Furnishing an answer JOHNNY RODGER Mies van der Rohe Architecture and Design in Stuttgart, Barcelona, Brno At the Burrell Collection, Pollok Country Park, Glasgow until 29 August
'Friendship is a social expedient, like upholstery,' wrote Beckett in his small volume on Proust. That sentiment might equally have been uttered by Mies van der Rohe if the power-hungry loner represented in the biographies is a realistic portrait. As for his views on furniture design, we all think we know what they were, and as is typical for any Mies endeavour they are summed up in a catch-phrase: 'standardisation and rationalisation'.
While this glib formula is in some way only a recognition of his fundamental importance to modern architectural culture, it is also the reason why it is necessary to return again and again to the details of his achievements.
The second show in Glasgow 1999's Modern Masters series is an exhibition of furniture designed for Mies' three greatest European projects - the Weiss-enhofsiedlung, the Barcelona Pavilion, and the Tugendhat House.
Mies only spent 1927-32 working on this furniture but allegedly claimed that successful chair design was as much of a challenge as designing a building. Some of his admirers have been prepared to go even further, the Smithsons for example stating: 'One has a perfectly clear notion of the sort of city, and the sort of society envisaged by Mies van der Rohe, even though he has never said much about it. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Miesian city is implicit in the Mies chair'.
What is fascinating about this exhibition is its refusal to accept that an interest in the tiniest details of development and design of this furniture is exaggerated or excessive. Thus, on entering, we are presented with several original versions of the famous Freischwinger (cantilever) seat first designed for the Weissenhofsiedlung. There is a version with a leather seat, then with basket weave, one with curving armrests, and one painted bright red (yes, by Mies!). The different types of screw-on joints, supports and weldings are described, alongside some of Mies' sketches, his patent drawings, and adverts by the furniture makers. We then see how Mies first developed this form from a drawing shown him by Mart Stam, and learn that the patent was originally refused because an American had designed a similar cantilever chair (Mies built one of those chairs himself to prove that, unlike his own, it didn't 'swing').
While this approach allows us to appreciate the energy and attention the master brought to his work, it also enables us to raise interesting questions. From the wealth of details about the development of the Barcelona chair it becomes apparent just how labour-intensive was the grinding and soldering required on the cross-joint. Is it true, then, that what was most important was that this furniture looked machine-made?
Those of us under six foot tall who daren't sit back in the depth of the Barcelona chair for fear of being unable to rise again will forever be left standing in the corporate lobby wondering what could be the relationship between the curved lines of this furniture and an architectural theory based on the rectilinear. Is it that the chair itself is intended to mediate between the human body and the abstract geometrical forms of Modernist architecture?
If possible take your own body on a pilgrimage through the forest to the Burrell Museum. The only disappointment is that this furniture, with its openness and graceful lines, isn't contributing to the free-flowing space of the galleries, with their long glass walls up against the trees, but is shut away in a cramped and windowless room.
Johnny Rodger is a writer in Glasgow