Sunday, January 25, 2009
This article, by Alice Rawsthorn, was in Design and Living, Winter 2008, published by the New York Times.
Reproduced below, just in case.
Six Easy Pieces
Thonet's No. 14 chair, still modern after 149 years. By Alice Rawsthorn
It consists of six pieces of wood — two circles, two sticks and a couple of arches — held together by 10 screws and two nuts. Together they make the wooden chair known as Thonet Model No. 14, which, although no one has ever actually done the math, is thought to have seated more people than any other chair in history.
The No. 14 was the result of years of technical experiments by its inventor, the 19th-century German furniture maker Michael Thonet. His ambition was characteristically bold. He wanted to produce the first mass-manufactured chair, which would be sold at an affordable price (three florins, slightly less than a bottle of wine). Many of his rivals had tried to make similar chairs but failed.
Thonet succeeded. When the No. 14 was introduced in 1859, it was the first piece of furniture to be both attractive and inexpensive enough to appeal to everyone from aristocrats to schoolteachers. By 1930, some 50 million No. 14’s had been sold, and millions more have been snapped up since then. Brahms sat on one, as did Lenin, and millions of us have perched comfortably on them in cafes. Another admirer was Le Corbusier. ‘‘Never was a better and more elegant design and a more precisely crafted and practical item created,’’ he said. More recently, the Dutch designer Maarten Baas staged his own homage to Thonet by setting fire to a No. 14-style wooden chair. The charred result was auctioned at Sotheby’s last month.
What makes the No. 14 so special? The answers tell us as much about our attitudes toward design, and how they’ve changed over the last century and a half, as the chair itself.
First and foremost, it fulfills its designated function, as every well-designed object must do. Second, it looks and feels great. ‘‘It’s one of the most beautiful chairs there is,’’ said the German furniture designer Konstantin Grcic. ‘‘And it has exactly the right weight. When you pick it up, it feels perfect.’’ Third, it was startlingly innovative. Thonet perfected a process of bending wood into strong, smooth curves that had eluded his rivals. By making the chair from the fewest parts possible and standardizing their shapes to help unskilled workers assemble them and pack them neatly in shipping crates, he devised a blueprint for efficient mass production.
Fourth, the No. 14 is timeless. It seems to suit every era, which is why Le Corbusier chose it to furnish some of his early-1920s modernist interiors, and it is still the default seating for brasseries. ‘‘It has the freshness of a new product, because it has never been bettered,’’ said the British designer Jasper Morrison. Fifth, it improves with age. ‘‘As the screws and glue loosen, the structure becomes softer,’’ Grcic said. ‘‘Michael Thonet probably didn’t intend that to happen, but it’s a beautiful sensation. I’ve tried to do it with new chairs, but it’s amazingly challenging.’’
Then there’s the history. The No. 14 made industry and modernity seem sexy, rather than associated with belching chimneys and shoddy goods. It also established Thonet’s company, which was run by his five sons after his death, as one of the great industrial dynasties of the late19th century. It employed thousands of workers in enormous factories that were the equivalent of company towns, with schools, libraries, nurseries and shops where goods were sold in its private currency.
The No. 14 can even claim to have been a pioneer of sustainability. The early models were made in a factory in the village of Koritschan, in what is now the Czech Republic, from beechwood grown in nearby forests. Even when extra supplies of wood had to be shipped in from farther afield, Thonet limited its carbon footprint by making its own tools and machinery.
Baas’s charred homage to the No. 14 isn’t the only recent tribute; Sanaa, the Japanese architecture firm behind the New Museum, has created a metal chair in a similar shape. Ikea developed a supercheap hollow composite version called the Ogla, which has been one of its best sellers since 1961.
While Thonet itself fragmented years ago — there are now three Thonets, each making slightly different versions of the original designs, in Germany, Austria and the United States — the No. 14 may have lost some of its populist sheen. The model sold at Moss (made by Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, which is owned by the Italian company Poltrona Frau) costs $625. This may be rectified by the German Thonet, which is collaborating with the Japanese retailer Muji and designers like Grcic and Morrison on a new collection of affordable chairs inspired by its vintage models. The results, which were unveiled in Tokyo last month, included a new take on the No. 14 developed by the British designer James Irvine, just in time for the chair’s 150th-birthday celebration next year.