Bent & Beautiful: Curvy Wood Chairs from Thonet and Beyond

Some women covet shoes. I covet chairs. A striking chair is like a dramatic mega-carat necklace on the Red Carpet on Oscar night: Beautiful in its own right but also essential to elevating the overall aesthetic. Like a piece of art hanging on the wall, a beautiful chair can take an otherwise ho-hum room and make it original and dramatic.

In particular, I love wood chairs with curvaceous and sinuous lines. They are both technically masterful and softly sensual — sometimes echoing the curves of the human form. Furniture designers have been playing with ways to bend and mold wood since the 1700s. The process of creating bentwood was invented and patented by Michel Thonet (pronounced Toe-nette), a German living in Austria. A variety of different woods were soaked, steamed, molded and bent.

Thonet’s work — particularly the famous Chair No14 (Image 7), inspired many early 20th century designers who worked with modern molded plywood. Case in point are Norman Cherner chairs (Image 6) as well as many iconic pieces by Charles Eames, including the DCW (Dining Chair Wood) and DCM (Dining Chair Metal with a plywood seat) models.

Unlike Thonet’s bentwood process, molding plywood involves gluing together three or more thin veneers of wood that have been plied together with the grain running crosswise. According to Design Boom, the technique has evolved rapidly in recent years with the introduction of CNC cutting machines, which mean various complex components can be inserted into the molding machines and pressed directly with the plywood.

Sally Hoban, author of Collecting Modern Design, nicely summarizes the timeless appeal of wood furniture that has been bent or molded: “…by the nature of its production — layered or veneered wood made malleable through mechanical or chemical methods — [they] can be adapted into new shapes and styles, making it extremely suitable for experimentation and imaginative ideas.”

Above is just a sampling of elegant bentwood and molded plywood chairs.

1 Apartment Therapy.
2 High Gloss Blue.
3 Unveiled in 1963 by Danish furniture designer Grete Jalk, this lounge chair is a permanent piece in the New York MoMA’s collection. Dwell.
4 Hans Wegner’s ch07 Lounge chair, 1963, by Carl Hansen & Son. The seat and back are made of form-pressed plywood shells. The 3 legs consist of a laminated construction, the 2 front legs are made of one continuous piece and the hind leg is a separate element. Hive Modern.
5 Japanese designer Keisuke Fujiwara’s take on the 214 Thonet chair. The Thonet chair (originally no. 14, now 214) has been hand-wrapped in colored threads.
Design Boom.

6 Design Within Reach. . Norman Cherner is best known for his molded plywood seating line he created for – and ultimately sued – the manufacturer, Plycraft. Constructed of laminated plywood of graduating thicknesses.
7 Patrick Taylor. Designed by Michael Thonet in the 1859, the Model 14 bentwood chair, still manufactured today by the Gebrüder Thonet company as Model 214.
8 A Mad Tea Party With Alis.
9 Inoda Sveje
10 Bodyform chair by Peter Danko. Vivavi.

11 Desire to Inspire. The East London photographic location house of photographer Graham Atkins-Hughes and stylist Jo Atkins-Hughes.
12 Lost City Arts via Rafael Soldi Rare George Nelson bentwood “pretzel chair” for Herman Miller.
13 Desire to Inspire.
14 Design Boom. Joerg Boner wooden chair for Swiss company Wogg. Molded plywood
15 Bauhaus2YourHouse. Bauhaus2YourHouse manufactures Thonet designs using historic molds and techniques.

Images: as linked above

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