By Sarah Smith
Six pieces of steam-bent wood, ten screws, and two nuts. All it takes to start the rea of mass furniture production.
You walk into IKEA excited about the prospects of finding simple, cheap, yet nice-looking furniture. You then return home with your new furniture either knowingly ready to tackle the labyrinth of an instruction manual, or unknowingly expecting to build your new set of drawers with ease. Either way, you can’t ignore the significance of being able to buy furniture in such a casual manner.
Ikea has become synonymous with assembly furniture, but the origins of what made IKEA so successful must acknowledge the ambition and talent of German-born cabinetmaker Michael Thonet. Over 160 years ago.
An innovator who ventured beyond the conventional.
Thonet ventured beyond the conventional to test the structural limitations of natural wood. While his contemporaries created furniture of a more heavy, rigid style, Thonet pushed furniture design towards a new direction of elegance; he gave us the framework for simple, light-weight, and well-engineered furniture that has lasted until the modern-day.
The progression of culture and design that came from Thonet’s chair is apparent as it has become the quintessence of bistro furniture style. Whether you’re in France or America, bistros and cafes all commonly take after the elegant design aesthetic that followed from this chair.
In 1859, innovation and technological breakthroughs looked very different than they do today.
Thonet’s ability to use steam to bend wood into curved shapes was revolutionary technology at the time; today, we’re shooting humans into outer space and bringing them back alive. However, the impact of his success is no less significant or awe-inspiring.
Made of just six pieces of wood, ten screws, and two nuts, the №14 Chair remodeled the way furniture can be produced. Each part of the chair was created separately and then shipped together, ready to be assembled upon arrival. This new method marked the beginning of mass furniture production.
Thonet’s goal was to create something capable of being both mass-produced and affordable, a coupling that at the time was unheard of. Mass-produced and affordable furniture — sound familiar? The heart of IKEA’s entire business strategy is the ultimate evidence of just how prominent and influential Thonet’s “simple” chair turned out to be even a century later.
While the №14 Chair comes from the 1800s, the achievements that it reached mirror many ambitions that we see today. When talking about democratizing design in the current world, we often talk about fancy design sprints or design thinking methods. Thonet’s chair is a very early-on nod towards the democratization of design itself. By designing a chair that can be easily assembled, has a simple design, nice aesthetic, and is cheap, the №14 Chair enabled people to start thinking and viewing furniture production in a more accessible manner.
But the breakthroughs that were made by Thonet’s chair must also address the dissenting views on how they have impacted today’s world in an undesirable way.
Although democratizing design is a movement that has now become popularized, it’s important to question whether or not it devalues the work and jobs of the original creators. What does enabling the mass production of furniture mean for traditional furniture producers?
Decentralizing the production process has lead to a decrease in the importance of individual cabinetmakers. Today it is more common to see people buying mass-produced furniture than it is to see people buying directly from the original designer or cabinet-maker. So while mass production has made purchasing furniture easier for the masses, it has significantly devalued the notability of cabinet-makers’ skills and creativity.
Another point I feel needs to be explored is what this means for mass production and the environment. It’s no secret that these fast and mass production businesses like IKEA don’t have the most sustainable practices; the focus is less on the efficacy of original and quality products and rather on pure efficiency.
While we try to create products and systems to solve current-day challenges, how much into the future should we be thinking about long-term impacts?
This is not to say Thonet had any idea what his innovation would mean for world production a century later and planned to see the use of mass production so recklessly, but the reality of his design has caused such a system.
So, if Thonet is to thank for the origins of assembly furniture, does this mean he is also to blame for inaugurating a system of unsustainable production practices? I’d say no, because his aim for the innovation at the time had no environmentally-related intent.
What, then, does this mean for the way we consider current innovations for the future? Thonet had no idea what his outstanding creation at the time would mean for our planet a century later. Should we be even more forward-thinking about our technological breakthroughs than we already are? How can we be even more intentional about the future when it comes to innovating today?
The iconic design of the №14 Chair marks a symbol of creative genius and ambition. Thonet has shown us that simplicity is not to be overlooked when it comes to being innovative and transformative. This unassuming chair from the 1800s has made a monumental impact on the way we all live and experience our lives now. After all, it is ultimately what’s to thank for your love/hate relationship with IKEA furniture.
But, my lasting thought to you remains around what this means for designing and innovating for the future. While we try to create products and systems to solve current-day challenges, how much into the future should we be thinking about long-term impacts?
About the author:
Sarah is our community manager, working closely with partners and community members to help us transition to a circular economy. She also runs our product community for TGW — a free design thinking and innovation platform for tomorrow's changemakers and entrepreneurs. You can request access to our community by reaching out to Sarah via email firstname.lastname@example.org