you cannot separate great designers from their life and time. case in point, michael thonet. he was a cabinet maker by training. interior design at that time was following the trends of architecture and that was inspired by royalty (and the church.) see me, my great buildings, trust me and follow me (even though i am rather foolish), sort of thing (well, not the church entirely, nor all royalty, but lots of it). but this was the beginning of the end for those that inherited moneyed upper classness. along with the rise of british naval power was the beginning of the industrial revolution. hard working innovators were the rising rich, first in britain and spreading to western europe and north america. meanwhile, in prussia, and then austria, thonet and his four sons experimented with chairs.
trade and war went hand in hand during the early industrial revolution, and the greatest need for both was fast ships. the shipbuilders were the only ones bending wood. lighter, stronger, sleeker, faster. then sail to china, bomb their ports, trade your opium and tea, steal hong kong (1842). back to london for huge profits. (for example).
i was born and raised in hong kong and only the very old sat around there, much. everyone worked hard to make the most of every opportunity — which was plentiful because of the hard work of the people that had built the place (and few regulations, low taxes, and good government). factories were set up in tiny apartments, where whole families also lived, even in the shacks perched on the slippery hillsides. little 3 year olds studied their characters to make it into the first year of school. everyone studied english. people were selling anything and everything wherever they could.
but back to thonet and sons, whose story reminds me of hong kong. he was born in 1796, apprenticed with a cabinet maker, was invited in 1842 to be the royal furniture designer for austria. turned the offer down to keep his independence and vision of worldwide sales. below is a excerpt from “Thonet 14,” by Giovanni Renzi. bear in mind that there were no phones or emails, no cars or trucks. steam ships and trains were only just getting under way. there were no gas stations, no credit cards. europe and north america were growing and changing rapidly, with every man for himself, more or less.
The history, development and copies of the bestselling chair in the world
Over a hundred and forty years ago, in 1859, a Thonet factory in Koritschan in Moravia, produced the first chair known as number 14 in the catalogues of the Viennese company. Since then several million chairs of this model have been manufactured and sold.
According to various scholars of the Thonet phenomenon (1), it is possible to speak of fifty million examples manufactured and sold by 1930, whilst according to the advertising of Gebruder Thonet in its contemporary catalogues, fifty million chairs had been sold before 1914. This success was followed by extremely widespread competition from local, national and international firms, with several million (2) copies of the original built using the same bent beech-wood technique. Finally, the same model was reproduced using other materials; firstly iron, which was initially handcrafted and later worked using modern welding techniques, and then plastic.
Such figures have never been repeated in the furniture sector, and although they have probably been inflated by advertising propaganda, they still represent the worldwide success of an extremely simple model: an archetype of the chair.
Ever since the last quarter of the nineteenth century news papers and magazines and travel magazines have portrayed people of all races and ranks sitting on the number 14, firstly in drawings and later in photographs.
The success of number 14 is the success of Michael Thonet and the final result of the stubborn conviction that beech-wood and the bending technique represented the future of chair making. Following twenty years of experimentation, marketing mistakes, technological intricacies and partial failures, Thonet managed to create the economic chair for mass consumption.
more on thonet another time, but i am impressed by his story and his chairs. we want things to be given to us today. make it easy, make it fast. but that is not how it happens. get to work – or dream on and only see it on your dreams.