The Iconic Cantilever chair
A brief, and somewhat dramatic, history
In the late 1920’s industrialisation had permeated industries like furniture manufacturing and textile making. Designers were developing furniture made from tubular steel, an invention which meant a big change in relation to designer furniture’s accessibility to a wider audience. It was light, stable, could be mass produced, and was easy to maintain. This type of serially produced steel furniture became famous in the 1930’s and valued clean lines, functionality and simplicity. Thonet, a large furniture production company, became the world’s largest manufacturer of tubular steel furniture.
The chair is somewhat of an abstract sculpture until we sit on it. It’s also, when you think about it, quite an engineering problem. Technological innovation in combination with the elasticity of metal and the cantilever principle, produced some wonderful variations of the cantilever chair from late 1920’s.
Burke Feldman wrote; “A cantilever is basically the horizontal extension of a beam or a slab into space beyond its supporting post. It’s free or external end is unsupported, and the point where it rests on its post acts like the fulcrum of a lever.”
The cantilever chair, with its flexibility and no back legs, was one of the most important innovations in the 20th century. It ticked all the boxes for people’s desire for clean lines, it was light, portable, durable and affordable furniture.
But the history of this famous type of chair is a rocky one.
According to thisisglamorous.com, claims to authorship over this design were many. Legend has it that on November 22, 1926, Mart Stam, an architect and furniture designer associated with the Bauhaus movement, and working with Thonet, attended a meeting of architects to discuss the organization of the Weissenhof Exhibition in Stuttgart. There he supposedly showed a drawing of the cantilever chair, made on the back of a wedding invitation. Attending at the same meeting were Willem Hendrik Gispen, a Dutch industrial designer best known for his Giso collection of lamps, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German-American architect.
In November 1927 Gispen suddenly revealed the 101 chair, a tubular steel cantilever chair, much to Stam’s surprise. The following year Mies van der Rohe revealed a similar design, while Marcel Breuer, Hungarian architect and designer, claimed Stam had stolen the idea from him. And so, the legal battles began.
In 1931 the court ruled in favour of Gispen over Stam, after Thonet took Gispen to court over the cantilever chair in 1930. The 101 chair was deemed adequately different from Stam’s design to be claimed as an original. And because Thonet, who produced Stam’s work, had not filed a patent claim, the case was closed.
Another legal battle was fought over the same design from 1929 – 1932 between the producers of Stam and Breuer’s designs. The court awarded Stam the European patent for the cantilever chair. Gispen became famous for his version of this iconic chair.
We were lucky enough to work on a Gispen cantilever chair for a customer. When this tubular chair made its way into our studio it was pretty tired and required a total rebuild, wood restoration and polishing. The owner had her heart set to keep it red and settled for the beautifully textured Rami Plus 3527, a combination of matt wool and ramie nettle fibre, known for its durability, from Svensson Textiles.
What was old once again became as new. An heirloom restored, dare we say, beyond its former glory. Our cultural treasures are sometimes as simple as a chair.
All product photos: dumped and ditched
Scenery photo: Maarten Willemstein
Burke Feldman, Varieties of Visual Experience, Art as Image and Idea, 1972