No. 14: The chair that has seated millions
LONDON: 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-born cabinetmaker Michael Thonet. His ambition was characteristically bold. Thonet 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 and, at first, Thonet seemed doomed to failure too. When his German workshop was seized by creditors in 1842, he moved his family to Austria and opened a workshop in Vienna, determined to try again.
Eventually Thonet succeeded. 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. More recently, the young Dutch designer Maarten Baas staged his own homage to Thonet by setting fire to a No.14-style wooden chair as part of the "Where There's Smoke" collection of furniture he (literally) burned for the Moss design store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York.
What makes the No.14, which is to celebrate its 150th birthday next year, so special? The answers tell us as much about our attitudes to design, and how they've changed over the last century and a half, as the chair itself.
First and foremost, the No.14 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. That's an important aspect of chair design that's often overlooked."
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 all over the world. "It has the freshness of a new product, because it has never been bettered," observed the British designer Jasper Morrison.
Fifth, it improves with age. "As the screws and glue loosen, the structure becomes softer," noted Grcic. "It's a chair that becomes nicer and nicer to sit in as it ages. Most chairs feel odder when they're older and clapped-out, but the No.14 just seems safer and more comfortable. 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 things that evoked 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 late 19th century, employing thousands of workers in enormous factories that included 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 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.
What's become of the No.14 today? Its design is as admired as ever, and Baas's charred homage isn't the only recent tribute. Kazuyo Seijima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, the Japanese architects of the New Museum in New York, have created a metal chair in a similar shape that looks as though a child has drawn a rough outline of the No.14. The young Spanish designer Tomás Alonso has produced the No.7 chair using traditional steam bentwood techniques. IKEA has deployed the latest gas-injected plastic composite technology to develop a super-cheap hollow version of the Ögla, the No.14 lookalike that has been one of its best sellers since 1961.