Originally published in the Turn The Page Issue 60, April 2017
The ultimate challenge for all of us, as designers, is to create timeless products. Nobody wants their product to go out of style. Nevertheless, only few succeed in this. In this Versus, I will compare two moments in history where an iconic and timeless product came to existance; two moments where a product was created that is used every day; two chairs that were highly innovative when they were first made and are still an existing success; two moments when their designers wrote history and brought something new to the world of design. I am talking about the comparison between the Thonet №14 and the Eames Plastic Side Chair. They surely have one thing in common: the designers found the key to ‘timelessness’. What are the differences and, maybe more importantly, the similarities between the two iconic designs, that are one hundred years apart?
To start with, let us look at 1859 versus 1948. Thonet could have possibly been a pioneer in the world of furniture in the eyes of the Eames couple, whereas they could have been what Thonet envisioned as the future in his time. The contexts in which these successful chairs were created were — at first sight — wildly different, but both have played a major role in the design processes.
“№14 is the one that mankind will remember for a long time, the one that made history and the one that has seated over 50 million people.”
In the first decades of Thonet’s life, the First Industrial Revolution was raging through Europe, changing people’s daily lives. This turning point in history included the transition from humans to machines in factories and all its consequences. Half a century later, around 1850, this developed into a Second Industrial Revolution, characterised by the introduction of many new production techniques that increased the efficiency of mass production. Thus, it is obvious that Thonet, who invented a new production technique himself, was inspired or moved by the world around him.
“Eames’ Side Chair is still incredibly popular, overshadowing others with its simplicity.”
Roughly one hundred years later, Charles and Ray Eames rose to prominence. Since the ending of World War I, artists and designers had began to strongly oppose ‘the traditional’. A new view on design emerged: Modernism. Le Corbusier, a world-famous architect, described this view as the “machine aesthetics”. According to him, a building was a machine for living and consequently, that was the only need it had to fulfil. Unnecessary decorations were abandoned and a design was brought back to its true essentials, resulting in geometrical, minimalist shapes. This vision of functionality was followed up by Postmodernism, in which slightly more decorations were added and different styles were mixed up. Looking at Eames’ work, they are probably influenced by the minimalistic style of the era of Modernism. The moment that Eames’ furniture flourished from popularity was after World War II. At that time, their products were seen as something new for a new society.
The story behind
Long years of hard work have preceded the introduction of Chair №14. Michael Thonet had been working on a brand new production technique since 1830, but it was not until 1842 that he received the patent he had been seeking for so long, for “bending any wood, even the driest type, into any shape using a chemical-mechanical process”. From that, Chair №1, No 14.’s little brother, was born eight years later and won the bronze medal at the World Exposition in London. Many preceded and many followed — but №14, introduced in 1859, is the one that mankind will remember for a long time, the one that made history and the one that has seated over 50 million people. With this chair, Thonet conquered the world of mass production and he did it graciously. Chair №14 can be seen as the progenitor of the IKEA-like do it yourself package. It was transported in pieces: six wooden parts, ten screws and two nuts. What has stunned many, is that this iconic design was, at its time, sold for three florins; less than what one payed for a cheap bottle of wine.
One of the Eames couple’s closest friends once said, “they weren’t artists, they solved problems”. Strikingly, solving problems is what has brought the design of the iconic chair to what it is now. The design first saw the world in the form of Charles’ application for the International Low-cost Furniture Competition. He won the second price, but probably did not realise then that the design as it was could never be made. Years and years later, he continued his search for the perfect low-cost mass-produced chair with his new wife Ray Eames. The biggest changes they made to the original design were the material and their realisation that they did not want to make the mistake again of designing the look first. The original material had been steel, which turned out not to be as ‘low-cost’ as expected. That is why Charles Eames visited John Wills to order two 25 dollar prototypes that were molded fiberglass. He only could pay for one of them. In retrospect, this prototype was almost identical to the final version of the chair. The choice for fiberglass proved to be a golden move, because after a bumpy road full of insecurities and investments, the chair went in production in 1949. As we know, so many years later, Eames’ Side Chair is still incredibly popular, overshadowing others with its simplicity.
It is an undoable task to compare two of the most famous designs ever made, without doing one of them injustice. This is a classic versus a modern piece; the icon of modernism versus the chair that has seated most of all. When one becomes involved with both stories, a great deal of comparable elements can be seen. Firstly, they both had the same goal to start with, as Ray Eames once said: “I want to make the best to the most for the least”. Designing low cost, sustainable furniture was a driver for both Michael Thonet and Ray and Charles Eames — another question is if they both succeeded in this. Here Thonet seems to have done better, since his chair actually was ‘cheap’. Eames’ furniture was mostly bought by the men and women of the upper-middle class. The man that can be seen as the bridge between these two timeless designs, is Le Corbusier. As said, he has been essential in Modernism, the style that lays behind Eames’ designs. Le Corbusier has also said to be inspired by Thonet №14: “never was a more elegant and a more precisely crafted and practical item created”. In these words he might have captured what timelessness is all about: combining the pragmatic and the aesthetic in one object. Is that not what Eames and Thonet have both accomplished?