If you could sum up the character of Vienna in one mundane household item, then it might be a wooden chair. Though the word mundane hardly applies to the groundbreaking No. 14 Thonet chair, which you can see at the MAK museum.
- Hugely influential iconic chair design from the 19th century
- Manifestation of the Viennese coffee house
- Viewable in the MAK’s permanent exhibition
- See also: MAK ticket & visitor information | Top art in Vienna
A chair like no other
(Gebrüder Thonet, Chair, Model No. 14, Vienna, 1859 (Execution: 1890–1918)
© MAK/Georg Mayer)
A simple mass-produced chair doesn’t seem quite suited to the role of astounding work of art or design. But one such item left an indelible mark on Viennese and world history thanks to its grace, economy, innovative production, and entrepreneurial history.
Consider Thonet’s No. 14 chair the Leonardo da Vinci of furniture, achieving excellence in the worlds of art, culture, business, and history.
The chair stemmed from the creative brain of the designer and businessman, Michael Thonet, in mid-19th century Vienna (though Thonet himself was no local).
As you can tell from the press photo for the MAK’s Thonet exhibition above, the chair exudes an elegant simplicity highlighted in the curved continuous wooden pieces. There’s a timelessness to it, too.
The remarkable aesthetics tell only half the story though…
The key to the chair’s exalted status rests in the means of production as much as the outstanding design. Bending pieces of wood was a troublesome affair for much of history, but Thonet managed to patent efficient mechanical processes for doing so. This opened up new realms of bentwood furniture design for his company and allowed industrial production of the results.
With the No. 14, you had a lovely piece of furniture that was relatively cheap and could be produced and assembled quickly in large quantities. Consider that a recipe for success. All it needed was a bit of an entrepreneurial push.
Fortunately, Thonet proved ahead of his time in business, too, employing distribution and marketing techniques familiar today to bring his products to the world. The Thonet company sold millions of the No.14 chair.
All of this became possible through the accumulation of talents in one man; an eye for design, industry and business.
As the poster child for bentwood design, the chair (and its colleagues) revolutionised the use of wood in household furnishings, helped ignite the era of mass-produced furniture, and accelerated the spread of “good” design beyond the villas and palaces of aristocrats and industrialists.
You might also consider the chair as the Godfather of the coffee house chairs you see throughout Vienna today. (Cafés were Thonet’s primary market at the time.)
Think of the established, traditional Viennese cafés, the ones where the minute hand moves treacle-like through a cake-shaped space/time continuum and the cares of this world seem to seep away into the upholstery. Inside you’ll almost inevitably find some bentwood-style seats that owe a design debt to Thonet.
Incidentally, Thonet came to Vienna at the urging of one Prince Metternich. So our Machiavellian diplomat turns out to be the accidental father of two world-class Viennese inventions: the No. 14 chair and the Sachertorte.
Where to see the No. 14
The chair made an appearance in the excellent 2020 Bentwood and Beyond exhibition at the MAK. You can still see one of the originals at the same museum: drop into the MAK museum’s permanent Historicism Art Nouveau exhibition, which contains various bentwood chairs and normally includes the No. 14.
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