Battle for the cantilever chair
The tubular-steel cantilever chair without back legs has an illustrious history. Various designers have claimed authorship of this iconic dining chair. It even earned Willem Hendrik Gispen (1890-1981) an accusation of plagiarism.
The Gispen 101 Chairs around the Sonnevelds’ dining table are remarkably similar to the Side Chair from 1927 by Mart Stam (1899-1986), which in turn resembles a version by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) and/or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). According to legend, Stam made a sketch of the chair on 22 November 1926 at a dinner that was also attended by Mies. The following year, Mies exhibited a beautiful example of a ‘free-floating’ chair in one of the houses he designed for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition Die Wohnung (The Home) in the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, while Stam was still working on a prototype. Marcel Breuer claimed that Stam had stolen the idea from him. Gispen probably saw Mies’s chair in Stuttgart and he knew Stam from Rotterdam: he even had a prototype of Stam’s chair in his factory.
In 1931 the case went to court and the judge found in Gispen’s favour: the 101 Chair was sufficiently different to be considered a distinct design. Because Thonet, the manufacturer of Stam’s design, had not filed a patent request, the case was closed: Gispen was allowed to continue production of ‘his’ chair.
A version of the chair with armrests, the 201 Chair, was intended for business meetings and conferences. The seat follows the flowing line of the tubular structure giving the chair its unique character. The backrest and seat are visibly attached to the chrome-plated tubing, in keeping with the Functionalist idea that the connection between two components should be accentuated. This classic design was introduced as the no. 20, but was renamed the 201 two years later.
W.H. Gispen, 101 dining chair, 1931, collection Het Nieuwe Instituut.