written by:
December 27, 2010

I moved apartments over the weekend, and in the great push to clean out the old place in anticipation of the new, I decided to finally do away with a set of (free at the time) dining chairs that I'd never really cared for. Better yet, I came across an architecture office that has closed down and was looking to sell off a rash of cantalievered Marcel Breuer B32 chairs. I scored a handsome quartet of vintage seats but wanted to learn more about them. I turned to LA gallerist and walking design encyclopedia Sam Kaufman for a history lesson, and to learn how to tell if my seats are authentic. Oh the lesson I received.

Here's Sam Kaufman in his eponymous LA gallery. Photo by Shannon Donnelly.
Here's Sam Kaufman in his eponymous LA gallery. Photo by Shannon Donnelly.
2 / 3
Cesca Group

The man's grasp of the chair's history and subsequent life as a modernist icon is stunning. Granted, it's not the most obscure object in the design canon, but the eloquence and fluency Kaufman has with mid-century furniture floored me. I'll reproduce it in its entirety:

One could say that the long story of Marcel Breuer's B32 ("Cesca") chair has been characterized since the beginning by the issue of authenticity. The first of these questions: who was the true inventor of the steel-tube cantilever chair? It was actually Mart Stam -- the avant-garde Dutch architect -- and not Marcel Breuer who first designed a simple chair with such a structure. Breuer's landmark steel-tube B3 ("Wassily") chair of 1925, a design breakthrough, may have inspired Stam, but Stam's 1926 steel-tube cantilever chair, though crude by comparison to Breuer's slightly later one, was the originator of the type. There was a big legal battle at the time over which one of them came up with the idea first, and Stam won. This is why Breuer's chair was never patented.

Authenticity would seem to call for only one manufacturer, among the sea of companies that have made and continue to make this extremely popular design, to be the maker of authentic examples. But there have been no less than three official manufacturers of the chair. The first was Thonet, starting in 1927. Then in the 1950s, Gavina started making them with Breuer's blessing and participation (the Italian company was the first to name the chair the "Cesca", after Breuer's daughter, Francesca). In the 1960s, Gavina was bought by Knoll, who are today considered to be the only makers of authentic "Cesca" chairs.

Here's Sam Kaufman in his eponymous LA gallery. Photo by Shannon Donnelly.
Here's Sam Kaufman in his eponymous LA gallery. Photo by Shannon Donnelly.

There is no question that the Knoll version of this chair is of obviously better quality than many, though not all, of the many knock-offs. Knoll "Cesca" chairs which lack a label cannot be easily identified with certainty by someone who has not had the experience of handling many "Cescas", genuine and not, over the years. But there are details to look out for, which mark a better "Cesca" from a lesser one.

Start by looking at the seat: does the front edge of the wooden seat frame stick out a bit? On a Knoll chair, the seat curves down slightly with the downward sweep of the tubing. Next, look at the tube-ends, which should be continuous with the tubes (no seam between tube and cap). Then look at the bends in the tubing: does the tube flatten out a bit as it curves, or does the tubing retain a constant radius? Preventing metal tubing from flattening as it is bent requires the use of mandrels, not bothered with by most of the imitators.

All of these rules for authenticity have exceptions, given that there have been more than one maker of authentic "Cesca" chairs. I once had a pair of very early (1928) Thonet B33 chairs, which I sold to a gentleman in Europe. The B33 is like the B32 / "Cesca", but with canvas-sling seating surfaces instead of caning and wood. A 100% original 1928 Thonet B33 is about as authentic as it gets, but these chairs had bends in the tubing which were closer in appearance to a knock-off than a Knoll.

Cesca BW
"Made in Italy" stickers carry little meaning by themselves. Gavina was an Italian company, and Knoll has made these chairs in Italy for years (though perhaps not exclusively in Italy).

The "Cesca" chair, like many other pre-war design icons from the first generation of modernism, is much more commonly encountered as a knock-off (often a rather sloppy knock-off) than as the real thing. Post-war, second generation modernist design -- midcentury modernism -- was more American than European, and more mass-produced from the start, so authentic vintage examples were always relatively easy to get a hold of, compared to authentic Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Mies stuff.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016