Vintage Furniture – Real or Fake? Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair

My “Real or Fake” series on vintage furniture is, by far, the most popular draw to the JetSetRnv8r site. I’ve received lots of emails asking about other pieces, but none more than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona Chair, also known as the MR90 so here it is.

 

Like the other pieces in my series so far, Corbusier’s LC chair, Eames’ Lounge 670 and Ottoman 671 and Noguchi’s coffee table, the Barcelona Chair is one of the most popularly knocked-off pieces of mid-century modern furniture. It’s familiar to everyone because there’s a version of it in nearly every furniture store in the world.

 

As with many modernist pieces, its simplicity makes it easy to duplicate. Many copies are of exceptionally high quality – some would argue even better than the real thing. This is a case where you can get a good quality knock-off at substantial savings, but, as always, if you’re buying for investment value, only the real thing will do.

 

The Barcelona chair was designed in collaboration between Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his partner and companion Lilly Reich in 1929 for the German Pavilion at the Barcelona International Exhibition. Two of these chairs and two matching ottomans were the only pieces of furniture in the pavilion. The chairs were created as thrones for the visiting King and Queen of Spain, and the ottomans were for their attendants.

The originals in the Barcelona Pavilion

The originals in the Barcelona Pavilion

King Tut's folding throne

King Tut's folding throne

Egyptian folding stool

Egyptian folding stool

The design was influenced by ancient designs for folding campaign chairs used by early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans – the similarity is apparent in museum pieces.  But its simplicity and grace, the “serenity of line” (as the MoMA website so eloquently describes it) made it an instant symbol of the fledgling modernist movement and it became an immediate sensation.  A swooping steel frame with two leather cushions suspended by leather straps – it sounds so simple, but as Mies was famous for saying for saying, “the Devil is in the details”.  (He also coined the phrase “less is more”.)

Soon after the closing of the pavilion, the chair went into production at the Bamberg Metal workshop in Berlin. Although the modernist ethos was to build furniture cheaply for the masses, the Barcelona chair was extremely difficult to manufacture and was fabulously expensive from the start. The earliest versions were made from welding low-grade steel plates in a flat finish – not chromed as they are today – upholstered in white kid leather. Thonet took over production in 1932 until 1948 when Hans Knoll’s wife, designer Florence Knoll, purchased the licensing rights to most of Mies’ furniture and Knoll began manufacturing the chair, which they still do to this day. The chair was such a big seller that Knoll created a whole line of Barcelona furniture inspired by the chairs including Barcelona stools, the Barcelona Daybed, Barcelona Benches, Barcelona sofas, Barcelona coffee table and the Barcelona side table. Many of these pieces are mistakenly attributed to Mies by people who should know better (hear that, DWR catalogue?) but he did not design them.

Barcelona Daybed by Knoll, not Mies

Barcelona Daybed by Knoll, not Mies

 

The sofa's not even by Knoll

The sofa's not even by Knoll

Although stainless steel had been around since the turn of the century, it did not come into popular use until the 1950s when Mies redesigned the chair to be made from this superior material. Today, the chair is available in a choice of two finishes – chrome plated and polished stainless steel. The two are nearly undistinguishable to the untrained eye, but if you saw them side-by-side, the polished version has a more “liquid” finish. And there is a significant difference in cost – Knoll charges $4,083 for the chrome plated model and a staggering $6,235 for the polished stainless. The matching ottomans are an additional $1,930 and $3,608, respectively.

So the next time you see a stately pair of Barcelona chairs and ottomans in a sleek modernist home, you can appreciate the fact you’re looking at nearly $20,000.

Unless, that is, you’re being deceived by clever fakes. The chair is easy to copy and passable versions are available for as little as $329 online, or $635 including an ottoman. Good quality reproductions can be had for $800 and up. The real deal is made in the U.S.A. but fakes come from Italy, Brazil, China, India, Korea, Vietnam, Russia and Romania. You’ll often see them called “Pavilion Chairs” to avoid trademark infringement.

 

Knoll modified Mies’ design fairly significantly making today’s chairs very different from the original thrones. Since Knoll took over production, they are generously proportioned and nearly square at 30” high x 30” deep x 29.5” wide with a seat height of 17”. They feature supple leather cushions that subtly follow the curves of the frame and are held in place underneath by matching leather straps. There are no visible welds or seams and the finish is flawless. Once you’ve studied one, the fakes will be easier to spot.

A cheap fake

A cheap fake

The first give-away is the proportions. Many cheaper fakes are visibly smaller or appear to stand taller than they are wide – Knoll’s version appears wider than tall. The cushions are often straight and stiff. The leather cheap and shiny. Whereas the Knoll version is upholstered with twenty individual panels, cut and hand-welted and tufted with matching buttons, cheaper copies are simply one piece and pleated. Knoll ottomans stand slightly taller than the edge of the chair seat – many copies have a lower (and more comfortable) ottoman.

Knoll logo in the leg

Knoll logo in the leg

 

So if you’re buying vintage, how do you know if you’re getting the real thing? First look for the Knoll Studio logo and Mies’ signature stamped onto the frame. Without that, it’s a fake. If it has the stamp but you think it may be counterfeit, double-check the dimensions of the chair. Then look at the quality of the leather and make sure it’s not a single pleated piece. Check the quality of the leather straps – if they’re vinyl or nylon, walk away.

Welting detail

Welting detail

 

Matching leather straps

Matching leather straps

As for prices, this is a case where you can save significantly right now by buying vintage over new. Due to the downturn in the economy, recent auction results have been dire for sellers – you can pick up a pair of excellent vintage chairs in polished stainless steel – some even with the distinguished provenance of being from the Seagram’s Building in New York – for less than $5,000 per pair – with ottomans! Two pairs offered at the October 7, 2008 Wright auction in Chicago estimated at $5-7,000 per pair went unsold. Two pairs at the October 25-26 Rago Arts auction are estimated at $3-5,000 per pair. (UPDATE: The Rago auction sold two chairs in polished steel and black leather for $3,250 for the pair – essentially a third of the price of new.  And two chairs with one ottoman in white leather and polished steel got $6,000 for the entire set.  A nice discount off the $16,078 list price from Knoll.)
Lot 167 from the 10/25/08 Sollo Rago modern auction. Estimated at $3-5,000. Sold for $6,000.

Lot 167 from the 10/25/08 Sollo Rago modern auction. Estimated at $3-5,000. Sold for $6,000.

But if you insist on buying new, buy from an authorized Knoll dealer or reseller like Design Within Reach. If it hurts to write that check, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that Knoll pays a royalty on each chair to the Museum of Modern Art who now owns the design rights. They should throw in a free museum membership for life with each chair.

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54 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Great article..!! I love Mies Van der Rohe..his buildings (Seagram in NYC, Chicago, etc) and his furniture.

    In fact i bought a repro Barcelona chair last month from this guys http://www.manhattanhomedesign.com and i was pretty impressed with the repro..it had the same dimension that the one i normally see at DWR and i’ve paid only $500..

  2. Brian

     /  January 21, 2009

    I purchased a MR side chair that does not have the Knoll name or MR signature on the frame, but it does have a visibly old Knoll label on the bottom of the seat. Part of the label is gone, but you can make out the Knoll name and the NY address. There is also a 2nd partial label that has the Knoll NY address and the number “24.”

    The labels appear to be real. Was there ever a time when Knoll used labels such as these and did not “stamp” the the frames?

  3. Hi, I’ve got a pair and I still can’t tell if it’s real or fake…! Or how to value it. Can you help? heidiruthanderson@gmail.com

  4. wittney

     /  April 29, 2009

    nI the first DWR catalogues they called the Barcelona chair the ‘Mies Chair’. I think that is because they did not have the rights yet to sell the Knoll version. Sounds like they bullied their way into the market using a fake. Do you know anything about this?

  5. We found 2 authentic barcelona charis in a house w e bought ,authentic with tag number 5 and all,brown leather,,,Wonderful stuff;)

  6. Tom

     /  May 19, 2009

    It is very true about the sofa, But hey I still want one :-) so if any one knows of a company making a really great sofa, please let me know.

  7. Tom

     /  June 9, 2009

    this was a big help…..I have 4 Knoll w/no ottomans that I located in a building rennovation years ago and have had covered and stored….

    where would be the best place to market / sell these ?????

    Thanks for the help

  8. I just bought three chairs from an unknown restaurant man. They looked really good, and pretty old. The dimensions look perfect. Its leather. I think they were produced in the eighties. But there is no stamp on it. Does it mean, that this is a fake? By the way, I bought it in berlin. Maybe it is one ot the rests of bamberg metal workshop in berlin? Prime

  9. Henri

     /  December 8, 2009

    I was just looking at some Barcelona chairs and when I asked about the Knoll logo and Mies’ signature, the proprietor told me that that is a fairly recent practice because of all the copycat activity. Is that correct?

  10. Christian

     /  January 6, 2010

    Just so you know, adding the Mies van Der Rohe signature on the frame is a very late invention by Knoll.

    I have two original sets, one from the 70´s (stainless) and one from the 50´s (chrome, 5-piece). Both are confirmed originals by Knoll with both tags and “knoll” marked uppholstery.

    NONE OF THEM HAS SIGNATURES ON THE FRAME

    regards
    “the collector”

  11. Christian

     /  January 6, 2010

    PS.

    The same goes for the “Knoll Studio” stamp. There simply are no stamps or markings att all on the older vintage pieces.

    The Really old ones (Bramberg Berlin) has sometimes been found to be stamped “BMW”

    //the collector

  12. whitt

     /  March 6, 2010

    anyone looking to sell their authenic knoll barcelona or pre knoll barcelona chairs, i would have interest. thank

  13. mb

     /  April 17, 2010

    Dear Whitt,

    I have 2 Knoll 1970 carmel brown chairs and a matching footstool. Are you interested?

  14. Sean

     /  May 31, 2010

    Where can I go to confirm and document the authenticity of my MR Lounge chair with arms? It has the Knoll International Tag and information on the bottom of the cushion, but not the stamp in the metal. I’m assuming this means it is real, however, pre 1970’s. How would I go about getting an accurate appraisal on the piece?

  15. fred

     /  July 9, 2010

    dear mb…
    im interested….
    please e-mail me at fredrik_sundberg@brown.edu a quote,

    thank you

  16. Hiyo,
    I just found your blog by way of the furniture pages and was thrilled to see a good, level headed discussion about the real vs. fake furniture with some wonderful details.

    However, I did notice a few minor errors on your page, especially regarding the Barcelona collection. The chair and the stools were indeed made for the Barcelona Pavillion in 1929. The couch & coffee table were not, however, created by Knoll. They were created by Mies himself in 1930 and used in the Seagram Building (the daybed was supposedly designed for Phillip Johnson -and is one of the few pieces of furniture he used in the Glass House)

    Also, the photo of the Barcelona Pavillion show later versions of the chair – the Pavillion was disassembled at the end of the exhibition and was not reassembled until 1986.

    http://www.knoll.com/designer/designer_detail.jsp?designer_id=122

    Otherwise LOVE your site! :-D

    -a

  17. Berthold Müller

     /  August 5, 2010

    On January 6 Christian mentionned:
    I have two original sets, one from the 70´s (stainless) and one from the 50´s (chrome, 5-piece). Both are confirmed originals by Knoll with both tags and “knoll” marked uppholstery.

    I have two chairs and one ottoman with blue-grey “knoll” marked uppholstery and the three horizontal bars assembled with screws (i.e. 5-piece) in nickel/chrome obviously from the early 50’s.

    Could you please give me more information about manufacturers and period where this unfortunately not first but still early 5-piece version were produced.

  18. Berthold Müller

     /  August 5, 2010

    PS Please notify me of follow-up comments via email

  19. Alex

     /  August 12, 2010

    I purchased a pair of Barcelona chairs from the architectural engineering company I work for about twenty years ago. They were renovating the foyer and decided they didn’t need as many that they had. They actually held a lottery with the winner being able to purchase at a reduced price. There were two winners (one for each chair). I won the first, but the other winner offered his to me (to purchase) because he wanted them as a set (after I turned down his offer to purchase mine). So I bought it from him. The head of the “interiors” department told me afterward to hold onto them. That they were the real thing. I was pretty young at the time, and had no idea what they were, I just liked the design. Well 20 or so years later I’m thinking of selling. The thing is though, there are no stamps or engraving indicating a serial number or anything. Also the frame is not a single piece, but multiple, held together with machine screws. Three “bars” connecting the two “side” pieces. Also, the leather straps (very thick at one end, then tapering down at the other) are connected to the frame with screws, not snaps. I’m starting to wonder now if the chairs are truly authentic or not. Any comments or tips for verifying would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  20. Fiona

     /  September 23, 2010

    @Alex: I would take photos of the chairs and show them to a Knoll representative – they would be able to tell you if Knoll ever manufactured the chairs that way.

    I worked for Knoll for three years about a decade ago. Machine screws sound totally out of place to my mind. The Barcelonas I saw (produced from 1998-2004) were impeccably welded with no screws, welding marks or physical joins – and certainly not on the X part.

    (We were always a bit excited to take a new one out of its shipping box, because that distinctive X frame would be ‘stamped’ on the protective polystyrene from the weight of the chair in shipping – like some crazy piece of conceptual art!)

    The first thing I look for when looking at Barcelonas is the corner of the seat pad. All the fakes seem to have stitched corners with visible seams – ie, four strips of leather to make up the side of the cushion. The real ones, on the other hand, have sides that are made up on one long piece of leather which is stitched at the back of the chair. This means that, looking at the chair front on, there are no visible seams.

    Visible seams = not Mies!

  21. Alex

     /  September 30, 2010

    Fiona,
    Thanks for the input. You’re right, they’re not Knoll. I was able to contact the interiors person and found out they’re from Gordon International. While very good quality, they are not Knoll. Thanks for responding!

  22. Marie

     /  November 17, 2010

    I have two Barcelona chairs that were my dad’s.I have the receipt from Knoll, they were purchased in 1955.
    Bad news, is that Mom let the leather seating take a beating from her Kitty and some of the straps are broken and not fixable.
    I would like to restore these chairs and keep them in the family. Where would I go to do this correctly?
    Should I keep the old beat up cushions and straps?

  23. Richard

     /  February 11, 2011

    As a sculptor I have since my youth loved the simple lines of authentic Knoll Barcelona Chairs, especially the ones from the 60″s and 70’s. I am now finally in a position to consider purchasing a pair and wonder if there is anyone out there with ones to sell (I can be found at ralln@prodigy.net). I loved the specificity of the article. Good work!

  24. B. FORD

     /  March 5, 2011

    I HAVE A FLORENCE KNOLL WHITE FABRIC COUCH FROM THE 70’S-80S. FABRIC IS STILL GOOD BUT INTERIOR MATERIAL NEEDS TO BE REPLACED. THE COUCH IS LOCATED IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA. IS THERE ANYPLACE IN THE COUNTRY THAT IS AN AUTHORIZED KNOLL RESTORER OR IS THERE ANYONE YOU CAN SUGGEST THAT WOULD DO A VERY GOOD JOB? THANK YOU.

  25. Craig

     /  May 24, 2011

    Sean… you may have the Tugendhat chair.

  26. Craig

     /  May 24, 2011

    Does anyone know where you can buy a replica child’s size chair? The Knoll Child-size chair is quite expensive, and I love my son, but he’s not getting a 4,000 dollar chair. A company called Little Nest used to sell one, but perhaps a lawsuit has ended that. Any resource on a good child-sized Barcelona chair? I don’t even need the ottoman.

    Thanks in advance.

  27. Jord

     /  June 30, 2011

    Hi, I have a chair that looks like the Tugendhat chair, but mine has leather straps (with 3 springs on the under side) for where one would rest their arms. I’m told its a museum piece chair… an original…and very rare!

    I’m looking to sell it. Please email me for more info – Jorduk1111@gmail.com

    Thanks

  28. Cherie Hassenflu

     /  September 3, 2011

    I am a designer in Houston and just purchased a Knoll daybed in brown leather. It is from the 1970’s and has the Knoll tag with the red dot and NY addrss on tag. It was purchased for resale, but I am not sure what to price it at. A dealer mentioned something to me about Knoll from the 70’s was pre the current company. Any info would be appreciated. Also, i am interested in original Barcelona chairs, pair of stool, benches, Tulip pieces, etc… if anyone is looking to sell.
    Thanks,
    Cherie

  29. I have 2 of the original Knoll Barcelona chairs. My grandfather, Ralph Rapson, designed furniture for Knoll in the 50s, the chairs they make now are actually different dimensions than Mies’ originals. The two I have are the same height and width but the seat and back cushions are 1inch deeper and taller, respectively. Like others have noted, the older the chair the less likely it is that there would have been engravings or stamps. The two I own have a printing on the rear leg.

    My family owns the rights to the furniture he designed while working with Saarinen, Florence Knoll, Eames, and Bertoia. His furniture is in the permanent collection of the MOMA. We don’t have a lounge quite like the Barcelona in production yet, but maybe soon. Check out his chairs, available for less than half the price of a Mies. Rapson Furniture – Iconic modern designs

  30. lisainbrooklyn

     /  February 20, 2012

    If there is anyone looking to sell their Authenic Knoll Barcelona or Pre-Knoll Barcelona chairs, please kindly contact me at lisa.mckeon@gmail.com with details, photo, and a quote. We are looking for a single brown chair with ottoman. Thanks!

  31. Thorsten

     /  April 27, 2012

    If there is anyone selling a Barcelona daybed (vintage/recent or new) please contact me with your best offer at
    wonderland17@hotmail.com

  32. jeremy

     /  June 8, 2012

    I just picked up a pair of original knoll barcelona chairs from my office in chicago. free. in fact i also got a barcelona glass-top table along with them! crazy i know. in fact when i requested them during our much needed renovations i didn’t even know they were so valuable.

    i am looking to sell them but all three pieces need some tlc. wondering if they should be reconditioned prior to listing them to maximize the sale price. the leather is faded in some edge areas and dried in some strap areas. should i have them polished and reconditioned by a cobbler or leave them as-is? also, these are the stainless steel versions and the metal could use some cleaning and tlc as well. is an ultrafine steel wool out of the question? my gut tells me to leave it all untouched and give the new owner the choice. any advice from this forum would be very much appreciated!

    jeremy
    312-945-8588
    jeremybutterfield@hotmail.com

  33. Chris

     /  June 23, 2012

    Selling 2 Authentic 70’s Barcelona chairs. My grandparents left them to me but I am moving across country and can’t bring them with me. My email is cbax123@hotmail.com

  34. vag

     /  September 8, 2012

    obviously you know nothing about mies and barcelona
    so many mistakes !

  35. Kate

     /  September 12, 2012

    I am trying to sell a Knoll white leather barcelona chair – it is authentic and purchased from Knoll 5 in 2007. I live in Toronto

  36. jetsetrnv8r

     /  September 12, 2012

    Feedback is always welcome. It would be more useful to me and my readers if you could get more specific.

  37. Kate

     /  September 12, 2012

    I have a white leather original Barcelona chair by Knoll. It was purchased 5 years ago for $7000.00+ . I would like to sell it and I have no idea where to start? Any info would be great ly appreciated. I live in Toronto.

  38. Bobee-Kay Clark

     /  September 29, 2012

    Thank you so much for writing this article! I’ve just begun searching for furniture and so wanted to choose carefully; you’ve given me detailed well-researched information. I appreciate your work.

  39. Its such as you learn my mind! You appear to know so much approximately this, like
    you wrote the ebook in it or something. I believe that you just can do with
    some p.c. to pressure the message house a bit, but other
    than that, this is magnificent blog. A great read.
    I’ll certainly be back.

  40. Darren

     /  November 13, 2012

    Wow what a great read, Ive been doing my research in finding the best reproduction. I simply can not justify myself into purchasing a 5000$ chair. I finally went with these guys

    http://www.roveconcepts.com/store/living-room/chairs-loungers/barcelona-style-chair

    got their leather swatch samples, they are all imported from Italy and are just beautiful. I just received 2 sets of their chairs in vintage sandstone and the quality and make is exactly as promised. The chair looks and sits pretty close to the one I sat at DWR

  41. A chair is a raised surface used to sit on, commonly for use by one person.

  42. Colin

     /  February 8, 2013

    Does anyone know if Montgomery Ward sold a (presumably) knock off of the Barcelona chair in the 1960’s in their catalog? I vaguely recall seeing the chair for sale in my youth, and can’t imagine where else I might have seen it.
    thanks

  43. Susan

     /  May 16, 2013

    Thanks for the great article. I used it research and purchase my Barcelona chairs. I got mine from a place called http://www.barcelona-designs.com/
    I am very pleased with their quality.

  44. Bob sagget

     /  January 29, 2014

    I think that we should fight for freedom and unclog the chi of true Barcelona chair fanatics. For all who lie shall be struck down by the sword

  45. joe barker

     /  April 7, 2014

    i have barcelona chair with double E E STAMPED in the metal

  46. Hi to every , for the reason that I am genuinely eager of reading
    this website’s post to be updated regularly. It includes nice data.

  47. Jeremy Butterfield

     /  June 24, 2014

    I have a pair of Barcelona chairs from the waiting room of a heritage radio station, WGN, here in Chicago. They have the station’s name on the Knoll Chicago tags and surely supported several famous heinies for over 30 years before their redecorating in 2012. Over that time the leather may have never seen conditioner as a few areas on the edges have some faded black leather. Should I have a professional recondition the leather or would that hurt their value? Thanks very much for anyone’s help!

  48. Robert Hageman

     /  September 5, 2014

    “Daybed by Knoll, not Mies.”

    “The chair and the stools were indeed made for the Barcelona Pavillion in 1929. The couch & coffee table were not, however, created by Knoll. They were created by Mies himself in 1930 and used in the Seagram Building (the daybed was supposedly designed for Phillip Johnson -and is one of the few pieces of furniture he used in the Glass House).”

    Confusing.
    So who in fact designed the daybed ?

  49. Pat

     /  September 12, 2014

    Is there any way to tell a Bamberg Barcelona chair from a Thonet or de Coene?

  50. jonathanlk

     /  November 3, 2014

    We also have a couple of old (given to us in the 60s) chairs that were given to us as original (previous owner was an executive at US Oil). I think they are stainless. The leather gave out because we were careless with maintaining the leather. The we had the cushions replaced with vinyl and straps (very tough canvas). Then those gave out and I tossed the cushions and straps. I was always told these were originals bought at least in the 1950s. However there is no modern ‘Knolls’ maker’s mark along the rear foot. I see others also seem to have originals without the mark on the frame. And why can’t you have an original frame with a vinyl replacement? Leather is hugely expensive especially if replaced by Knoll? My dimensions fit as well. I also wonder if there was a time these originals were produced before Knoll started stamping their trademark onto the frames. Also I noticed the straps were screwed into the bar that goes across the back of the lower back part of the seat. I was wondering if this wasn’t an indication of a good knockoff or is the common to how they fixed their straps?

  51. Larry Phelps

     /  November 23, 2014

    The Barcelona stool is just that, a stool. It is NOT a footstool for the chair. It is a separate stand alone piece of furniture. Look at any of Mies’s drawings and you never see it shown as footstool for the chair. I believe the confusion is because of the Eames lounge chair.

  52. Larry Phelps

     /  November 23, 2014

    To end the confusion, older Barcelona chairs do not have the Mies signature stamped on the frame. I own 2 Barcelonas that I purchased factory direct from Knoll, East Greenville, PA, in April of 1990 (still have the original Knoll invoice). As a licensed architect (and IIT graduate) I can do that. They do not have any markings on the frames. I do not know exactly when Knoll started marking them, but I think it was about 15 years ago to prove authenticity.

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