Thonet Chair No. 14

If you’ve been to a cafe you’ve probably sat on it. Let’s take a closer look at the design of what many consider to be the world’s most popular chair.

Product name
No. 14 (The Vienna Coffee House Chair)
Designer
Michael Thonet
Country
Germany
Year made
1859
Materials
- Beechwood frame
- Woven raffia seat

German cabinetmaker Michael Thonet dreamt about designing a chair that could be mass-produced and sold at an affordable price. After years of technical experiments he finally succeeded and the No.14 was launched in 1859; the first piece of furniture to be both good-looking and inexpensive. The chair appealed to everyone and by 1930 fifty million had been sold! The No.14 has been in continuous production since then. What is it about this simple chair that makes it so special?

What do you see?
What is it made of?
How is it made?
Who has sat on it?
What’s its impact?
 

The original No.14 chair is made up of six pieces of wood, ten screws and two nuts. It was the first piece of furniture designed to be shipped in parts to save space during transportation and came with simple instructions to put it together. The No.14 could have been a source of inspiration for IKEA, the biggest manufacturer of ready-to-assemble furniture today.

   

Beechwood

Beechwood was used as it’s easy to bend and doesn’t crack like other kinds of hard wood.

Woven raffia

The idea was that the chair would be used in cafes. With this in mind, the seats were originally made of woven raffia fibers (the veins of palm leaves) so that the holes in-between would let any split drink drain quickly off the chair.

 

Bentwood technique

Thonet developed a new technique for bending wood. Steaming it for many hours made it soft enough to be bent into curves. The wood then dried in its new shape, becoming hard and strong. This method became very popular as bentwood furniture is light, comfortable and inexpensive.

Photo: Infrogmation

 

Can you spot the two No.14s in this painting by French artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec? The No.14 is said to have seated more people than any other chair, including some you’ve probably heard of. The famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso had one in his studio and German physicist Albert Einstein also owned one.

 

The No.14, also known as the coffee house or bistro chair, can still be seen in cafes all over the world. The Swiss-French Modernist architect Le Corbusier said “never was a better and more elegant design and a more precisely crafted and practical item created.” Its elegant curves have clearly stood the test of time and in the words of British designer Jasper Morrison, “it has the freshness of a new product, because it has never been bettered.”

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