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May 30, 2014 6:14 pm

Design Classic: Thonet chair No. 14

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No 14 Thonet chair by Michael Thonet

Michael Thonet, a Prussian-born craftsman, made many chairs, but the best known is the No. 14, which has become one of the most successful chair designs ever produced.

It was the first chair to be created using a new technique called “bentwood”. Before that, Thonet (1796–1871) would carve wood into shape, but during the 1800s he began experimenting with bending it into curves.

He used beech, as it was less prone to splitting than other woods, and put it into a pressure vessel. Steam was then applied which made the resin surrounding the timber fibres pliable. This meant the rod could then be bent into shape. Once the resin had cooled, or cured, it would keep its new shape and could be used to create furniture.

Model No. 14 was, according to the Thonet company, the most popular design made in the 19th century. It first appeared on the market in 1850, by which time Thonet had already secured a patent allowing him to “bend any type of wood, even the most brittle, into the desired forms and curves by chemical and mechanical means”.

This patent, which was renewed in 1856 for 13 years, meant that the Gebrüder Thonet company was the only firm in the Austro-Hungarian empire for more than a decade that was legally allowed to produce bentwood furniture. The basic method by which such chairs are made has remained unchanged ever since. By 1930 more than 50m No. 14 chairs had been sold, according to the Vitra Design Museum in Germany.

Thonet also designed his own factories and machinery, even down to the right screws for the manufacture of his chairs. He even created his own catalogues in several languages as well as a worldwide network of shops. In addition, since the chairs were screwed together, they could be shipped in parts to be assembled on arrival. This meant that 36 chairs could be packed into a box measuring only one cubic metre.

Model No. 14 is still produced today in different variations – wicker, upholstered and plywood seats are all options. The classic black version with a plywood seat costs £547 from nest.co.uk.

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