It’s hard to imagine the Thonet No. 14, the curved bistro chair that today appears in every self-consciously charming cafe on earth, as a paragon of revolutionary design, but when it debuted in 1859, that’s exactly what it was. Invented by the German-Austrian cabinetmaker Michael Thonet, it was the world’s first successfully mass-produced chair--a deceptively simple bundle of six pieces of wood and some screws that was as easy to manufacture as it was to ship. More than 50 million chairs sold by 1930. Millions more have sold since. As the story goes, the No. 14 has cradled more behinds than any other chair ever, including some famous ones: Lenin, Picasso, and Einstein were all said to own No. 14s.
How the No. 14 became one of the world’s best-selling chairs is the subject of this short little video from Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. Like many examples of groundbreaking design, it started with a technological advancement: Thonet developed a new technique for bending wood. By soaking beechwood in steam for five hours to soften it, then bending the wood into curves before it dried out and broke, Thonet made an entirely new type of chair possible. The big selling point: The No. 14 came as a kit of parts, which made it cheap and cinchy to transport. You could pack as many as 36 chairs in a 1-cubic-meter sea crate.
The chair is revolutionary in another way: It’s still in production today. At a time when designers face pressure to whip up a new chair each year, using the sexy materials and techniques of the moment, the Thonet company continues to manufacture the No. 14 more or less the way it did 100 years ago--in Frankenburg, Germany, with wood-benders in the shop and Michael Thonet’s descendants at the helm.
Think about that next time you park yourself in a cafe: You’re not just sitting in a creaky old wooden chair, you’re experiencing a piece of design history.