The history of furniture has, up until the 20th century, been dominated by manufacturers using timber to produce their products. Towards the end of the 19th century some companies experimented with wood bending techniques in a bid to reduce the cost of labour intensive manufacturing and to be able to make chairs and tables that were attractive, strong and cheap enough to sell in big quantity to the rising numbers of people whose wealth was increasing following the development of the Industrial Revolution. These Bentwood stacking chairs first developed by Michael Thonet (1796-1871) revolutionised chair production and became extremely popular, especially for commercial use, furnishing hotels and restaurants all throughout Europe.
With technical advances made in steel production in the early part of the 20th Century, tubular steel and aluminium became cheaper and cheaper and in 1925 Marcel Breuer designed the Wassily chair and later in 1926 one of the the first commercially available tubular steel cantilever chairs (designated chair B33) was designed by Mart Stam and put into production in 1927. By using tube bending machinery, manufacturers could see that new designs of chairs could be produced relatively easily and great uniformity could be achieved in any quantity. The designers could produce chairs and tables that were stronger and cheaper than wooden models and could also design other really convenient features into the chairs, chief among these being the ability to stack. The space saving benefits of stacking furniture had already been investigated by Alvar Aalto in his bentwood stool model 60 which first went into production in 1932 and has remained popular ever since. One of the first metal stacking chairs was Hans Coray’s 1938 ‘Landi’ chair, produced in aluminium to make it light and easy to move.
The benefits of stacking chairs became really appreciated in the after the Second World War. The Danis architect and designer Arne Jacobsen designed the series 7 model 3017 in 1955 and in the 1960′s Robin Day created the very influential Polyprop stacking chair. The Polyprop stacking chair cleverly used the new technology of injection moulded plastics on a tubular steel frame. The polypropylene plastic chair shells have a very high initial cost because the mould for the seat is complicated to make but once made the seats can be produced very cheaply in large quantity in any colour and the tubular steel bases for the chairs can be painted to match or contrast with the plastic colour or can be chrome plated allowing a great variety of colour combinations to suit any interior design.
The Design of Stacking chairs at the present time has moved towards satisfying the large market for banquet furniture for hotel and restaurant use for weddings and other celebrations or for situations where large numbers of chairs are needed but where cost is an issue. An example of this being sporting and social clubs. These chairs are produced in steel or extruded aluminium tube, the latter having the benefit of being available in a variety of extruded tube designs. These chairs can be upholstered in any fabric which when combined with different frame colours again gives an almost limitless choice to the user. The European market for these chairs was up until the 1980′s mostly satisfied by UK manufacturers. This gradually changed following the rise of China as an economic power following the economic reforms introduced by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980′s. Cheap steel was soon being produced in huge quantity, far more than the home market could absorb and to avoid being accused of dumping their excess production at below cost Chinese manufacturers looked for products to make with the glut of this raw material. An obvious direction was in the production of tubular furniture and by the 1990′s factories making tube steel chairs and tables became abundant in China.
Importers in the UK were quick to see this opportunity. The Chinese manufacturers were happy to take in designs from these importers and happy to produce them in relatively short runs at prices that the European and UK manufacturers could not meet, gradually overwhelming these local producers. Now the majority of stacking chairs are made by far eastern factories although recently strains have been felt by these manufacturers. Since being admitted as a full member to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, it came under pressure from the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund to free the exchange rate of the Chinese currency, the Yuan RMB which was previously pegged by the Chinese government at a fixed rate against the US dollar.
Since the RMB has been free to find it’s own level, the currency has become stronger and stronger, so Chinese Companies exporting to the US and Europe have seen real value of the foreign currency payments they receive getting ever lower. To give an example, in September 2006 1 USD would buy nearly 8 Chinese RMB but now in September 2008 will only buy 6.80 RMB. The value of 1 GBP in sept 2006 was 15.15 but now in Sept 2008 has fallen to 12.30RMB. This rapid change combined with an equally rapid rise in raw material prices worldwide has forced Chinese manufacturers to raise prices. What the future holds is uncertain.
Post time: 05-06-2017