, to Le Corbusier, should streamline the way that we live, making the most efficient use of space possible and freeing up room, time, and energy to give ourselves over to great endeavours. He considered the home to be “a machine for living” and, as such, the furniture within it served as “interior equipment”. Peak functionality and practicality were the goal, and metal was the key to achieving that. With the lowest weight to mass ratio readily available at the time, tubular metal was the clear choice of material to achieve this vision of pared-back, efficient living. It also stood to revolutionise the way that furniture was designed, through its dualistic nature as a strong, rigid material that was simultaneously malleable and mendable.


These unique characteristics opened up a world of possibility in design, spurring Modernists to push the envelope as inventors of new frameworks for living. In these early days of Modern design, one of the most influential advancements was the cantilevered chair, coined first by Mart Stam with the use of plumbing joints. Marcel Breuer expanded upon the idea, endeavouring to achieve the same effect with continuous tubular metal, bent into the snaking form of a chair. He was confident it could be done, having been cajoled into action by the realisation that the handlebars on his bicycle were made to undulate in very much a similar way. He ultimately succeeded in creating the B33 Cantilevered Chair, which started something of a movement among Modernist designers. Even Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe lay his architectural pursuits aside to offer his own adaptation, the now iconic MR10 chair.


Left: The framework for Mart Stam’s cantilevered chair, photo credit: Taschen; Centre: Marcel Breuer’s B33 cantilevered chair, photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Right: Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe’s MR10 cantilevered chair, photo credit: RISD Museum


Charlotte Perriand took to creating her own designs in tubular metal. Like Breuer, she looked to the mechanistic design of bicycles for inspiration, as much of modern innovation was not hemmed in by a lack of ingenuity but rather, engineering limitations. As such, Perriand hoped she may be able to call on industrial giant, Peugeot to mass produce her standardised designs using their machines and processes dedicated to bicycle manufacturing. Peugeot was not convinced; though Perriand persisted with her designs, nonetheless, creating, among other things, her iconic LC lounge chairs with tubular metal as a frame.


Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier’s LC4 lounge chair, photographed by Gabriel Fernandez


In true Modernist spirit, metal enjoys pride of place in Tom Faulkner’s furniture design practice. The principles of thought surrounding its use drive many of Tom’s designs. The Jak Chair, for example, reflects the Modernist adulation for efficiency and simplicity. It was conceived as something of a distillation of the chair as an object. All ornament is filed down to reveal the beauty of the pure form. As Mies Van Der Rohe famously remarked, “God is in the details” and here there is no need for ornament when the alternative is a compositionally pristine finished product.


Tom Faulkner’s Jak Chair


Tom has also put forth his own iterations of Modernist classics, such as the cantilevered chair. Here, he offers a continuation of Breuer’s innovations, while retaining a reductionist approach. The result is Tom’s Angel Chair, whereby the classic tubular metal is reimagined as geometrically refined steel. So, the Modernist conversation continues and the sensibilities which run through it are given ground for contemporary consideration.


Tom Faulkner’s Angel Chair


Modernism was not characterised simply by a shift in the aesthetic lexicon, but the proposal of a new way of living. Good design opens up space, whether physical or energetic, to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to our own pursuits and to appreciate the quotidian beauty that finds footholds all around us. As Charlotte Perriand proclaimed, “the extension of the art of dwelling is the art of living”. Every day is an open opportunity for artful living, whether it’s cooking a meal in a perfectly composed kitchen or relaxing on a chaise ideally suited to a moment’s repose. Each day can be a masterpiece and there is no reason not to find and create beauty in every little thing.


Charlotte Perriand in her atelier in 1991, photographed by Robert Doisneau



Text by Annabel Colterjohn