The son of a German stonemason, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) initially attended trade school but later moved to Berlin and studied architecture under Bruno Paul.
He finished his first house in 1907 at the age of 20, and the following year joined the office of leading German architect Peter Behren (where Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier also trained).
After setting up his own studio in 1912 he enlisted in the German army during World War I, but quickly re-established his architecture practice afterwards.
As architectural director of the Deutscher Werkbund he organised the influential Weissenhof prototype housing project in Stuttgart. This 1927 exhibition showed all the hallmarks of what would later become known as the International style – skeletal boxes with flat roofs.
It was around this time that Mies van der Rohe began using new industrial technologies to design his iconic modern furniture pieces such as the MR10, Barcelona and Brno chairs.
He designed the German Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exhibition in 1929, and his equally famous Tugendhat house in Brno, Czechoslovakia, was completed in 1930.
In the same year, he became the director of the Bauhaus school, but the Nazis forced its closure in 1933.
In 1937, Mies van der Rohe emigrated to America and became head of the architecture school at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He found America, and post-war corporations in particular, happy to embrace his International architectural style and his love of fine and expensive materials such as marble and plate glass.
He went on to design such internationally recognised buildings as the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, New York’s Seagram Building and Chicago’s IBM Plaza.
It’s become a feature of office lobbies the world over, but the Barcelona chair (pictured) was originally created for a different purpose. Mies van der Rohe designed the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exhibition, held in Barcelona.
The king and queen of Spain were opening the pavilion, so Mies van der Rohe created the chairs in case they became tired. The chair has always been expensive to produce, due to the exacting upholstery and mirror-polished, chromed, flat-bar steel base.
In 1953, the design was exclusively licensed to Knoll International, probably partially due to the fact that Florence Knoll had been a student of Mies van der Rohe.
Mies van der Rohe designed houses of simplicity and elegance. His long, low skeletal structures had flat roofs, open internal spaces, large areas of glass and were divided internally by moveable walls. He often included feature walls in the finest quality natural materials, such as marble or ebony, and tended to use low plinths around his single-storey designs.
His furniture has an architectural beauty, with simple flowing lines and the same splendid detailing. The main structural material was steel, often employing cantilevered forms to enhance the feeling of lightness created by the delicate structural frames. Quality leather and cane were then used in the seating elements to soften the look and add luxurious comfort.
Best known for
The famed ‘MR 90’ Barcelona chair was created for the German Pavilion at the Barcelona International Exhibition in 1929. Its X-shaped legs made reference to the imperial chairs of ancient Rome.
His earlier MR10 and MR20 chairs (1927) stemmed from the Bauhaus’s socialist ideals.
The tubular steel used in these was far cheaper to produce, thus making them furniture for the masses.