The stories behind iconic 20th century furniture design

Written by Rahel | 25th February 2020

From ‘De Stijl’ to Minimalism: the 20th century was an exciting, innovative time for furniture design. As bars, hotels and home-owners rush to fill their rooms 20s-60s inspired decor, we’re taking a look at the stories behind the 20th century’s most iconic furniture designs.

Red and Blue Chair and machine-made furniture

The Red and Blue Chair is one of the most recognisable designs from the early Dutch art movement; ‘De Stijl’. When it was first created in 1917, the Red and Blue Chair was created from deceptively plain beech wood and the bright colours were added several years later. Inspired by the principles of Neo-Plasticism and the philosophies advocated by De Stijl members, designer Gerrit Rietveld decided to paint the chair in the distinctive red and blue in 1923.

Since Gerrit Rietveld wanted to design furniture that would require less manual work, the Red and Blue Chair can be described as one of the first experiments for machine-made furniture. Rietveld once said: “The so-called Red Blue Chair, the chair made of two planks and a number of slats, was made to show that it is possible to make something beautiful out of machine-made material.”

E1027 Side Table and personalised furniture

The E1027 side table was first created by the architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray in 1927 for her modernist villa of the same name, perched on the banks of Cape Martin. It is often positioned as “the perfect table” by design experts. The model name E1027 is not just a random pick; E stands for Eileen, 10 stands for the 10th letter of the alphabet representing co-designer Jean Badovici, 2 stands for B (Badovici) and 7 for G (Gray). 

Jean Badovici was a French architect and the lover of Eileen Gray. The two of them were lovers and lived in the E-1027 villa together, and French Modernist architect Le Corbusier painted murals throughout the villa, often preferring to paint in the nude. Like all the furniture in the villa, the side table was made tailor-made to the requirements of the villa occupants. In the case of the table it was designed by Gray for her sister, so that she could eat breakfast in bed without dropping crumbs.

A classic Barcelona Chair

Barcelona Chair and philosophical design

The iconic Barcelona Chair is over 90 years old and was originally designed for the Spanish royal family to oversee ceremonies. It’s designers – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich – introduced this special piece at the International Exposition of 1929 in the German Pavilion. Although, ironically for a chair designed for Spanish royalty, The chair was first used in Villa Tugendhat, a private residence in Czech Republic.

“Less is more” was Mies van der Rohe’s motto, and you can see it clearly in his design of the Barcelona chair. It is functional, elegant and minimalistic. In 1981 the chair was entitled ‘the Platonic ideal of a chair’ by Tom Wolfe (an American author and journalist), who wrote that the Barcelona Chair has become a must-have amongst the young generation of architects. Today you can find the Barcelona Chair in many offices and homes. 

Eames Lounge Chair and affordable design

One of the most iconic furniture designs from the 20th century was created by Charles and Ray Eames. This is just one of their many designs, but definitely the most famous one as it was the first leather lounge chair that was designed for the premium market.

Normally, the couple focused on mass-produced and affordable pieces to reach a larger crowd, so this luxury item being inspired by the English Club Chair really broke the mould. Today, you can still find some of their furniture examples in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Ball Chair, designed by Eero Aarnio

Eero Aarnio Ball Chair and furniture for introverts

Finnish furniture designer Eero Aarnio designed this classic of industrial design after moving house and realising that he didn’t have a large enough chair. He decided to make one himself and after much drawing, he came up with the simple, stylish chair. Once Aarnio realised that the chair he was designing was effectively a circle, he pinned a life-sized drawing of the sphere to the wall and asked his wife to enlarge the circle until his head was comfortably accommodated.

From there the chair went from a basic concept to a prototype and finally to a design icon. It’s round shape reminded Aarnio of a ball, so the naming of this beloved piece of Finnish design was easy and the Ball Chair was born in 1963. Once described as “the most antisocial, leave-me-alone-chair in Europe”, today the Ball Chair can be found in design museums all over the world.


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