Born in Germany and trained in the family stonemason business, the architecture and design of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) became iconic of the cool, minimalist International Style from the first half of the century. Mies went to Berlin to study architecture at the Vocational Arts College, and started working in the offices of Bruno Paul in 1905. In 1908 he began working Peter Behrens' offices, where Mies' modernist contemporaries, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius had also gotten their starts. In 1914, he set up his own architecture office in Berlin.
A member of the "Novembergruppe," an organization intent on expanding the scope and impact of modernism, Mies spent the first part of the 1920s designing buildings in this style. In 1927 the design and patent for his tubular steel cantilevered chair started to bring him into the international spotlight. Called the "MR20," and created in collaboration with architect and designer Lilly Reich, the chair was a simple, curved structure with a woven cane seat made in versions with and without armrests. The character of this chair, and that of many of Mies' other designs, was that of a formal, refined comfort. The seat and back would give slightly, under the user's weight, but the outward appearance replaced the cozy qualities of a large upholstered armchair with a smaller and more streamlined chair. In 1929 he and Reich created the German Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exhibition, a comprehensive and enduring example of the International Style, destroyed after the exhibition but later rebuilt in homage. Mies' "Barcelona" chair was a result of this project, an object made for the Spanish royalty's inaugural ceremony, which was to take place in the pavilion. His inspiration for this piece came from an Egyptian folding chair long thought to be a symbol of power, and a folding stool from Roman times. He created the "Barcelona" chair as a 'modern throne' with a curved "X" base and a rich upholstered seat attached by leather straps. In America George Nelson championed this design in magazines. The piece, originally made by hand, was later marketed for mass production by Knoll.
The popular "Brno" chair followed, circa 1930, designed, along with the "Tugendhat," for Fritz and Grete Tugendhat's house in the Czech Republic. Both chairs utilized the cantilever design, but the "Brno" had a taut upholstered seat and back and was made in a tubular steel version and in a flat steel version. The "Tugendhat" had a much thicker leather covered seat and back. The house itself was made with materials like onyx marble and ebony for the walls, and divided and expanded the interior space with enormous picture windows and understated partitions. Mies would bring this modernist architectural style to the United States in the late 1940s with the Farnsworth House in Illinois. Both of these houses were designed to establish a visual harmony between the exterior and the interior, the walls of windows making the house, in effect, part of the landscape.
Mies was director of the Bauhaus school in Berlin from 1930-32, and moved to Chicago in 1938, where he taught architecture at the Armour Institute. He designed the Seagram Building in New York (1962-67), a glass and steel building infused with the same affinity for balance and a sleek visual form as his furniture.