Machine Tools

In the early nineteenth century, under the pressure of the social, political, scientific, and technical revolutions of the age, a transformation occurred in woodworking shops that made it possible for furniture to be produced in limited quantities and in accordance with artisan traditions in keeping with local styles and tastes. Following the disappearance of the guilds and the rise of a liberal mercantile economy, production woodworking machines emerged for turning, planing, sawing, and milling. In addition, machines were able to pro­duce standard pitched screws, nuts, and drill bits for the first time.

By the mid-1800s, the premier furniture in the made-by-machine category was the steam-bent beech wood Model No. 14 chair produced by the Austrian company GebrQder Thonet. Between 1859 and 1930, Thonet manufactured and sold 50 million of these chairs. By 1900, Thonet employed 5,000 people directly and 25,000 indirectly in other companies producing their products. At the height of production, Thonet was producing 15,000 pieces of furniture a day, 12,000 of which were chairs.

By the 1930s, the close working relationship between craft and machine production gave way to subdivisions of work in which the architect designed the prototypes and then submitted them to production industries for fabrication. Steel began to rise as a material in furniture production. Hollow steel tubes could be formed into many shapes and chromed. Bent plywood furniture designs by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto exploited the elasticity of birch wood (a material also used to fabricate skis at the time).

In the 1950s, the industrial designer emerged as an independent professional skilled in designing with new technologies using resins, plastics, and upholstered works. The machin­ery necessary to fabricate plastic furniture was a significant up-front cost and required an enormous investment in large injection-molding machines, which could produce thousands of furnishings; mass production was necessary to recoup the initial investment in the machines. Mass production became the condition for economic recovery after World War II.