No one doubts that the cantilever chair (freischwinger, which in German means free swing), based on the principle of the projecting beam and characterized by its elasticity, is a universal design. However, its paternity is problematic. Is it a Marcel Breuer design inspired by a Mart Stam idea or the other way around? What were the contacts between both designers? At what moment did their experiments intersect?
The Dutch architect Mart Stam in 1926 had designed a chair without hind legs, constructed of 10 straight sections of gas pipe, reinforced with elbows. As the frame collapsed when sitting down, he had to add a crossbar between the two legs. The chair was not elastic at all, but this did not matter to Stam because what he was chasing was the design of a minimal and essential object that was a kind of manifesto in accordance with the ideals of modern architecture.
For his part, the teacher of the Bauhaus, the young Marcel Breuer, was, in 1926, designing tube furniture for the new school building in Dessau. One of his concerns was to find a resistant steel tube with a return capacity that would give elasticity to a two-legged chair.
Breuer and Stam converged on the train that went from Frankfurt to Stuttgart on an imprecise date between 1926 and 1927. Breuer told Stam that he had started a small production of two-legged chairs but his problem was finding the suitable type of tube for them to be elastic. For him that was very important. Breuer considered himself to be working for humanity and naively told him his secrets. Upon arriving at home, Stam drew Breuer’s chair and arranged to have it produced with filled tube, which gave it robustness but not elasticity. Then he began to take legal protection measures.
The result was that, in 1929, the companies that produced models of Breuer and Stam were embroiled in a bitter legal battle for the exploitation rights of the freischwinger chairs. The businessman Anton Lorenz, who had won a contract signed by Stam, defended the originality of the idea while Thonet, who had recently acquired the company in which Breuer Standard-Möbel was invested, argued that its improvement was technical and that his chair was really elastic, an industrial product and not a workshop experiment. In the end Lorenz managed to retain the Breuer’s rights and ceded the exploitation to Thonet but he could not stop the proliferation of copies due to the international success of the model that would eventually become a universal archetype.