The Thonet Bentwood Chair
The Thonet bentwood chair
Designed by Michael Thonet in the 1859, the Model 14 bentwood chair, still manufactured today by the Gebrüder Thonet company as Model 214, is one of the world's most successful commercial products. The Thonet bentwood chair consists of only six components (plus a few screws and nuts) and the design has remained virtually unchanged for nearly 150 years.
Paying tribute to an armchair variant of the 214 – Model 209 developed by August Thonet – the celebrated 20th century architect Le Corbusier stated "Never has anything been created more elegant and better in its conception, more precise in its execution, and more excellently functional." The perfection of the 14/214 design is not only its brilliant simplicity but also that it transcends fashion. Despite the fact that it was already 100 years old, to Le Corbusier the Thonet bentwood chair still represented the modernist concepts of economy, durability and humbleness.
It was also popular with artists. Auguste Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec featured Thonet chairs in their paintings and drawings, and Pablo Picasso had one in his studio. 50 million had been sold worldwide by the 1930s and the Thonet-style chair is now manufactured by so many different companies that it is impossible to calculate how many have been produced. Often referred to as the Bistro Chair, it has become the most influential design in the history of furniture.
Michael Thonet and the early bentwood chair
Michael Thonet was born in the Prussian town of Bopard-am-Rhein in 1796. After an apprenticeship in cabinet making he soon acquired a reputation as a creative innovator. In 1819 he turned away from secure employment in Vienna so he could become an independent craftsman, free to experiment and develop new techniques. Thonet's lifelong fascination was what could be done with bent and veneered timber from the local beech forests.
The furniture of the time was usually made from flat pieces of wood with numerous joints disguised by elaborate carvings, but Thonet rejected the traditional methods and looked instead for simpler and more economic means of production. He used bent veneers glued together and held in jigs, but this was labour-intensive and the wood could only be bent in one direction. By further cutting, twisting, and rasping it became possible to obtain three-dimensional bends with oval sections but it was the need to eliminate the glues which tended to dissolve in hot damp climates that led to the breakthrough.
Thonet discovered the solution: a solid piece of steamed wood and a metal strap could be bent together in a certain way without cracking the wood, and after being dried out in a jig the wood held its shape. A strong chair could thus be made with less pieces and less joints, with screws replacing glued connections. And the process, patented by Gebrüder Thonet in 1856, was much faster, lending itself to economical mass production.
In 1849, at the age of 53, Michael Thonet set up Gebrüder Thonet as the family furniture-making business in Vienna. He was joined by several of his sons and a number of apprentices. International success followed the 1851 World Fair in London at which Thonet received the bronze medal for his 'Vienna' bentwood chairs and the silver medal at the event in Paris in 1855. Manufacturing efficiencies were introduced and another factory was soon opened at Koritschan (in what is the modern day Czech Republic) with cheap labour and more beechwoods nearby. The Model 14 was awarded gold at the 1867 World Fair, again in Paris (by 1930 some 300 million had been made).
Michael Thonet died in 1871, and Gebrüder Thonet continued under the stewardship of his sons. In 1922 the company was purchased by Leopold Pilzer's holding company, Mundus AG, employing over 10,000 workers worldwide, and after further expansion has now passed through five generations of the Thonet family. Today, Thonet GmbH, based in Frankenberg, Germany, manufactures an extensive range of elegant chairs – see their classic designs »
Related entry: chairs at Korumburra.
[ First published November 30th, 2005 ]