The chair number 14 emerged from the factory of Michael Thonet in 1859. He did not receive a name, he simply identified with the number 14 according to practical criteria. This fact largely summarizes the revolutionary philosophy that Thonet introduced in the production of furniture.
In the mid-nineteenth century the furniture was manufactured by hand. Skilled workers and patients were necessary to shape the product. Michael Thonet was born in Boppard, Rhineland, and had trained as a carpenter during the first decades of the 19th century. From 1830 he began to try different techniques of bending wood with a defined objective: to eliminate modeling and artisan assemblies, reducing costs and time in the execution of the furniture. His first commercial success is the Boppard chair, first produced in 1836.
The popularity achieved thanks to his experiments allowed him to access the Viennese court in the following decade as a decorator of the Liechtenstein Palace, and obtain a patent for his wood bending technique. The process consisted of subjecting wood sheets impregnated with glue to the heat and moisture of the steam, which resulted in a ductile and resistant mass that accepted the molding until reaching relatively complex shapes. Once the piece cooled, the mold was removed. Finally, the different components were assembled using screws until the final product was obtained. The definition of this new process was a huge advance in the manufacture of furniture, thus integrated into the logic of industrial production.
In 1849, Michael Thonet founded Gebrüder Thonet in Vienna, a company that a year later began manufacturing chair number 1. The significant volume of production made it necessary to build a new factory only seven years later. This time, the place chosen was the Moravia region, in the current Czech Republic. Its lush beech forests were the most suitable raw material for the steamed bent wood furniture of Thonet.
After ten years of activity, the Moravia factory began producing the prototype chair number 14. Its lines, its practicality and its affordable price, derived from the manufacturing process, made it the best-selling product of the Thonet company. And decades later, in one of the greatest commercial successes in history. An estimated 50 million units were marketed between 1860 and 1930.
The chair number 14 responded to the criteria tested by Thonet in the previous models: it was formed by six independent pieces of curved wood, which allowed its production in series, an easy storage and a simple transport. The assemblies were solved with screws and nuts, thus ending the need for skilled assemblers of handmade furniture. The seat was made in raffia to minimize problems in case any liquid spills on it. The chair was not revolutionary in its design, but in the intrinsic logic of the product. That made her an icon.
Thonet anticipated in more than fifty years the industrial techniques of furniture production that today we consider modern. He inspired the essays with curved wood of the great Nordic masters of the 20th century. The pieces of Aalto or Jacobsen have as their germ the visionary experiences of Michael Thonet. His chair number 14 is the symbol of a new way of understanding the design of furniture, which ended with a work until then reserved for careful craftsmen.
Thonet’s chairs today occupy the precincts of the Czech Parliament, the City Hall of the New Town of Prague, the Bratislava Castle or the residence of the kings of Denmark. However, the one known as Thonet chair is first and foremost the most popular in coffee shops around the world.
Borja López Cotelo. PhD architect
A Coruña. July 2014