A bespoke piece of furniture, beautifully designed and built, can be wonderful. But each bespoke piece is a prototype. The best have no downsides because they perform their function perfectly while giving pleasure to all. But this is not always the case. Not all problems are solved in the first iteration. Not everyone can afford funding several prototypes in order to perfect their new object. Is there another solution?
There is; factory produced pieces. They range from carefully resolved designs with precision engineering to pieces that are not so appealing, often made of cheaper materials and less well made. The very worst examples are cruel tricks by suppliers to get their buyers to take the fruits of their miserable efforts to landfill. The life cycle is often short and the effective cost over time is alarmingly high.
On the other hand, well designed production furniture can be well worth considering. One of the best examples is the No 14 Vienna chair, designed and produced by Michael Thonet (pronounced tor net). Everyone has seen them and used them at some time. They may look a little dated now but this reproducible object has defined the café chair like no other. When I see them, immediately, I feel the need to find a good café and enjoy the experience of taking coffee. It is probably the predecessor of all café chairs designs that have followed from the 1800s to today. It has a small footprint, necessary for fitting many chairs around small tables. It was first produced in 1859 and has been, more or less, in continuous production since. The numbers made are high, many multiple of tens of millions, for one chair! Then there are the copies, also made in very high numbers.
Thonet pre-empted Henry Ford by more than half a century by developing mass–production techniques for furniture. If that is not enough, it is likely that this No 14 Vienna Chair could be the contender for the first Modernist object, 60 years before the era of the Bauhaus.
Not all Thonet designs are as simple as this chair but none are more beautiful. They are fit for purpose, use renewable resources, and can last for many decades. The pictured chair is my cherished possession and handed down to me. Actually, it is a copy made in Austria in the early 1900s. Even so, more than 100 years later it is still being used!
It is hard to imagine any single bespoke piece of furniture having a comparable impact on our visual culture as the Vienna Chair.