Although humans have been making steel since antiquity, its primacy as a design material was only established after the Industrial Revolution. Previously used almost exclusively for smaller objects, it was Henry Bessemer’s discovery of a process for removing impurities from pig iron in 1857 that resulted in steel’s proliferation as a building construction material. The invention sparked a crucial shift in the steel industry and it was only a matter of time before heads of industry began to scale production and evolve the process to develop even more efficient ways of producing the material.
Realized to be a material with infinite expressive capability, steel quickly became a vital component of modern design. During the early 20th century, a time when rationalism dominated cultural discourse, steel symbolized the machine age and the functional nature of design. In architecture, it was preferred over wood as it represented a new era, in which even one’s home was viewed, in the words of Le Corbusier, as “a machine for living in.” As steel became a prevalent material for the building envelope, the pieces inside begin to follow suit. Around 1925, Marcel Breuer designed tubular steel furniture that mimicked the light, weightless quality of steel architecture at the time. His cantilevered chair is a direct reflection of the prominent architectural trend during this time of cantilevering buildings using steel.
Today, steel’s durable and moldable qualities make it a favorite amongst furniture designers. Furniture designer Julian Mayor likes “the malleability of steel when welding wireframe designs…you can build almost any shape that you can draw.” Steel can take on the geometric forms of machine parts or the curving lines of a sculpture. It can be used to convey the original modernist principles of rationality and utilitarianism. Or, it can turn those concepts on their heads by juxtaposing material with form. For example, Oskar Zieta’s Chippensteel chair contrasts the traditional Chippendale chair form with the uniquely contemporary references of steel.
According to Marcel Breuer, “a frequent criticism of steel furniture is that it is cold and clinical - reminiscent of an operating theatre. But these are concepts which flourish from one day to the next. They are the product of habit, soon destroyed by another.” Steel, and all of its socio-cultural associations, are in constant flux. It is no longer merely a symbol of industrial achievement and potentiality. It has evolved to represent the spectrum of contemporary life.