Michael Thonet

Over the last few weeks, I've been up late and wrestling with the roll-out of the Zip Tie Lounger, now available on OpenDesk. Specific design aside, the whole project was an experiment with process, looking into ways to design, distribute, and build physical products by moving around information instead of matter. For most of history, moving around matter wasn't much of an issue, as the limits of horse-drawn transportation limited any practical shipping radius. The clipper ship, then the railroad, then the truck, and now the container ship (or airplane) gradually expanded those radii until they encompassed the whole world. 

In the course of my research, I mostly focused on IKEA as the modern extension of all these ideas, as they have brought flat-pack furniture to perhaps its truest expression of form. Along the way, they stole ideas from the best, combining big-box retail and old-fashioned catalog sales to bring their retail model to maximum efficiency. But IKEA, Sears Roebuck, and even OpenDesk have roots that run far deeper, back to the early part of the 19th century. 

Michael Thonet was born in Boppard am Rhein, Germany in 1796. Trained as a cabinetmaker, he began his own shop in 1819, hand-carving and fitting furniture together using traditional means and methods. Almost immediately, Thonet began experimenting with new methods, though he stayed in the realm of familiar forms. His first experiment, the Boppard Chair, used thin veneers laminated with hot animal glue to produce curved wooden parts. Lacking mechanized saws, the sawing of thin strips was far too labor intensive to make mass production practical. Thonet needed a better way. 

Technical drawing from one of Thonet's patent applications. 

Technical drawing from one of Thonet's patent applications. 

By the early 1840s, Thonet perfected a method of steam-bending whole beech rods. The technology, while relatively simple, was revolutionary at the time. Wood is composed of cellulose (fiber) and lignin (glue), layered together in long, thin, hollow strands that collectively compose the grain of a piece of lumber. When designing with wood, one always wants to align force with the grain, where all those aligned strands will work together to support weight. Creating curves by cutting wood into a round shape is problematic, as it inevitably cuts across the grain of the wood and severs the long, thin fibers of cellulose. 

What Thonet discovered was that the lignin could be sufficiently softened with steam that it would allow a piece of wood to bend to extreme curves. Left to dry under pressure, it would regain its structural properties even as it retained the curved shape. Crucially, all the long grain of the piece was left intact, leaving an incredibly strong, light form. Granted an exclusive patent on the process, Thonet began mass-producing chairs with his sons. 

Having solved the engineering challenge, Thonet's next innovation was in form. He broke out of the ornate, heavily-upholstered styles of the time with his iconic Chair No. 14 in 1859. Composed of just six parts and six fasteners, it is the first true flat-pack chair and became the ur-object of modern industrial design. Cafes and theaters adopted it quickly because its light weight and low cost made it easy to reconfigure and replace. By 1930, it had sold a staggering 50 million pieces, making it the most successful chair design in history. 

By shipping disassembled, a new innovation at the time, he was able to fit 30-odd chairs in a cubic meter. By making Chair No. 14 out of simple interchangeable parts, and eschewing joinery for mechanical fasteners, he was able to make assemble-able by the end consumer. By taking advantage of newly-expanding rail networks, and trade agreements between European nations, he built a multi-national logistics chain and customer base. In a way, Michael Thonet designed himself out of a job.  

Chair No. 14, disassembled, via  Things Organized Neatly . 

Chair No. 14, disassembled, via Things Organized Neatly

Michael Thonet passed away in 1871, but his five sons carried on the business, continuing to innovate new forms using their father's process. By 1900, the Thonet Bros. companies employed over 6,000 workers and produced nearly a million chairs a year, shipping all over the world. Twenty years later, Thonet's designs were embraced by modernist architects including Marcel Breuer, Mart Starm, Adolf Loos, and Le Corbusier. Each of his chairs, especially the iconic No. 14, exemplified the new "machine aesthetic" being pioneered by the Bauhaus and others.

Elegantly resolving structural problems, stripped of ornament, constructed with industrial processes, and priced democratically, Thonet mastered the art of modernism before the movement even had a name. Several modern architects, including Josef Hoffman, Albert Wagner, and Breuer, went on to design pieces for the Thonet Bros., including chairs incorporating bent steel. Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, and the Eames' built on Thonet's pioneering bending methods, using new materials and adhesives to create more radical forms. 

OpenDesk, and the concept of digital manufacturing in general, still has a long way to go. The work is trapped in a paper cutout aesthetic, limited in material, and limited in machining operations. No one (at least that I've found) has overcome these limitations in a bold, perfectly simple way. CNC machining is still searching for its Chair No. 14 to go along with its seamless distribution technology: a single, irreducible object that marries form, function, and production method.

But when it does appear, a Thonet for the digital age, we'll know. 

An original Chair No. 14 with wicker seat.

An original Chair No. 14 with wicker seat.