The Chair That Has Seated Millions
We often talk about the importance of good design in building a sustainable society, and have fewer better examples than the Thonet Chair. It is just six pieces of wood-two circles, two sticks and a couple of arches - held together by 10 screws and two nuts. It has been kicking around for a while- since 1859. Alice Rawsthorn writes in the International Herald Tribune:
When the No.14 was launched 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.14s had been sold, and millions more have been snapped up since then. Brahms sat on one to play his piano, as did Lenin while writing his political tracts, and millions of us have perched comfortably on them in cafés. Another admirer was the modernist pioneer Le Corbusier. "Never was a better and more elegant design and a more precisely crafted and practical item created," he enthused.
Michael Thonet, at center, and his sons, from left, Michael Jr., Josef, August, Franz and Jacob, who ran the firm after his death.
Rawsthorn notes a couple of wonderful features of this great bit of minimalist design, including:
-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.
-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 beech wood grown in nearby forests. Even when demand rose and extra supplies of wood had to be shipped in from further afield, Thonet limited its carbon footprint by making its own tools and machinery.
Efficient and minimalist use of materials, breaks down for easy shipping, useful and comfortable. If only everything was designed this well and lasted this long.