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Monday, April 16, 2012

No. 14 going on a hundred million (or more)

Thonet chairs in bentwood have their design roots reaching back into the 1830s.

My wife wants a new kitchen. Me? I'd just replace the worn flooring and get on with life. My wife's a fine cook. I doubt a new kitchen will improve her cooking. It certainly won't help the bank account.

The new kitchen is being designed as I write. Graciously throwing in the towel, I jumped on board. I immediately began searching the Internet for a new dining set. My search took me to the Thonet chair company. If you are like me, the name will ring no bells, but one look at the chairs and you will be flooded with memories.

I knew these bentwood chair designs were old but I had no idea how old. Nor did I realize that these chairs were once on the leading edge of innovative furniture design.

I believe this is the original No. 14.
It seems a German-Austrian cabinetmaker by the name of Michael Thonet in the 1830s began experimenting with bent wooden slats and glue for making furniture. After years of trial and error, he produced his No. 1 chair, winning a bronze medal at the 1851 World's Fair in London for his Vienna bentwood chair. He continued to improve his design and at the next World's Fair in Paris in 1855 he took silver.

Thonet was hitting his stride. In 1859 he created chair No. 14, possibly the first chair designed with factory production in mind. His unique chair went on to take the gold medal at the 1867 World Fair. On a roll, by the 1930s some 50 million No. 14 chairs had been produced by the Thonet factories.

If you've ever bought a piece of inexpensive furniture, the low price partially a result of it being delivered in pieces ready for assembly, you can thank the long gone Michael Thonet and his "chair of chairs."


Coat stand, Cafe Daum, Vienna, 1849.
The Thonet factory could cram 36 disassembled chairs into a one cubic meter box for shipping around the world. Each chair required only six pieces of wood, two bolts and a few screws. The design was ingenious.

If you want to move millions of chairs, Thonet made as many as 400 thousand chairs a year, you've got to have more than a neat design; You must be a superb promoter as well. Michael Thonet was both. He demonstrated the strength of his design by throwing No. 14 from the Eiffel Tower during the Paris World Fair.

In the early years of the 20th century, Thonet chairs inspired a number of other designers to create similar shapes in an easier to bend material: metal tubes. These designers included: Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, Mart Stamm, Miese van der Rohe, and Czechs Ladislav Žák and Jindřich Halabala.

In 1929 a French subsidiary was created to make the tubular steel furniture designed by Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. The Thonet Bros. company was making furniture history. Pablo Picasso, Lev Tolstoy, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Salvador Dali are among the famous owners of Thonet made furniture.

The back of No. 18 now has two extra supports.


I found Thonet chairs are available from a showroom in Richmond Hill, Ontario north of Toronto. My wife and I made the two hour trip but my wife was not impressed. We're buying a Shaker inspired design made by some Pennsylvania Amish and sold in Birr, Ontario north of London.

 The "modern" Wassily Chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925.
My wife is letting me buy two No. 18s to appease me. Both will look good with my Wassily Chair which was long ago banished to our basement.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to see the Eiffel Tower demostration on YouTube. Too bad YouTube wasn't around during the Paris Worlds fair.

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