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Breuer in Bristol

Marcel Breuer struck up a fruitful collaboration with a Bristol furniture manufacturer who, as Flora Samuel writes, was a keen admirer of his Bauhaus background

Breuer in Bristol, Bristol Architecture Centre, Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA, Main Gallery, until 24 December

It is impressive the way that the Bristol Architecture Centre occasionally digs out a piece of history that puts the city firmly in the thick of modernist history. It managed to do this a couple of years ago with its Le Corbusier exhibition and it has done it again with Breuer in Bristol, a compelling and well-conceived little show.

The focus here is on the collaboration between Marcel Breuer, who left the Bauhaus for Britain in the mid-1930s, and a furniture manufacturer of high aspiration, Crofton Gane, chairman of the Bristol firm PE Gane. The Architecture Centre exhibition space has been transformed into an S-shaped series of three areas that reflect the three-stage structure of the narrative while, at the same time, echoing the sinuous forms of Breuer’s own chairs.

The first area focuses on Breuer and Gane as individuals. It begins with an account of Gane’s developing interest in Modernism, his travels round Europe, his visit to the Paris exhibition of 1925 and his introduction to Breuer via Jack Pritchard, founder of the manufacturer Isokon. PE Gane’s 1936 Modern Furniture catalogue takes centre stage here, as do a series of chiaroscuro photos showing Breuer’s 1925 remodelling of Gane’s own home as a showcase for their collaboration. We then follow Hungarian-born Breuer’s own career and his journey from the Bauhaus – where he was head of furniture from 1925-1928 – to Britain, the evolution of his famous Model B3 Wassily chair and the subsequent neglect of much of his other work.

The second area of the exhibition is devoted to the Gane Pavilion, a temporary building constructed for the 1936 Royal Show at Ashton Court in Bristol. It is here reconstructed in model format. The previous Gane pavilion at the 1913 fair had been a Chippendale affair. This one was very different, a kind of hybrid between Le Corbusier’s Maison de Weekend 1934 – through its use of rough rubble masonry and raw tiles – and the Barcelona pavilion 1929 – through the use of simple plywood and masonry plains as a means to articulate space.

It reveals much about Breuer’s consistently overlooked talent for creating rather humane and subtle architecture. Sadly, the 1936 exhibition was a wash-out. The Bristol rain kept the visitors away and the pavilion was pulled down. Not a single order was taken for its furniture.

The final space is devoted to specimens of Breuer’s furniture. It is here that we see an example of his ‘bent’ wood chairs. Except that we don’t. According to the pithy commentary that accompanies the exhibition, Gane’s craftsmen, for various technical reasons, could not bend the wood as required. They therefore had to carve the timber in a manner that would give the appearance of being bent. Despite the irony of this there is a kind of springy energy that emanates from Breuer’s furniture – a 1932 steel chair and a 1935 laminated ply table with opaque glass top are also on show – that makes it well worth a study.

The thing that I really like about this exhibition is that it has been edited so well. The few artefacts that it contains have been distributed with skill and it has made the best of the limited space available to it.

If there is one thing that has been missed out, it is Gane’s life after Breuer. What happened to his factory and his modernist aspirations? Is Gane’s house still there in the Downs Park West area of Bristol? Has its carefully curated interior been dispersed? I want to know more.

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