The Bentwood Chairs of Gebrüder Thonet

Retrospect

It has been more than 140 years since Michael Thonet first designed his No. 14 café chair (image 4), but it is still a staple in chic bistros. We will discuss the reasons for the chair's lasting success — and also reveal the proper pronunciation of the name — after the jump.

Michael Thonet (TOE-net) was a cabinetmaker born in Germany in 1796. By the 1830s, he was experimenting with bending woods by using veneers with hot glue, but this proved labor-intensive, and the glues were not reliable in moist climates. Finally, he figured out a way to bed solid wood rods using steam, which produced stronger furniture that required no glue, only screws.

Thonet presented some early bentwood furniture at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where he received the bronze medal (image 5) and garnered international attention. By 1856 he had established his firm, Gebrüder Thonet, further refined his production process, and won the silver medal at the 1855 Paris Exhibition. After Michael's death in 1871, Thonet's sons took over the company and continued to expand it. In 1913, for example, they employed 6,400 workers and produced 1.8 million pieces of furniture per year.

Michael Thonet's innovations were not just aesthetic. His success is due in no small part to his efforts to decrease production costs. From his firm's founding, he had factories in what is now the Czech Republic, near his timber sources. He also was among the first to organize his workers into assembly lines, still half a century before Henry Ford.

In 1859, he designed his No. 14 chair (images 4 & 6). Consisting of only six pieces held together with a few screws, this was the first flat-packed furniture, a century before IKEA! This meant that shipping was cheap and easy, and kept the cost of the chair low, which was part of Thonet's design goal. The chair is simple while still being interesting, lightweight but very durable, and this combination has made it a favorite chair at cafés and restaurants since the 1860s (images 7-9).

Thonet's chairs, including the No. 14, proved to be a favorite among artists and designers, as well. Picasso had one in his studio, and Le Corbusier used Thonet chairs in several interiors, including the No. 9 chair (image 10) in his Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau at the Paris Exhibition of 1925. Of the No. 9 chair, Le Corbusier said, "Never was there an object as elegant, as well conceived, as precise in its execution, and practical in its usage." Adolf Loos, the Viennese architect who famously equated ornament with crime and degeneracy, designed his own bentwood chair that Gebrüder Thonet produced, gently tweaking the classic No. 14 design for use in his Viennese Café Museum of 1899 (images 11 & 12).

For Loos, Le Corbusier, and other Modernists, these simple Thonet chairs represented a masterly fusion of form and function, and economy of materials. The chair's curves are simply a function of using as few pieces of wood as possible. The principles of economy of materials, form following function, and the physical and aesthetic lightness of the objects were inspirational for designers in other materials, as well. The tubular steel furniture by Charlotte Perriand (image 13), Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe also owes a debt to Thonet's design innovations, despite their more industrial appearances.

Of course, Thonet's furniture was not always so simple. His Rocking Chair No. 1 from 1860 (image 14) is an example of his more elaborate scrollwork (although this, too, is to some extent crucial to the rocking function). In fact, the curvilinear lines of the firm's designs helped maintain their popularity through the Art Nouveau era, and helped make them appealing to a variety of tastes. His designs continue to walk the line today (images 2 & 3), both antique and practical, simple and yet somehow redolent of a Viennese café, circa 1900.

Images: 1 Sandor Galimberti, Interior with Thonet Chair (ca. 1908), Wikimedia Commons; 2 Red painted Thonet No. 14 chairs from a recent ATNY post; 3 Thonet No. 9 chairs in a Domino shoot, via Apartment Therapy; 4 Thonet's No. 14 (now known as 214), first produced in 1859. Via Dexigner; 5 A progression of Thonet bentwood chairs, including a chair (1836-40), the armchair shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and a classic coffeehouse chair, which you can see in Volkel's café scene. Wikimedia Commons; 6 No. 14 chairs in a shipping crate, via Trífora; 7 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge (1892/5), Wikimedia Commons; 8 Café Scene (1882-85) by Fernand Harvey Lungren, an American artist. Via Caferepublica; 9 Café Griensteidl, Vienna (1896), by R. Völkel. Via Caferepublica; 10 Thonet No. 9 chair, a favorite of Le Corbusier, via icollector; 11 Adolf Loos' Café Museum (1899), Vienna. Loos was a radial architect who was ideologically opposed to decorative ornament on the grounds that it was degenerate and primitive. Thonet produced his designs for bentwood chairs for the café interior. Image via leclairdelune; 12 Loos' Thonet chair (1899), via Architonic; 13 B302 Swivel Chair by Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret (1928), photo by Anna Hoffman; 14 Thonet Rocking Chair No. 1 (1860). Via Dexigner.