Wheelchairs: Club chairs to Club Racers-Breuer and Chapman’s tube frame structures

Wheelchairs: Club chairs to Club Racers-Breuer and Chapman’s tube frame structures.


This article was inspired by the editors seeing the structural connectivity shared between the Breuer B3 chair, the diamond frame [double triangle] of the bicycle and the tube framed triangulation present in the Chapman space frame chassis.

Whereas the Breuer chair is seen as an aesthetic piece of modernist design, a Chapman chassis is not regarded in the same manner although both are extremely functionalist and share the same structural properties inherent in steel tubing and triangulation.

The B3 chair and Lotus space frame chassis are: –

  • Light
  • Strong
  • Functional, performing practical , necessary roles
  • Examples of Industrial Design appropriating basic, available materials with known structural principles to produce minimalist design
  • Both Chapman and Marcel Breuer would be aware of aviation technology [ the Bauhaus School was close to one of Germany’s foremost aviation manufacturers]

Chapman the entrepreneur and Industrial Designer sought to mutate his established design principles and align these with his manufacturing plant to diversify into utility furniture. Although not profitable or proceeded with it does illustrate a connectivity of motives and shared principles of adaption/ mutation of materials and technologies

In this article we hope to bring out, illustrate and interpret these similarities.

Subscribers might like to see the directly relevant and integrated A&R pieces that complement and help structure this article:-

  • Lotus chassis design
  • Design heroes: Aalto, Gray, Breuer, Prove Gropius, Mollino, Rams, Eames and Day etc.
  • Lotus 108 and 110 pursuit bikes
  • Chairman Chapman: Lotus and furniture
  • Chapman boats and microlights

The Bicycle frame

The most popular frame design is known as the diamond or double- triangle. This design has changed very little since the advent of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. Paolo explained, “It’s proven to be a great use of materials, great for bracing angles, great for strength; it lends itself to being beat up pretty hard and still being ridable.” The strength of the design comes from the triangle shapes that make up the diamond design. As Paolo explained, “Structurally, it’s quite impressive. If you look at engineers playing with structures, they tend to come back to triangles and since the bike is basically three triangles, it works out to be a pretty strong structure.”

Figure 1.From wiki

Bicycle frame objectives

  • Carry the weight of the rider and be comfortable
  • Travel up to approximately 25mph
  • Steer, and be maneuverable
  • Stop
  • Absorb road shocks
  • Be light
  • Be durable, sustainable ,and weather resistant
  • Be inexpensive
  • Be simple, and efficient
  • Be adaptable, and adjustable
  • Be safe
  • Easily stored

When we understand the objectives it’s possible to examine the bicycle and appreciate how well it has harmonised objectives with materials and structure.

The simple directness registers its form and function and readily comprehended aesthetic.

Adler bicycles

The company was started in 1880 by Heinrich Kleyer (1853-1932). Kleyer founded a small machine business in Frankfurt am Main. In the first year he was selling bicycles imported from Great Britain. Next year Kleyer started the industrial manufacture of bicycles; he was the first entrepreneur in Germany to do so.

Comparison of bicycle and chair- special reference Breuer B3

We believe the following may be deemed fundamental qualities expected in chair and particularly in relation to the B3: –

  • Durable
  • Sustainable
  • Resistant to wear
  • Safe
  • Light and maneuverable
  • Clean and hygienic
  • High strength
  • Ductable, tough, strong , flexible
  • Possibly prefabricated
  • Capable of easy production

Marcel Breuer and “Wassily” Chair -from the net:-


“While teaching at the Bauhaus, Breuer often rode a bicycle, a pastime that led him to what is perhaps the single most important innovation in furniture design in the twentieth century: the use of tubular steel. The tubular steel of his bicycle’s handlebars was strong and lightweight, and lent itself to mass-production. Breuer reasoned that if it could be bent into handlebars, it could be bent into furniture forms.

The model for this chair is the traditional overstuffed club chair; yet all that remains is its mere outline, an elegant composition traced in gleaming steel. The canvas seat, back, and arms seem to float in space. The body of the sitter does not touch the steel framework. Breuer spoke of the chair as “my most extreme work . . . the least artistic, the most logical, the least ‘cozy’ and the most mechanical.” What he might have added is that it was also his most influential work. An earlier version of this chair was designed by Breuer in 1925, and within a year, designers everywhere were experimenting with tubular steel, which would take furniture into a radically new direction. The chair became known as the “Wassily” after the painter Kandinsky, Breuer’s friend and fellow Bauhaus instructor, who praised the design when it was first produced.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA”

Figure 2.Editors sketch

“Revolutions in design are most often driven by advancements in material and technology.  The famous Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer is precisely one of these, the first ever chair to feature a bent-steel frame.  While it was first created in 1926, it marked the beginning of a new era in modern furniture with a design that maintains a progressive look even today. The Wassily Chair was first built by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus institution in Dessau, Germany.  Breuer found his inspiration for the chair in the bent form of a bicycle handlebar, available for the first time in steel due to a development in technology.  The German steel manufacturer Mannesmann had developed a process to produce seamless steel tubing, the first to allow tubes to be bent without breaking at the seam.  Breuer’s Adler bicycle featured such tubing, which inspired the designer to employ this material in furniture.”

Figure 3. Reproduction Wassily chair and Eileen Gary table, [A&R collection]

The editors would contend that it was not just the handlebars of Breuer’s bicycle that were the inspiration but also the diamond frame concept that produces such great strength to weight performance.


“After failing to interest the Adler company in the idea of making tubular steel furniture, Breuer went directly to the tubular steel manufacturer, Mannesmann steelworks, which had invented the seamless extruded steel tube.” Mannesmann’s seamless steel, first produced towards the end of the 19th century, could be bent and reshaped without losing much of its strength. However, there was another advantage. As all good bike nerds know, steel-framed bikes are not only sturdy, they are also relatively springy, and are credited with soaking up the minor jolts much better than their aluminium counterparts; Marcel learned to exploit this in new ways.

“Breuer purchased lengths of 4/5 in. (2 cm) diameter tubing (matching the dimensions of his bicycle), had them pre-bent to his specifications, and then he hired a plumber to help him weld the steel tubes together to make furniture frames. The first design using the bent tubular steel was given the name B3, a numbering system Breuer would use for all his furniture for the next several years. It was an armchair, the first version made of nickel-plated steel tubes welded to form a rigid frame with four vertical legs that bent over and then down to support the seat and back, both of which were inclined steel frames, across which fabric was stretched.”


Criticism of Breuer B3 chair

The B3 chair has been heavily criticised.Its been suggested that it failed and amongst the faults are :-

  • It was too expensive and complex to produce for intended low income customer
  • It was too radical in aesthetic for intended customer [ cultural aspects of time]
  • A chair ought to send out inviting signals and symbolism, these were absent in B3 again related to custom, culture of consumer group
  • The chair appeared excessively clinical and perhaps, frightening, intimidating even to some

The editors would defend Breuer in that the B3 was possibly experimental and intended to demonstrate potentiality. It spoke volumes. It delivered in the context of the Bauhaus ethos, subsequent designs were simplified and amongst these many form the principle of utility chairs used up to the present.

The B3 also served as declaration of intent. It was perhaps the manifestation of a manifesto.

It was challenging and this was deliberate confrontation to engage in debate and move thinking and manufacturing forward into a new era.

The iconic status conferred on the B3 confirms in this respect it was totally successful.

Chapman: Chassis design

Chapman’s chassis design expresses most of the principles espoused by

Costin & Phipps: –

“ideally ,the purpose of a motor car chassis is to connect all four wheels with a structure which is rigid in bending and torsion-that is one which will neither sag or twist.it must be capable of supporting all components and occupants and should absorb all loads fed into it without deflecting unduly…

Whatever the car and whatever it’s purposes, however, the chassis is only a means to an end….

As an alternative to the definition given in the first sentence, the ideal chassis could be summed up as a method of locating and linking together, by means of a complete structure, all the various mounting brackets on a car………………

Here as in the opening sentence, due emphasis should be given to the word “structure” ……. Considering the chassis in this way, its chief purpose is to provide suitable mounting for all components of the car.in descending order of magnitude, the major loads involved are:

  1. Rear suspension and final drive
  2. Front suspension and steering
  3. Engine and gearbox
  4. Fuel tanks
  5. Seats [and occupants],steering column, pedals and other controls including hydraulic cylinders
  6. Radiator
  7. Battery
  8. Spare wheel

……to sum up, whatever type of chassis is used, it should ideally, be a perfect structure designed to link up the mounting points for all the components that go to make up the car.”

Figure 4.Editors sketch diagram of Mk.VI chassis layout

Figure 5.editors 3D representation of Mk.VI chassis

Figure 6. Editors Ford Special tube chassis based on Lotus 6

Subscribers are invited to examine the Lotus Mk.VI chassis. [ see also related articles].

It is supreme example of resolution. There are conflicting objectives in chassis design. However, observe how Chapman has conceived of a chassis to deliver: –

  • Exceptional performance and handling achieved through a network of small gauge tube triangulated
  • How inexpensive components are utilised , enhanced and given added value through the effective chassis
  • How the aluminum panels have the dual role of external envelope protecting occupants and components whilst adding further structural support
  • Ensured the chassis remains light yet rigid to improve handling
  • The overall aesthetic with major input from Williams and Pritchard created a small relatively low cost dual purpose 2 seat sports car with a dignity, presence and exceptional articulated shape that radiated form and function

Based on this analysis we hope subscribers can interrelate all the elements outlined

Learning Opportunities

Our learning /educational opportunities are intended to be challenging thought provoking and requiring additional research and/or analysis.

These opportunities are particularly designed for a museum/education centre location where visitors would be able to enjoy access to all the structured resources available in conjunction with any concurrent exhibition.

In this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate: –

  • Enumerate furniture or architecture that has adopted steel tubing or components as structural members
  • What ergonomics are shared between a car and chair?
  • Which modern specialist sports cars use tube space frame chassis and why?
  • Compare the weight of an ordinary/average bicycle frame with that of B3 chair

Exhibitions, Education and Economics

In the museum context the editors believe that commercial considerations are both necessary and complementary with its educational objectives.

For these reasons our suggested outline Business Plan includes provision for promoting products and services which share Chapman’s ideals of mechanical efficiency and sustainability. In addition we propose merchandising that explain and interprets the social and cultural context of Chapman’s designs in period. It’s suggested there will be catalogue for on line purchasing.

In this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate: –

  • See themes in A&R Design Heroes series etc.
  • Tubes: Along Parallel lines: Chapman and Breuer
  • Tube Networks: Chairs and Chassis
  • Tube Frames: No pipe dreams
  • Concepts in Tandem: Bikes, chairs, chassis
  • Chapman spaceframes and Aerobars
  • Chapman: The steering head
  • Chapman and Industrial Design: Ideas Recycled


Engineers, architects and Industrial Designers seek to find solutions to human need.They also often possess an entrepreneurial streak that allows them to identify markets.some have idealistically hoped to produce quality items affordable through mass-production for low income customers.

These designers frequently mutate new materials or technologies into new products. The Bauhaus designers achieved this with glass, steel and concrete and Breuer with small gauge steel tube. Aalto and Eames worked with Plywood and fibre glass; Day with plastic.

Chapman diversified into boat building, furniture and was attempting microlights at the time of his death. He used Lotus core skills and materials technology to do so. Earlier he had used Kevlar in chassis construction.

Breuer and Chapman both used steel tubing to advantage. They recognised the properties of the material [already established in other applications – as noted bicycle and aeroplane]. They used those properties and exploited them for their strength, lightness and minimum materials input.

Both the B3 chair and space frame chassis were relatively complex both radically departed from convention and simpler manufacturing techniques. They were both therefore, more expensive. However, both performed exceptionally well. Both influenced a generation and the basic principles remain to this day.

In the mid 1920’s the B3 may have been the more radical of the two taking into account the culture and degrees of education /acceptance or the era.

Chapman’s space frame was a considerable departure and it too was intended in many respects for a lower income group enabling them to participate successfully in motorsport.

We invite subscribers to examine both. We consider on close examination each will be seen to possess insightful ingenuity and both contained successful structures and facilitation.

Based on this analysis we invite a re-evaluation of Chapman design mantra. We believe his pursuit of elegance and his aesthetic simplicity may in some quarters not have been fully appreciated.


Racing and Sports Car Chassis Design.Costin&Phipps.Batsford.1974.

See extensive bibliographies in related Design Heroes’ articles

Please note the editors of the A&R attempt to give the broadest spectrum of references but not all are available for consultation in an article. However by noting their existence it may assist students in their research.

*Items in italics non A&R library books.