Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture At the Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow, until 27 August We all know Marcel Breuer, the Bauhaus young master who invented tubular-steel furniture, but we are less familiar with his subsequent architectural career in the USA - apart perhaps from remembering that he eventually suffered the scorn of the Post-Modernists, with Michael Graves even trying to rework his Whitney Museum in New York.
The purpose of this retrospective, mounted by the Vitra Design Museum, is to establish a new balance in the assessment of Breuer's career on both sides of the Atlantic. The show, which includes chairs, tables, photos, drawings and a 450-page catalogue, is given extra weight by 12 scale models showcasing Breuer's most important buildings - four key houses and some major public schemes such as the Whitney.
In an attempt to bring together the two stories, Breuer the Bauhaus furniture designer and Breuer the American architect, the work is organised in themes. Concepts such as 'cantilever' draw links between the 'chair with no back legs' and the Begrisch Hall in New York - the latter is a spectacular concrete box supported on an unbelievably slender base.
'Lying Rectangle' makes a parallel between the furniture designed for Piscator in Berlin in 1927 and the strip windows on the elevation of the Tompkins House in Long Island in 1946. The thematic approach is thought provoking but the strength of the history and the unique character of the early furniture has a greater pull on the imagination.
Breuer studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar and was invited by Gropius to return when the school moved to Dessau in 1925. He designed the furniture for the new campus and became head of the furniture workshop.
The chairs, tables, Standard Mobel drawings and Thonet catalogues in the Vitra exhibition illustrate the evolution of his radical ideas.
The tubular steel Wassily chair (also known as the 'abstract chair') was developed in conjunction with the manufacturer Junckers, and took its name from Wassily Kandinsky, whose rooms it graced. This simple and witty chair exemplied the outlook of the school. 'The creation of standard types for all practical commodities of everyday use is a social necessity. The home and its furnishings are mass consumer goods, and their design is more a matter of reason than a matter of passion, ' said Gropius in 1926.
By 1937 Breuer was teaching and practising alongside Gropius at Harvard, but in the early 1940s he left to set up a practice in New York, and during that decade designed and furnished more than 70 private homes and college dormitories. He went on to win more prestigious projects, such as the UNESCO HQ in Paris, designed with Pier Luigi Nervi, the Whitney, and the IBM buildings in Florida and the South of France.
In the exhibition, photographs of Ise Gropius and others socialising in the Breuer family's two-storey living space provide an insight into the joy of Breuer's early houses, while photographs of his later work with sculptural in situ concrete are compelling. In the catalogue Barry Bergdoll explains how both Sigfried Gideon and Henry-Russell Hitchcock championed Breuer's work (described as 'Modernised Americanism' rather than 'American Modernism') because it combined the ease and simplicity of the American vernacular with the technical imagination and aesthetic purity of the modern.
The Lighthouse doesn't have enough space to exhibit the entire Vitra show, but it is using its two biggest galleries.
Even in its cropped form this is a world-class exhibition and Scots are fortunate that its only UK venue is in Glasgow. Breuer's work, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a continuing inspiration.
Penny Lewis is editor of Prospect