April 1, 2009
Distilling the Classics
Muji’s latest collection has two high-profile designers updating Thonet standards.
How do you improve upon an icon? Most furniture companies don’t try, opting instead to roll out products that are hopelessly derivative or inferior knockoffs. The Japanese retailer Muji, however, has attempted a more honorable approach, redesigning classic pieces with the consent and cooperation of their rightful manufacturer. For its latest collection, Muji enlisted James Irvine to update the Thonet Model No. 14 and Konstantin Grcic to reinterpret several works by Marcel Breuer. The new iterations are produced by the German company Thonet, which not only manufactured the originals but pioneered the modern bentwood and tubular-steel techniques that would be used for decades to come.
The No. 14—the world’s first mass-produced chair—was an immediate hit when Michael Thonet unveiled his affordable bentwood creation in 1859. And 150 years later, it is still regarded as the consummate café chair. “To tell you the truth, I was terrified at first,” says Irvine, who works from Milan and happens to be Thonet’s creative director. “I thought, How can you touch this? But I found out that it had already been changed so many times over the centuries. This is just another step in its Darwin-esque evolution.” In his version, the traditional arched backrest is replaced with a horizontal strip of beech that artfully lines up with the edge of a matching table. “Some people were quite shocked by the straight back,” Irvine says. “Funnily enough, it’s actually more comfortable.” To distill the form further, he removed the ring under the seat frame (and thickened the seat to compensate for the lost support). “That was quite challenging,” says Philipp Thonet, the company’s export manager, “because Michael Thonet, my great-great-grandfather, always used foot rings to stabilize the chair.” The result is a sturdy yet flexible chair that pays homage to the No. 14 while embodying Muji’s stripped-down aesthetic.
The starting points are even more discernable in the Breuer-inspired pieces. “We never had to force ourselves to be different,” Grcic says. “Because the project was labeled ‘Muji manufactured by Thonet,’ the Breuer reference didn’t need to be hidden or overcome.” Still, the Munich-based de-signer modified the proportions of the Bauhaus-era forms to suit today’s user and reduced the size of the steel tubing, which is covered in a slightly textured powder coating rather than chrome. “To-day we view chrome as almost cheap,” he says, but back then “they wanted chrome tube to make it more precious and valuable.”
Overall, the project represents a strategic shift for Muji, which had previously refrained from promoting its designers and manufacturers. “I think this is part of a policy of Muji to pull up the quality of some of their products and give them more of a recognizable design value—of course, maintaining their extraordinary, clear simplicity,” Irvine says. It may also be a sign that the much beloved “no brand” brand is succumbing to market pressure to give consumers what they’re looking for—a little name recognition.