geometric furniture design by frank lloyd wright

my first encounter with frank lloyd wright’s work was a tour one summer’s afternoon through fallingwater.  set deep in its beautiful wooded pennsylvania valley, you walk through the property and have a slight suspicion that you might be falling with the water below.  

fallingwater, frank lloyd wright

fallingwater, frank lloyd wright

actually, his design was not perfect and the building had been falling.  when we were there there were props holding it up while reinforcements were being added… not so impressive.

wright was so famous and popular because he accomplished a lot and preached himself successfully.  in effect, he was his own prop.  like many great designers, he taught, wrote, travelled, lectured, and was an interesting, and at times controversial individual.  (americans love trailblazers.)  in personal and business matters, by contrast, he was often a failure … like the faulty cantilevered fallingwater.  

living room at fallingwater

living room at fallingwater

living room at fallingwater

 

but you cannot deny both the drama and the serenity of the place with its stone floors and big open great room, balancing there as the water falls on and on below.  

when i was in school i loved mathematics, especially geometry.  i could happily fiddle with ruler, compass and pencil for hours, drawing neat curves and perfect angles.  very satisfying.  i later became a draftsman of engineering and architectural drawings, for a time (before the days of autocad!…yes, i am getting old).  so wright’s furniture designs make me smile.  

he borrowed traditional japanese styles.  he loved the japanese respect for the beauty of wood.  then he set about drawing neat circles and lots of straight lines.  easily manufactured and reproducible, was one of his goals.   

 

desk and chair at fallingwater

desk and chair at fallingwater

 

copy of the wright barrel chair, made for the dining area at fallingwater

copy of the wright barrel chair, made for the dining area at fallingwater

 

frank lloyd wright 1937 desk chair, us patent print

frank lloyd wright 1937 desk chair, us patent print

i have my doubts about his furniture’s comfort, though.  in his architecture, he studied the landscape and made his buildings spring out of it’s surroundings.  this organic emphasis seems lost in his furniture.  it disregards the body’s curves. function and form do not meet.  and aesthetically i miss any tribute to the subtler curves and lines found in nature.  

i don’t think he tried to make any cantilevered chairs. they would really worry me.  

but the cantilevered shelving at fallingwater is great.  i love the clean lines and smooth wood, especially in contrast to the rough rock floors.  perhaps i will knock my walls about a bit and cantilever some shelves….

Built in 1895 for the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, these side chairs have high backs that extend above the heads of the sitters. When positioned around a dining table, the chairs created a temporary, intimate enclosure of space, a room within a room.

Built in 1895 for the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, these side chairs have high backs that extend above the heads of the sitters. When positioned around a dining table, the chairs created a temporary, intimate enclosure of space, a room within a room.

Frank Lloyd Wrights 1949 Taliesin Origami Chair

Frank Lloyd Wright's 1949 Taliesin "Origami Chair" (whimsical but comfortable??)

6 tips for practical furniture design – chairs, curves, glasses of wine

life is complicated, it has radical ups and downs.  we need more curves, they calm, they welcome us…. and a long lunch sometimes with a good friend,  good cheese and a glass or two of wine.

i noticed at this cafe (where i was appreciating the company, and the fare, this week) that the chairs were all in the style of thonet’s 14.  metal versions with vinyl seats, but here was thonet’s design, which was originally launched and sold millions in the mid to late 1800s in europe and america.

thonets innovative no. 14 chair

thonet's innovative no. 14 chair

later the same day i watched the 2005 movie “pride and prejudice” (one of my favorites).  there was nothing like this design in all the interiors. everything was elaborate, ornate, heavy- more so with the more affluent.  i wondered how thonet managed to be successful with this design in the society of those times.  and why, after 150 years, is it still popular?  these questions brought me to today’s blog, and here are my answers.

6 basics that thonet’s chairs have – great for any chair design, but especially for dining chairs.

  1. it is curved – most of nature has curved lines.  man’s inventions are most practically made with straight lines and sharp angles. maybe the curves are attractive because we need a break from the ups and downs of our man made days.  there are many angular modern furnishings available today, but i find this style unwelcoming.
  2. the design is simple – the french and american revolutions, and the industrial revolution, were pushing away the need for everyone to prove that they were rich and upwardly mobile in society.  class mattered less. increasingly, you could sit with a friend from any walk of life at a local cafe and have a meal together.
  3. it is radical – the simplicity and the new lines of the modern were, in thonet’s time, shocking.  this is a good thing.  we often need to be shaken out of our old ways, thoughts and patterns of living.  otherwise there is no change.
  4. it is strong – thonet’s chair must have held up well to use, or he would not have kept selling them.  when thonet’s bent beechwood proved to be weak in tropical climates, he worked on twisting the wood while it was being bent, and he bought the glue factory that supplied his factories so that he could improve the glue.  many chairs these days are made of cheap, weak materials, weak at the joints, or the design just does not hold up to use.  and now there is the problem of obesity.  recently i was shopping for a new lounge chair for our deck and the label said, among other things about the care of the chair, “maximum load 300 lbs.”  new challenge for chair designers!
  5. the seating can be replaced easily – the seat on thonet’s chair could be replaced and cleaned easily.  the seats were solid wood or a woven grass. when similar chairs are covered with fabric, which will inevitably get dirty or torn in a dining setting, a new covering can simply be stapled on and seat reattached the chair.  sounds like an unimpressive feature, but i have worked on many chairs that were a nightmare to repair or re-upholster.
  6. it is light – heavy furniture is made by people who never do any cleaning.
another thonet design for an after dinner rest with curves

furniture design – thonet’s lifestyle

how do you get from this….
The Battle of Trafalgar by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1822–1824)

to this?

Thonets mass produced no.14 chair

Thonet's mass produced no.14 chair

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.

hong kong island, transformed from the 1800 fishing village

hong kong island, transformed from the fishing village of the early 1800s

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. 

michael thonet and sons, who started their own company in 1819

michael thonet and sons

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.