The No. 14 Chair
In an era driven so heavily by technology, it is easy to loose sight of how significant ‘seemingly’ straightforward innovations have been to the progression of culture and their impact on everyday life. Case in point, Michael Thonet’s 19th century development of never before seen techniques in bending wood.
Born in a small town in Germany in the late 1700s, Michael Thonet began his career working as a cabinetmaker, employing the age-old practice of painstakingly carving delicate furniture from European beech wood. A skilled craftsman by nature, Thonet was interested in studying the complicated technical properties of wood, testing the limitations and structural capabilities of the organic material.
After multiple attempts and subsequent failures, by the latter 1830s Thonet devised a unique method of bending wood, creating a slew of light, strong wooden furniture curved into graceful shapes through the application of hot steam. Thonet’s technical breakthrough extended well beyond novelty pieces, ushering in a new style of design characterized by lightweight, durable, elegant pieces, a far cry from the heavy, carved furniture of the past.
Thonet’s attempts to secure a patent for his newly developed technology failed in Germany, Great Britain, France and Russia, however, after his designs caught the attention of an Austrian diplomat who was working to promote industrialization within the central European country, the craftsman was lured to Austria in 1842 when the court granted Michael Thonet the right “to bend any type of wood, even the most brittle, into the desired forms and curves by chemical and mechanical means”.