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  • Provenance

    Rhoads Hall, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr
    Bryn Mawr College, "Reunion 1999 Auction," May 28-30, 1999
    Acquired from the above

  • Literature

    Christopher Wilk, Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1981, p. 151
    Alexander von Vegesack and Matthias Remmele, Marcel Breuer Design and Architecture, Weil am Rhein, 2003, p. 147

  • Catalogue Essay

    The Bryn Mawr Commission
    By James Zemaitis

    Marcel Breuer’s designs for furniture at Bryn Mawr College resulted in a highly successful and beloved commission, yet it also represented a missed opportunity in his decades‐long quest to mass‐produce a low‐cost plywood furniture line for the public. After immigrating to America in the fall of 1937 and reuniting with Walter Gropius in Cambridge, Massachusetts to practice architecture and teach at Harvard, Breuer was contacted by Bryn Mawr to design a modern interior for the new Rhoads Residence Hall, whose Gothic façade matched the other buildings on campus.

    The correspondence preserved in the Marcel Breuer Archives at Syracuse University indicates that the relationship among Breuer, the College, and the Philadelphia firm of Saybolt, Cleland and Alexander, Inc. was harmonious and efficient. As Christopher Wilk writes, “the furniture was straightforward and unaffected, eminently suitable for heavy use in a college dormitory...the chair and desk represented a further development of previous cutout‐ plywood designs.” The forms are certainly less biomorphic and avant‐garde than his Isokon and Heal’s lounge chairs designed in London in the mid‐1930s. The desk chair in particular is a marked improvement on the Isokon side chair, which barely made it out of prototype stage and was used mostly in dining arrangements. For Bryn Mawr, Breuer rotated the plywood cut‐out to face the profile rather than the front, and the resulting design is both sturdier and has a more attractive silhouette than the Isokon model. It serves as a bridge to Breuer’s radical and expensive cantilevered chair designs for the Frank House, Pittsburgh in 1939.

    Produced at a cost of approximately $85 per suite, the first batch of furniture was delivered to Rhoads Hall in time for the official opening in October, 1938, and another batch was made for a second phase in 1939. Breuer received designer fees plus a 5% commission on every piece manufactured. It was such a well‐received design by the faculty and students at the College that Breuer and Saybolt discussed the idea of obtaining additional commissions from American colleges, and Breuer promised to recommend the firm to MoMA for future projects. Breuer also discussed retail sales for the designs with New Furniture Inc., the New York firm backed by Nelson Rockefeller which was responsible for distributing Alvar Aalto’s Artek Furniture in the USA. But it is clear from the correspondence that New Furniture Inc. had soured on Breuer’s furniture based on their unsuccessful attempt to retail his Isokon designs, which were expensive and fragile, and a proposed partnership for the Bryn Mawr designs never got off the ground.

    The Bryn Mawr furniture remained in place until 1998, when Rhoads Hall was renovated and the majority was taken out of service. Complete suites of furniture were donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Harvard Art Museums, and the rest was sold at an auction held on the campus. Last year, a small exhibition on the history of the furniture was held in Bryn Mawr’s library in honor of the Bauhaus Centennial.

109

Suite of furniture from Rhoads Hall, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania

1938
Birch plywood, birch, maple.
Chest: 29 1/4 x 49 7/8 x 24 5/8 in. (74.3 x 126.7 x 62.5 cm)
Wall-mounted shelving unit: 24 1/4 x 72 x 8 in. (61.6 x 182.9 x 20.3 cm)
Mirror: 48 x 15 x 1 in. (121.9 x 38.1 x 2.5 cm)
Desk: 29 3/8 x 50 x 24 5/8 in. (74.6 x 127 x 62.5 cm)
Chair: 33 1/8 x 18 1/4 x 19 in. (84.1 x 46.4 x 48.3 cm)

Manufactured by Saybolt, Cleland and Alexander, Inc., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Reverse of chest and underside of chair painted RHOADS.

Estimate
$8,000 - 12,000 

Sold for $16,250

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Design

New York Auction 29 July 2020