A noted Modernist designer and architect closely associated with the German Bauhaus, Breuer was a pioneer in the field of tubular steel furniture design in the 1920s and 1930s, following on from a period in which he concentrated on innovative and experimental wooden furniture. Subsequently, his architectural and design work became widely influential in Europe and the United States and was widely promoted through manufacture, publication, and exhibition.
Originally from Hungary, after a brief period at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna Breuer enrolled at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1920. There he encountered many avant‐garde ideas, particularly those relating to Constructivism and De Stijl with their characteristic Modernist manipulation of abstract forms. The structural characteristics of his wooden furniture of the early 1920s showed the influence of Dutch designers Gerrit Rietveld and Theo van Doesburg. Breuer was employed as a head of the furniture workshops at the Bauhaus from 1925 to 1928, a period in which he also began designing tubular steel furniture, influenced—it is maintained—by bicycle design. He was responsible for the design of much of the furniture for the new Bauhaus buildings when the academy moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925. An early example of his tubular steel design was his Model B3 chair of 1925 (later known as the Wassily chair, after his Bauhaus colleague, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky). With its clearly articulated planes of stretched black fabric for seat, back rest, and arms, set within a light standard‐strength tubular steel frame, it almost resembled a piece of Constructivist sculpture. Nonetheless, through its use of new materials and contemporary forms, it was in fact a striking Modernist metaphor for the traditional club armchair. Also using tubular steel he designed modular storage systems and, from 1927 onwards, the Standard Möbel firm of Berlin manufactured a number of his furniture designs. In 1928 he moved to Berlin to practise as an architect but worked principally on interiors and furniture and it was not until 1932 that he realized his first architectural work, the Harnischmacher House in Wiesbaden. From 1932 to 1934 he was mainly based in Switzerland, where he produced a number of furniture designs for Wöhnbedarf in Zurich. With the help of his former Bauhaus colleague Walter Gropius in 1935 he moved to Britain, where he made contact with Jack Pritchard, a founder of the Isokon Furniture Company which was committed to the production of Modernist architecture and design. Amongst his five designs for Isokon was the Long Chair of 1935–6, made from plywood and based on one of his earlier aluminium chair designs. There was also a discernible influence from the organic plywood designs of Alvar Aalto, whose work was becoming more widely known at the time. He also worked in an architectural partnership with the committed British Modernist F. R. S. Yorke. After a brief spell as Isokon's Controller of Design in 1937, he emigrated to the United States, renewing his association with Walter Gropius on the architectural staff at Harvard University and the establishment of a joint architectural practice in Cambridge, Massachussets (which lasted until 1941). During these years he also continued to design plywood furniture, including commissions for Bryn Mawr College (1938) and the Pennsylvania Pavilion at the New York World's Fair of 1939, and the International Competition for Low Cost Design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1948. During the 1950s his architectural practice flourished, leading to the formation of Marcel Breuer Associates in 1957, which won a number of important commissions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1963–6).