Designed in 1855, Michael Thonet’s model-14 bentwood remains the world’s best-selling chair. After countless reproductions and knockoffs, it’s likely everyone, at one time or another, has sat on or owned a copy of Thonet’s design. It’s appeared in the paintings of Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec and was a permanent fixture in the studio of Pablo Picasso. Despite seeming quaint and commonplace now, it was revolutionary at the time of its inception.
Thonet used a traditional shipbuilder’s method of soaking a board in steam to make it pliable, then bending it to fit a form. His use of interchangeable parts and assembly-line tactics allowed him to efficiently mass-produce the chair and, in the process, create a model for modern furniture factories. With its lack of ornamentation and modern lines, his chair quickly became popular with the burgeoning European modern-art scene of the late 19th and early 20th century. By 1930, his family company, Gebrüder Thonet (Thonet Bros.), had sold 50 million chairs. At the same time, a French offshoot of the company, Thonet Frères, began producing the modern tubular-steel designs of Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and iconic pieces by Mies van der Rohe.