Sitting Alone in Public: How the Café Chair Defined Modern Urban Culture

Beginning with Thonet’s innovations two centuries ago, the development of the café chair typology reflects upheavals in cities and design.

The bistro chair from Thonet is shrouded in mythology that attests to its ubiquity and durability. (The No. 14 is rumored to have survived a fall from the Eiffel Tower in 1889 unscathed.) Thonet’s chairs proliferated in lockstep with 19th-and 20th-century European urban development. Courtesy Historic Images/Alamy Stock Photo

There’s a certain category of chair that lacks a proper name. Mass-produced, globally distributed, and often conceived without a designer, today it dominates our streetscapes, commercial interiors, and increasingly the domestic environment. It is often referred to as a “café chair,” but that name belies a far more complex reality: Its very existence is a testament to upheavals in production, urban development, and society that have shaped the past two centuries. Nestled within this history is also a parable about the challenges of designing for the many versus designing for the few.

Thonet pioneered the café chair; the company’s savvy business strategies and simple constructions would set the model for others to follow. The beginning was modest: Two hundred years ago, in the small Prussian town of Boppard, cabinetmaker Michael Thonet set up a small workshop where he used traditional carving and joinery. He soon became singularly obsessed with simplifying the means of production—making furniture cheaper, quicker to produce, and en masse. For the next 40 years, he worked to meet these ends, devising ways of bending solid wood by boiling it in glue and using metal braces to prevent splitting and tearing. That allowed him to shape wood into complex curves and reduce his chairs to the smallest number of components.

Thonet’s two most successful chairs—No. 14 and No. 18—were also its simplest and most affordable. Throughout the 1860s, Thonet established sales branches in major European capitals, including Paris, London, Prague, and Berlin, plus other regional centers. Catalogs were printed in at least four languages, and by 1875, five factories were producing 620,000 chairs in total per year. To make distribution easier, chairs could be shipped in parts and assembled locally, preceding IKEA’s flat-packing method by a century. They were the first chairs designed truly for the masses.

But Thonet’s success wasn’t just about harnessing the power of mass production. The emergence of the café chair was a response to the changing nature and uses of the public sphere. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the coffeehouse had become an important new type of public space, a novel form of engagement where strangers were meant to interact in debate. Typical coffeehouses were furnished accordingly, with long communal tables and benches; chairs were relatively rare. By the 19th century, however, such interactions were anathema; cities had become a relentless flurry of sensory overload. Seeking a countermeasure, people craved places to retreat, and cafés were now a way to be alone in public—to stare at crowds with cool detachment and lose oneself in thought or in the company of close friends. To do so, a cheap, lightweight, and unobtrusive chair like No. 14 was ideal; it was a tool for anonymity.

Manually sanding bentwood in a Thonet factory ca. 1910 Creative Commons

Thonet set the standard for mass-produced chairs, but it had competition. Thonet’s bentwood patent expired in 1869, and numerous firms soon began selling similar designs. By 1893, there were at least 52 bentwood companies in Europe, including Mundus and Jacob & Josef Kohn, many producing Thonet derivatives. By the early 20th century, Thonet, in need of a new trick, turned to the design community for help. Modernist architects and designers had long embraced its stripped-down minimalism, helping validate the chairs as “designed objects,” able, in theory, to fetch higher prices. Testing this out, the manufacturer worked with the likes of Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, and Mies van der Rohe to craft new furniture lines, this time out of tubular steel. Some of the 20th century’s most revered chairs resulted, including Breuer’s Model B3 armchair (popularly known as the Wassily Chair). By embracing design, Thonet paradoxically ceased its original attention to the masses: Prices rose, and designed chairs became exclusive to well-funded domestic interiors.

Several mass-produced chairs have followed Thonet’s model, with a few reaching classic status. While Thonet was bending wood, for example, Karl Friedrich Schinkel was experimenting with casting iron to make garden furniture for the royal palaces of Prussia. Later, new techniques in metalwork would come to inform mass-produced furniture. There was the folding metal-slatted chair, patented by Edouard Leclerc as Simplex in 1889 and later branded as the “bistro” chair by its main producer, Fermob. The Burgundian Xavier Pauchard and his company Tolix perfected a method of galvanizing sheet metal in the 1930s to produce the stamped-steel Chaise A. And the Pennsylvanian firm Emeco used an alkaline bath to temper aluminum and create its incredibly sturdy 1006 Chair in 1944. Each of these chairs initially catered to a mass audience: Fermob’s bistro chairs in the parks and cafés of Paris, Tolix chairs for outdoor terraces and the French military, and Emeco’s 1006 Chair for the U.S. Navy. But all would eventually go into decline, before finding new life as design classics. In the 1980s, Terence Conran began stocking Chaise A in his Habitat stores. Philippe Starck hailed the 1006 Navy Chair as a work of modern sculpture. And following Thonet’s precedent, each company would eventually hire designers to reinterpret its product, to be sold at significantly higher price points.

Model 3107 Chair, Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen, 1955. Here, chairs line a wall in the town hall of Mainz, Germany. Creative Commons

Today, an original 1006 Navy Chair will set you back at least $525, a Thonet No. 14 $250, and a Chaise A $300. It’s a far cry from Charles Eames’s famous maxim to provide “the best for the most for the least.” In fact, the Eameses and contemporaries like Arne Jacobsen also tried their hand at low-cost chairs, the fiberglass DSS Chair and molded plywood 3107 Chair, respectively, among them. (Both designs have seen similar markups since.) But it would take deep pockets to furnish any new venture with such pieces. Funnily enough, you can still spot them anywhere, populating cafés and bars the world over. The reason largely lies in China, which has long been manufacturing arguably the cheapest and most universal café chair on the planet: the Monobloc, produced through a single injection of hot plastic into a mold.

Factories in furniture-making capitals like Foshan are also developing new interpretations of design classics to provide cheap knockoffs. Thanks to the power of e-commerce giants like Alibaba, these chairs have reemerged as truly public chairs, available for rock-bottom prices at the click of a button. Purveyors of the originals will claim that these copies aren’t built to last—Emeco famously threw its chair off an eight-story building to prove its durability. But a fair, if thorny, question remains. If the quintessence of these chairs is their cheap, mass-produced quality, who is the standard-bearer of Thonet today: the legacy companies that still produce rarefied classics, or the copycats making them cheap and accessible?

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