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MICHAEL THONET AND THE No 14 CHAIR
V.Ryan © 2015
 
Michael Thonet (1796-1871), born in Germany, was a designer specialising in ‘bentwood’. This is furniture manufactured from veneers of natural woods, normally beech. Beech was selected by Thonet, as he found that it was much less likely to split than other natural woods. Over many years, he developed manufacturing processes, whereby veneers (layers) of beech, were softened by steam.
In 1855, Thonet invented a way bending solid pieces of wood, by using a long metal strip to aid the bending process. This was the break through in technology by Thonet had been looking for. In 1859 the No 14 Chair, was manufactured for the first time, using this technology.
Unlike the craft based handmade approach of the Arts and Craft Movement, Thonet saw that there was a opportunity to use his innovative industrial production technology, to mass manufacture new designs. His chair designs contrasted the highly hand crafted chairs of the day. His No 14 Chair was the first chair to be mass produced on a production line. Due to Thonet’s industrial manufacturing processes, the production line was staffed by semi to unskilled workers. There was no longer a need to have skilled craftsmen at every stage of production.
The No 14 chair was manufactured as separate parts and simply screwed together (six ‘steam bent’ wood parts, ten screws and two nuts). This construction technique was a precursor to the way furniture is constructed
in our modern world. This was also an innovation in the nineteen hundreds.
 
     
 
     
The lengths of beech were softened by the application of steam in a sealed unit. The resin between the fibres becomes pliable and when removed from the steam unit the lengths can be forced into various bent shapes.   Michael Thonet and the No 14 chair
     

The No 14 chair (1859), also known as the Vienna Coffee House Chair, was made in separate parts, which could be assembled later, allowing for ease of transport around the world. The distributor / retailer would assemble the chairs on arrival at the place of sale. This is possibly the first example of ‘assembly’ furniture. A trend that is even more popular today, with modern knockdown furniture (also called flat pack furniture).

The photograph opposite, shows that the back legs were manufactured as one piece, using the industrial processes invented by Thonet

Innovative in its day, the No 14 Chair is held in high regard as a classic / iconic design / product and still purchased today by customers around the world. Fifty million No 14 Chairs were sold before 1930. Millions of No 14 chairs / reproductions now exist, making it one of the most recognisable chairs ever mass manufactured and possibly the highest selling chair of all time.

It has many features of modernist design, such as economic use of materials and a simplistic and yet stylish design. Further to this, it was mass produced on a production line, with it’s manufacture being broken down into individual stages.

 
 
 
 
CHARACTERISTICS OF THONET BENTWOOD FURNITURE
 
 
 
 
THONET FURNITURE CATALOGUE - 1930s
 
 
 
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