Manhattan Modern by Mies:

A classic daybed designed for Barcelona… or Midtown Manhattan?

Text Hilary Lewis

In 1930, Philip Johnson began his first job following his college years at Harvard. He moved to Manhattan to become the inaugural curator of architecture and design at the newly-founded Museum of Modern Art in New York. At age 24, what else would you do but rent an apartment in Midtown and hire none other than Bauhaus master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design your apartment? In doing so, Johnson acquired works that are classics of modernism, which he lived with for the rest of his long life, most of which are currently on display in his famed Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut.

While most of the furnishings for Johnson’s apartment in Manhattan’s East 50s were designs that had already been developed by Mies’s studio as part of Mies’s collaboration with the very talented Lilly Reich for other architectural projects, from the Barcelona Chairs of 1929 to the Brno Chairs of 1929-30, not every piece was a reproduction of an existing design. One in particular was a custom piece for the Johnson commission that would later join the ranks of these other classics of modern decor.

This modern daybed is part of the Barcelona collection of furniture by Bauhaus master Mies van der Rohe, but its heritage differs from its sibling, the famed Barcelona Chair.

Of course, all of these pieces today seem obvious as masterworks of modern design, but they were contemporary, not yet classic, designs of that time. Most were only known by those who had traveled to Germany or perhaps to Barcelona where Mies’s German Pavilion for the 1929 World’s Fair had become an essential symbol of Northern European modernism. The eponymous Barcelona Chairs graced the Pavilion’s interior with matching ottomans, placed there to host the King and Queen of Spain for an official visit. 

What was not on display in the 1929 Pavilion was what Knoll, who owns the license to Mies’s furniture today, refers to as the Barcelona Couch. That minimalistic piece is actually a daybed and was first designed not for Barcelona but for Johnson’s apartment of 1930. The original today remains in The Glass House and is the prototype for the work we have all now seen in museums, offices, homes and showrooms—but just not in the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion. Mies and Reich had experimented with the concept of a daybed in 1930, creating one with what became the signature cylindrical pillow for Johnson in New York and another without for a client in Berlin that same year.

So neither heralding from Barcelona nor really a couch, the daybed is nonetheless one of the most elegant and modern works on which you can most certainly recline and contemplate both the history and legacy of modern design. The question is, if you were to commission new furniture in 2030, what would that look like and would we still be coveting it over 90 years hence?

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Hilary Lewis is the Chief Curator and Creative Director at The Glass House in NewCanaan, Connecticut.