The Bentwood Chair is an enduring design classic, the creation of German-Austrian cabinet maker, Michael Thonet (1776-1871) (pronounced “Thon-nay”).
Of course, history always precedes appreciation…
Thonet was the son of master tanner Franz Anton Thonet of Boppard, Germany. After completing a carpenter’s apprenticeship, Michael, a creative innovator, would eventually become an independent cabinet maker in 1819. During the 1830’s Thonet began experimenting with furniture using glued and bent wooden slats. In 1836 Thonet successfully created a chair, the Boppard Layerwood Chair, a predecessor of the Bentwood Model 14 chair, using glue as a component. In fact, Thonet even went on to acquire a glue factory in 1837, which produced glue used for this process. However, Thonet did not succeed in patenting the technology during his attempts between 1840-1841 in Germany and Great Britain, France and Russia. Alas, his skillful and innovative designs were yet to be realized. At the Koblenz Trade Fair of 1841, Thonet met Prince Kelmens Wenzel von Metternich who, eager about Thonet’s furniture, invited him to the Vienna court the following year to present his furniture to the Imperial Family. Thonet would eventually sell the Boppard establishment and emigrate with his family to Vienna, working with his sons on the interior decoration of the Palais Liechtenstein for the Carl Leistler establishment. In 1849, Thonet founded a new family furniture production establishment, the “Gerbruder Thonet”. One year later, in 1850, he produced his Nr 1 chair. During the World’s Fair 1851 in London, England, Thonet received the bronze medal for his ‘Vienna Bentwood Chairs’. Referred to as an international breakthrough, his fame continued and he was awarded the silver medal at the following World’s Fair of 1855, in Paris, France for his infamous No. 14 Chair. The Bentwood chair. Production methods were improved and the demand for his chairs provided an opportunity to purchase a new factory in Korycany, Moravia in 1856. The 1859 chair Nr. 14, also known as the Konsumstuhl Nr. 14 or Coffee shop chair No. 14 is considered the “Chair of chairs”. In fact, it is said that over 50 million were produced up until 1930. It is stated that the Thonet Chair was the very first mass-produced chair. Who knew?
Of interest, the Model 14 Bentwood Chair consists of only six components paired with a few screws and nuts. Initially,rejecting traditional methods and seeking more simple and economic means of production, Thonet used bent veneers glued together and held together in what is called “Jigs”. This had proved to be a labor intensive method, and in addition, the wood could only be bent in one direction. Adapting this method by additional cutting, twisting and ‘rasping’, Thonet was able to obtain 3-dimensional bends with oval sections. His search to eliminate the glue, which dissolved it hot, damp climates, led him to his revolutionary solution: a solid piece of steamed wood and a metal strap could be bent together without cracking the wood. When dry, the wood would retain the new shape. Thus, a stronger chair was made with less pieces, less joints and screws replacing the glue. In 1856, this modern and original process was patented by Thonet’s son, GebrA1/4der Thonet, and mass production ensued. The design has virtually remained unchanged for over 150 years. Classic and timeless, indeed.
Thonet’s ability to produce lightweight and strong wood bent into curving, graceful shapes brought him enduring success with the aesthetics and function of design. Durable and comfortable, this practical chair provided a modern replacement and departure from the heavy, carved designs of furniture at the time. Simplicity and clean lines of perfection, indeed.
Of note, a similar chair in design and style, August Thonet’s Model 209 Chair (circa 1900), clearly followed the inspirations of his father. A timeless design in itself which appears to mimic the classic lines and style of the “Bentwood N. 14”…
Iconic artists of the time, including Auguste Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec, both featured Thonet Chairs in their infamous paintings and drawings. Even Pablo Picasso possessed a Thonet chair in his studio. Often referred to the Bistro Chair or “Coffee House Chair”, it is said that the Thonet Chair has become the most influential design in the history of furniture.
With a simple aesthetic appeal, unfussy shape paired with a high level of functionality, it is no surprise that the lightweight and practical chair still commands our attention. Certainly, the understanding of the history of this innovative chair only adds to our appreciation of it. Consider Thonet’s Bentwood Chair. Considered a “Useable work of art” and a mainstay of modern design, these chairs can blend with so many diverse interior styles. Whether classic, traditional or modern in preference, this chair is a timeless classic, indeed.
“Never has anything been created more elegant and better in its conception, more precise in its execution, and more excellently functional…” “…this chair, millions of which are to be found on the European mainland and in both Americas, has class”
-Celebrated 20th Century Swiss born architect, designer, urbanist and writer, Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret), known as a pioneer of modern architecture
“The Subtle harmony of its shapes, created by the pioneering method of bending wood, have made the chair a timeless classic…”
-Designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec