Marcel Breuer’s America
He introduced the American public to modern design and architecture, but who was the mysterious Hungarian-born master?
“Ah, he designed those cane chairs that everyone loves!” This was my friend’s reaction when I mentioned that I was writing a piece on Marcel Breuer, one of the great designers and architects of the 20th century. I used a recent trip from my home in Budapest to New York City to learn more about the person behind the iconic Wassily and Cesca chairs and the old Whitney Museum. I have long been fascinated by Breuer – partly due to his Hungarian ancestry – and hoped that in the United States I could still find people who knew him.
What began as mere curiosity morphed into a full-blown research project as I followed one lead to the next, tracing Breuer’s footsteps from Madison Avenue through the Bronx and the Rockefeller Estate to Outer Cape Cod. When I was due to return home, I found myself so deeply absorbed by Marcel Breuer’s world that cutting the cords proved difficult. Over the course of nearly two months, I interviewed 16 people, including friends, family, colleagues, and academics.
Marcel Lajos Breuer – Lajkó to most people – was born in Pécs, Hungary into a cultured, middle class family during the glory days of the Austro Hungarian Empire in 1902 (Pécs, one of my favorite cities, is near Croatia in southwest Hungary). His mother, the more influential parent, emphasized to the young Lajkó that education, travel, sports, and an appreciation of beauty were key foundations of a meaningful life. Into painting and math, Breuer enrolled with a scholarship at the Viennese Academy of Fine Art, but he was turned off by the rigid and overly theoretical air and soon dropped out.
At a friend’s suggestion, he instead joined in 1920 the avant-garde Bauhaus art school recently launched in Germany’s Weimar. Breuer was immediately inspired by the free-spirited atmosphere – in a letter to his parents he mentions the grand time he had at a crossdress party – and enjoyed the hands-on experience with different materials. He took his mother’s advice and picked a more practical field than glass painting, specializing in carpentry while also learning architecture at the office of Bauhaus Director Walter Gropius (the school initially didn’t train architects). Gifted and ambitious, Breuer quickly established himself as a star student and Gropius’s favorite.
Breuer became the youngest teacher of the Bauhaus’s prestigious faculty in 1924 after Gropius convinced him to lead the carpentry and furniture workshop. Soon came a pivotal moment in design history: the 23-year-old Breuer was the first person in the world to make furniture using bent metal. His revolutionary tubular steel chairs are celebrated classics of modern furniture today, filling design museums around the globe. There exist various origin stories, but one inspiration was his bicycle’s sturdy handlebar after a fall, which led him to wonder if furniture could be made from a bent metal material.
His most successful piece, later named Cesca, married the warmth of blond wood and cane with a streamlined, cantilevered chrome steel frame. It was the essence of Bauhaus principles: a fusion of craftsmanship and mass-producible industrial design. Although ridiculed by mainstream critics at the time who preferred heavy, overstuffed armchairs in their living rooms (this was still the 1920s), Breuer’s chairs were sold across Europe and earned him fame and a living. Nearly a century after its creation, the Cesca is still wildly popular among fashionable Millennials (the authentic version by Knoll costs more than $1,000, but many knockoffs are available for lower prices).
More interested in architecture than design, Breuer left the Bauhaus in 1928 and spent years chasing commissions across Berlin, Zürich, Budapest, and London with limited success. He was overjoyed when Gropius, by then in America and the department chair of architecture at Harvard, offered him a faculty position. At age 35, in 1937, Breuer moved to Massachusetts to spread the gospel of modernism to a group of students who would later shape American architecture, such as Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, and Paul Rudolph.
Easygoing, funny, and brilliant, Breuer was idolized by his students (more so than Gropius, who was older and had an administrative role). On the side, he and Gropius set up a practice together. Breuer’s residential houses softened the austere forms of the Bauhaus with long cantilevers and plenty of natural materials such as fieldstone walls, flagstone floors, and cypress siding. Using the New England vernacular as an inspiration, he made an American suburban version of modernism that was original and beautiful.
The American public first heard of Marcel Breuer in 1949 when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) asked him to create a model house inside the museum’s garden. The exhibit’s mission was to show suburban middle-class Americans the modern way of domestic life. The elongated house with large horizontal windows was enlivened by a butterfly-shaped roof and a beautiful contrast of materials. The free flowing space was meant to help a mother keep an eye on the children’s area, which was on the separate end from the parents’ bedroom. The light-filled rooms were fitted with Breuer’s own furniture and those of his famous contemporaries, including Eero Saarinen’s Womb chair and Charles and Ray Eames’s plywood side chairs.
“Even if you couldn't have a modern house you bought Breuer’s cane chairs and the Noguchi paper lantern to show that you were a modern person and tweak your traditional home toward the future,” wrote Alexandra Lange, the acclaimed architecture and design critic, when I asked her about Breuer’s importance. With more than 80,000 visitors, the exhibit was a major success and shaped the way Americans viewed the modern home. It also inundated Breuer with new commissions, who by then had branched out on his own and moved to New York City in 1946.
He often invited prospective clients to his home in New Canaan, where he lived with his family in a modern house that was quite different from the traditional Colonial-style architecture that dominated this quaint New York suburb. “Once, when Breuer was away in Paris with his family, they asked us to live in their house. To house-sit for them. Strangers would show up and peek in through the windows just to see what it was like,” remembered Eleanor Beckhard, wife of architect Herbert Beckhard, Breuer’s longtime colleague, when I reached her by phone.
Breuer married Connie Crocker Leighton, his assistant, in 1940. Connie, daughter of an upper class Boston family, was educated and artistically minded, and considered her spousal support of Breuer a cultural mission. “She was elegant, charming, intelligent, and very protective of Breuer. She was totally devoted to him, perhaps even more so than to her children until Breuer’s death,” said Eleanor.
Some people I spoke with remember Breuer as an absent husband and father. “He wasn’t home much. He would come home, get a change of clothes, and leave for three months. He parked his family in Connecticut and took off,” said a person close to the family who preferred to remain anonymous. I’ve heard many stories about the marital infidelities and compulsive sex drive of Breuer, who was a notorious womanizer in his younger days back in Europe. “Connie put up with a lot of bad behavior and neglect.”
Neither of Breuer’s two children are said to remember him fondly. Tamás Breuer, now 78, is a photographer and lives in New York City. Breuer’s adopted daughter, Cesca, after whom he named his famous chair, left home as a late adolescent and never returned. Friends say that the Breuers stopped talking about her after that and her photos disappeared from the house. Now 67, Cesca works as a hairdresser in eastern California. Both Tamás and Cesca declined to speak with me for this article.
Together with fellow European emigré friends and their families, the Breuers spent the summers deep within the woods of Wellfleet, a vacation town on Outer Cape Cod in Massachusetts. They formed a secluded, free-spirited community infused with alcohol and spirited debates about art. Heavy on Hungarians, the Wellfleet crowd included György Kepes, the influential artist and MIT professor; Serge Chermayeff, the Russian-born Yale professor of architecture; Walter and Ise Gropius; and Saul Steinberg, the Romanian-native cartoonist of The New Yorker magazine.
“You could do whatever you wanted here. Wellfleet was depopulated back then. Swim naked in the ocean, the bay, or the ponds. It was very cheap to buy land and the landscape reminded many of them of places in their past,” said the architect Peter McMahon, who heads a non-profit dedicated to restoring and preserving important midcentury modern houses on the Outer Cape. Peter was kind enough to show me Breuer’s Wellfleet, putting me up for the night in a lake-facing Fallingwater-like modern home that is certainly the nicest house I’ve ever stayed in.
It took me seven hours and two connections to get there from New York City, but much less time to feel the magnetic pull of this windswept rural land squeezed by the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Cod Bay. Wild turkeys and coyotes roamed the deserted roads of the April off-season as we moved into dense pine-covered terrain to unearth yet another modern jewel. Breuer’s own cottage, which he designed in 1949, overlooks two ponds and embodies his love of nature and craftsmanship: a delicate, wood framed rectangular building gently elevated in the air from which juts out an overhanging porch, where he liked to serve his beloved goulash and chicken paprikash.
Later Breuer added two wings to provide more privacy and a dark room for his photographer son. They fit perfectly but aren’t identical to the main building. “Breuer was a genius. He doesn't want to impress you with his architecture; it’s a conversation he is having with himself,” said Peter who wrote a beautiful and deeply researched book called “Cape Cod Modern” and became something of a Breuer scholar himself. Breuer’s son Tamás is currently in the process of selling the house, which is in need of serious renovation. “We’d love to buy and restore it and then turn it into three artists' residences but the price he wants is way out of our range.”
I was able to find people who experienced the Wellfleet summers as children. “Hungarian culture came through the whole group. It was one of the things that held them together,” remembered Guy Wolff, Connie’s nephew, when I spoke with him. Not that Communist-era Hungary was much discussed – these were the McCarthy years of the Cold War, when this left-leaning bunch, some of them with past connections to the Hungarian Communist party, had to be vigilant.
“There was a lot of paranoia. We had to wrap and hide certain books in the basement, for example a history of the Spanish Civil War and some leftist magazines from Hungary. My father was very worried when I wore all black during a July 4th celebration. He wanted me to put on American colors but I was a beatnik teenager,” remembered Juliet Stone Kepes, daughter of György Kepes, when I spoke with her. Naturally, they all supported the liberal Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson over Eisenhower for President. “That was as far as they would go openly.”
“The whole group was driven by this search for making something beautiful. If [Breuer] Lajkó was looking at the lake, he was seeing shapes,” said Wolff. “Their house had this quiet beauty about it.” Juliet Stone Kepes has similar memories. “The group idealized aesthetics in a religious way. When buying a car, it was all about the color and the design of the fins, not the mileage.”
Breuer himself, a reckless driver by many accounts, whizzed around in a bat-winged, deep-gray Mercedes two-seater and also had a fondness for Jaguars. “They weren’t ‘boy scouts parents’ if you know what I mean. Lajkó’s life was his work. That kind of person is very difficult for some people. But he was excited when he saw that your work was also your life. He was a fan of the things I was discovering,” said Wolff, who is a potter. Others also highlighted that Breuer was totally consumed by architecture and that it was the most important thing in his life.
People remember him as mild-mannered, approachable, and friendly. He didn’t take himself too seriously and had little patience for the pompous. He had a deep voice, a thick Hungarian accent, and liked to pepper his talk with Hungarian proverbs, usually botched by impromptu English translations. “He was a focus of the company… not in an aggressive way, but he had an inner strength which radiated so wherever he was, you went towards him and he didn’t come towards you,” remembered the late György Kepes, one of his closest friends, in 1981. “He was revered. When I went to say hi to him it was like meeting a superstar, but he was always so normal,” Jane Beckhard, daughter of Herbert, told me about her visits to the office in the late 1960s.
There was a certain guardedness behind the friendly demeanor. “I never knew him fully because he was what people like to call a very private man,” said Kepes in that same interview. Juliet, Kepes’s daughter, elaborated on this to me. “Breuer was most comfortable when he didn't have to perform being an Architect, with a capital ‘A’, and could relax and enjoy the natural world. He had a sense of humor and he was very sociable, but the person inside was not so accessible.”
Some of Breuer’s letters – he gave most of his archives to The University of Syracuse – reveal glimpses of that private side, such as a heartfelt note he wrote to György Kepes after both of their Wellfleet houses were completed. “As to my own time and efforts in connection with these two cottages, it should be ‘one of those things’ – no fees – which I believe is perfectly okay, according to our noble traditions, and makes me also quite happy.”
For decades, Breuer sent money to his sister Hermina, who lived behind the Iron Curtain in Budapest (after the 1956 revolution, she emigrated to Vienna). His letters, written to her in Hungarian, are full of warmth and tender affection. I found the most touching to be one from 1949, the darkest time of the Communist rule, which Breuer signs off with an old Hungarian saying that promises a better future: “lesz még szőlő, lágy kenyér,” translating roughly to “[the day will come again when] we’ll have grapes and soft bread.”
But he could also be fiercely ambitious. For decades, author András Koerner, a renowned expert of Jewish food, was friends with Eva Weininger, who attended Breuer’s furniture design classes at the Bauhaus (Koerner wrote a book about Eva’s husband, the painter Andor Weininger). Eva didn’t harbor the fondest memories. “She told me that Breuer cared little for his students, instead furthering his own design projects and arranging royalties. He showed up once a week and made students build parts for his own furniture which he would later sell,” Koerner recently told me.
In fact, many of Breuer’s fellow teachers at the time were disappointed that he set up his own business venture independent of the school. Gropius wanted to keep the license of all Bauhaus products in-house, to ensure a steady income for the school but Breuer had none of it. “[He insisted] that the designs were his own independent creations and had nothing to do with the school itself,” wrote Christopher Wilk in his book about Breuer’s furniture. “His ambition prohibits him from tolerating the slightest bit of subordination, which cannot altogether be avoided when working in the communal team effort of the Bauhaus” noted Ise Gropius in her diary.
Breuer’s dramatic breakup with Gropius also points to a less known side of him. In 1941, when Breuer felt ready to strike out on his own, he fabricated an ugly scene with Gropius, who was late from a meeting, using it as an excuse to abandon his longtime patron and mentor. “Suddenly I had to realize that I was associated in a partnership not with a friend but with a foe. He is too deeply in love with himself... He doesn’t need me any more since he has had enough personal success now,” Gropius wrote after the incident. The two of them later made up and Gropius actively supported his protege throughout his life.
Less of a theorist than Gropius or Le Corbusier, Breuer was an intuitive designer who trusted his instincts more than precise calculations. “He had a lot of imagination. He wasn’t a conformist in any way,” remembered the architect and writer Stanley Abercrombie, who worked in Breuer’s drafting room in the 1960s. According to the memoir of Robert F. Gatje, Breuer's design partner, people in the office gathered together whenever Breuer showed up at a drafting table; with a few strokes of a pencil, he would resolve long simmering design challenges.
In the mid-1950s, the nature and scale of Breuer’s architecture totally changed. Until then, most of his buildings were lightweight family houses made for private clients; as his fame grew and institutional commissions came his way – government, office, university, and church buildings from around the world, such as the Unesco headquarters in Paris – he started to design monumental structures using precast concrete. The plasticity of concrete unleashed Breuer’s imagination and the graceful sculptural forms of his Brutalist buildings show the poetic sensibilities of an artist. My favorite is the St John's Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota, whose giant concrete bell banner raised on muscular legs pushed the limits of concrete and architecture at the time.
Professor Barry Bergdoll, formerly Chief Curator of architecture and design at the MoMA, is the leading Breuer expert in the United States. On a chilly, early-spring morning, I visited him at Columbia University in his spacious office overflowing with books (“these are the ones that don’t fit into my house”). I wondered if Breuer was the first to create these expressive concrete buildings. “He was certainly one of the key figures. Almost everything he does is in a small group of people who are experimenting with ideas… What’s so important about being the first? He often does it best.”
Perhaps Breuer’s greatest talent was using extreme opposites for a striking visual effect. A plate of glass going directly into stone. A slab of smooth granite table top sitting on rough concrete blocks. “Breuer’s is a world of contrasts,” Bergdoll told me. “The concrete is always tamed in relation to something else. It’s in a collage with other materials… The preliminary course at the Bauhaus about textures and juxtapositions always remained with him. Even after his buildings became highly industrialized he had an incredible artistic eye. I mean who else did anything like the Whitney Museum?”
Breuer’s most recognizable work is the old Whitney Museum in New York City, completed in 1966. After winning the commission against other heavyweights such as Louis Kahn and I.M. Pei, Breuer retreated for a weekend of contemplation to emerge on Monday with sketches showing the now-legendary inverted stepped facade hanging over Madison Avenue. Clad in smooth gray granite panels and punctured by seven strangely beautiful windows, it was predictably controversial in its day but has since emerged as a daring New York City landmark (today it’s the temporary home of the Frick Collection).
“It got so much publicity, not all of it good, that everybody in America knew about Breuer after that. And every city wanted to have a Breuer building. We went from 12 people in the drafting room to 40 or 45,” remembered Abercrombie who assisted Breuer and his co-designer Ham Smith on the Whitney. He said Breuer made it delightful to work for him. “He would look at my drawings and say ‘Nice, but perhaps what would happen if we did so and so. Why don't you try it this way?’ He never said ‘This is the way it's going to be.’ He made you feel that he was interested in your opinion and wanted you to take part.”
Breuer was known to be generous with assigning credit to his partners as co-designers – a notoriously sensitive issue in architecture – and ran a more diverse practice than was common at the time. “I thought it was normal in the 1960s to see women and people of color and from different countries in an office. Dad would show us his birthday cards from his colleagues and happy birthdays were written in so many languages,” Jane Beckhard told me. Breuer did have his limitations: when five male employees were offered Partner track in 1956, he skipped Belva James, a woman who had been there since the beginning, reasoning that “she could leave to get married at any time,” recalls Gatje in his book.
As the wheels of architecture turn, so does Breuer’s reputation. During the heyday of the postmodern movement in the 1970s and ‘80s his buildings fell out of favor, but with the revival of mid-century modernism there has been a Breuer renaissance. Symbolic of this arc is the life of the Armstrong Rubber headquarters, a striking Brutalist structure in New Haven with an “empty belly” that he and Gatje designed for the tire company in the late 1960s. By the early aughts, IKEA, the new owner, covered the abandoned building in billboard advertisements and was ready to knock it down had there not been opposition by preservationists. Fast forward to the present day: Hotel Marcel, a polished eco-friendly boutique hotel, is opening within the premises to “celebrate modern design.”
It’s ironic that Breuer is far better known today for his chairs than his buildings, because he was emphatic about how he viewed himself first and foremost. "I wanted people to forget my furniture and get to know me as the architect I am,” he said already in a 1937 interview with a Hungarian newspaper. “I didn’t want to spend my whole life furnishing interiors.” Little has changed in the next thirty years. “He was worried about being remembered as a furniture designer. He didn't like to talk about his chairs,” remembered Abercrombie.
Breuer belonged to that great generation of Jewish-Hungarians who were driven out of increasingly antisemitic Hungary during the interwar years (the long list includes the mathematician-genius John von Neumann and photographers André Kertész and Robert Capa). Breuer, who wasn’t religious, never spoke about being ethnically Jewish even to close friends and colleagues and described himself as a Lutheran. This was true on paper as he converted in 1926 to marry his first wife, the German Bauhaus artist Martha Erps (the marriage didn’t last long). But his family background did hit close to home as his brother Sándor is said to have been killed in WWII while serving in a brutal labor service unit set up for Jewish-Hungarian men.
Perhaps surprisingly, Breuer remained attached to his native land throughout his life. “He had this personal policy that he wouldn’t turn away any Hungarian who wanted to meet him. When my sister visited New York in 1965 — she was a first-year student of architecture in Budapest — Breuer spent half an hour chatting with her out of courtesy,” said András Koerner. It’s worth remembering that by this time Breuer was a globally celebrated architect.
It had to have been a bittersweet moment when he returned to Hungary for the first time in 1970 to accept an honorary doctorate from the Budapest University of Technology. He was received as a revered elderly statesman and the carefully choreographed festivities ensured that no mention was made of the dark moment nearly four decades earlier, when the Budapest Chamber of Engineers turned down his application for a license, finding his Bauhaus diploma and work experience insufficient, effectively forcing him to leave the country. Nonetheless, Breuer was touched by the event. “This was very rewarding for me,” he wrote after the ceremony.
For years, architects and city officials from Hungary pestered him to design a building in Budapest’s Castle Hill or his native Pécs. Breuer too was interested, he even offered to do it for free, but nothing came of it due to bureaucratic red tape and later his poor health (there exists no Breuer building in Hungary today). Suffering from a severe heart condition and debilitating insomnia, Breuer was increasingly home-bound in his final years. He and Connie sold the Connecticut house in 1975 and moved to New York City, into an apartment on the tenth floor of a high-rise building on the Upper East Side. There, Breuer spent quiet days watching TV, playing chess with friends, and designing wool and silk tapestries (Connie, a gifted jazz musician, liked to play the piano).
His personal letters in old age are imbued with a nostalgia for Pécs. “If I can make it once more to Europe, I’d like to visit my home town,” wrote the ailing Breuer. “Sometimes a bright spot: Pécs wants to build a special Breuer Museum, but: a lot of buts,” he notes a year before his death to his old Bauhaus friend Herbert Bayer. But Pécs, today a lively city known for its thriving art scene and universities, keeps coming up short. The museum plan was nixed, as was a 2010 commission for a public art piece memorializing Breuer. For now, the only signs of the city’s famous offspring are a short “Breuer promenade” hidden away from the city center and the moniker of a doctoral program at the local university. Of course this is more a loss for Pécs than for Breuer’s legacy, which lives on in millions of homes around the world.