x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Nr 14 chair

Object of desire Don't be deceived by its apparent ordinariness, for this is a special edition of the original bentwood chair designed by Michael Thonet.

AD200910705089950AR
AD200910705089950AR

What, you may ask, makes such a commonplace item as this so desirable? Well, don't be deceived by its apparent ordinariness, for this is a special edition of the original bentwood chair designed by Michael Thonet, a German cabinetmaker who worked in Vienna in the 19th century. And it is made by the very same company that he founded: Gebrüder Thonet Vienna. It's special because it's being made, in limited numbers, to celebrate the 150th birthday of the original - with a neat little brass plaque under the seat to tell you so. And for such an apparently modern piece of furniture (most of us would have encountered chairs like this only after bistro culture began spreading to the Anglo-Saxon world in the late 1960s) that's a remarkable age.

Yet, given the ubiquity of the genre today, it may not occur to us that there was a real designer behind the original. Actually, not just a designer but an inventor. What Herr Thonet invented was the first "chair for the masses". A Model-T of chairs; a Volkswagen; the democratisation of design long, long before Ikea's copywriters got hold of the phrase. How he did it was another thing: after inventing the steam-bending technique for beech wood, and figuring out that a rounded seat needed less straw - and so was cheaper to produce, yet no less comfortable than a square seat, he came up with an idea that was a mere century or so ahead of the Big One that Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea's now-octogenarian founder presented to the world: the flat pack. Thirty-six chairs packed into a one-cubic-metre crate. Genius. Cheap and easy to ship. And ship it they did: in 1905 alone more than 4,000 crates were sent around the world. That's more than 144,000 chairs. Now, this Anniversary model, with its special design tweaks (a circular back rest instead of the original curve; antiqued walnut finish; hand-woven Viennese straw seat) will not be made in anything like those numbers. And it will be sold only for 12 months - until April next year. To my mind, as a tribute to a terribly common yet utterly uncommon object, it is truly desirable. Available through Poltrona Frau Group stores in the UAE, approximately ?540 (Dh2,700).