As comfortable as they are stylish, Thonet’s bentwood furniture designs have been in production for two centuries and are still in demand today, writes Lancashire-born furniture valuer Edward Rycroft
Bentwood furniture is one of the most iconic furniture types of Europe. Made in the millions and supplied throughout Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, designs were made to be practical, simple, affordable and elegant. They ticked all the right boxes when they were made and, in many people’s opinion, still do today. One of the most common designs are the chairs, but other items were made, ranging from coat stands to rocking chairs.
Thonet’s bentwood revolution
Bentwood furniture can be traced back to Michael Thonet, the founder of the bentwood movement. Born in Germany in the last few years of the 18th century, Thonet would be responsible for almost singlehandedly initiating a whole new approach to furniture design and manufacture in the 19th century.
When he died in 1871 at the age of 75, the one-time small town cabinetmaker left behind an industrial empire of factories and sawmills, vast holdings of forests and a network of company showrooms in 25 capital cities.
His innovations led to an entirely new furniture industry and, after his original patents expired in 1869, other companies began producing the same furniture. As a whole, in the first decade of the 20th century, the industry employed more than 35,000 people. But it all began in the most humble way.
Thonet started his career in parquet flooring in his own workshop in 1819. This was the era of heavy, impractical Biedermeier furniture, and by 1830 Thonet had began experimenting with ways to make the furniture lighter, stronger and more portable.
In the following decade he succeeded in making, firstly, chair parts and, later, entire chairs by bending and heating thick bundles of veneers, saturated with glue, in prepared wooden moulds. He had, in effect, created a type of plywood which was simple, affordable and very strong. It would also be the foundation of bentwood furniture.
Thonet’s burgeoning skills did not go unnoticed. In 1841, Thonet met Prince Metternich, then Europe’s mightiest statesman. The prince, visiting his Rhenish estates, saw some of Thonet’s new furniture at a local fair, recognised its potential and told its maker he would never fully realise his invention in the narrow confines of his hometown. Vienna, the prince maintained, was the only place for a man of his calibre. In 1842, Thonet moved his family to Vienna and for four years he and four of his sons were under contract to a Viennese cabinetmaker, commissioned to manufacture parquet floors and furniture for the remodelling of the Liechtenstein Palais.
In 1849, Thonet opened his own workshop, with chair No. 14 one of the first designs in his new catalogue. The design was met with great public acclaim, with another chair, the ‘S’ shaped No. 4 used by the city’s Café Daum.
In 1851, the Thonet No. 18 chair debuted at the first world fair, the Great Exhibition which took place in the Crystal Palace. The jury awarded them a medal but described them as “curious”. Despite the lukewarm praise, Thonet returned to Vienna with an overflowing order book.
From that point on there was no stopping the company. On November 1, 1853, Michael Thonet transferred the business to his five sons and together they managed it under the name “Gebrüder Thonet”. When reports from overseas clients reached Thonet that the glue couldn’t withstand the rigours of tropical climate, the company started to experiment with designs without using glue. In 1856, he succeeded in processing solid wood without the use of glue by using steam to bend rods of beechwood into the desired shape. Thonet quickly patented the efficient processing method, which marked the start of the company’s industrial breakthrough.
Successful expansion of Thonet
A few years later, the company had set up factories in Czechoslovakia and Hungry, as well as the main factories in Vienna. From here, the furniture could be made at mass and exported around Europe and the Americas.
Throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, Thonet’s bentwood furniture continued to be manufactured at mass. The relatively inexpensive nature of beechwood, the manufacturing process and repeated use of the same designs all meant that the furniture could be made quickly and in a factory.
Designs expanded with the the first bentwood rocking chair produced in 1860, followed by a bentwood armchair in 1870. When he died on March 3, 1871, Michael Thonet left behind a successful, stable company with factories and branches throughout Europe.
When the patent ran out for the No.14 in 1880 other firms from the Habsburg Empire were quick to copy and list it in their own catalogues using the same name of a ‘Vienna’ chair, which, by 1900, had been produced more than 40 million times. By 1890, the Thonet began producing a great variety of goods other than furniture. Its catalogues soon included hat stands, wallbrackets, picture frames and easels, walking sticks, wash stands and hoops as well as baby chairs and cribs.
Desirable Attributes on Thonet furniture
All Thonet designs are created to achieve the following criteria:
Bentwood furniture designs had one very important attribute – their usability. They were made in a way which had practicality at the heart of the designs. The chairs were lightweight, durable, didn’t take up much space and could be used daily. Their practicality has kept them popular for well over a century and still makes them desirable today.
The chairs especially are made to suit the human form, being curved where needed and – though generally made with no upholstery – comfort is created through the shape and support of the frame. The seats are often canework or made from pressed plywood which are concave in form, providing comfortable seating. The rocking chairs are also made to be comfortable and accommodating to the human form.
Bentwood furniture is very aesthetically designed. Being lightweight, well proportioned and well balanced, the curvilinear nature of the furniture allows it to be attractive when viewed from any angle.
Durability is also a major factor in the manufacture of Thonet furniture. It is achieved by a combination of attributes. Most bentwood was produced using beechwood which was easier to steambend. Another advantage of the wood is that it is fine grained and a hardwood, making it resistant to warping and heat changes.
Unlike Thonet designs, poorly balanced furniture is likely to suffer damage to joints because of a disproportionate amount of stress on particular sections.
Affordable to all
Just as the furniture was affordable when it was first produced, it remained so when it was made in the millions, as it is today. This applies not only to chairs, but tables, hat stands and rocking chairs, all of which can be bought for less than £200 in shops and auctions.
The simple and light, curvilinear design of Thonet’s bentwood furniture means that it can be used to furnish rooms with a traditional theme, or stripped to a lighter, beech colour for use in more contemporary settings. Bentwood designs fit very well into most interiors as they are unintrusive and sit alongside other furniture designs. This makes them appealing to many people who live in a wide range of interiors.
By the 1920s outsiders entered the design field, particularly architects in search of furniture to fit their new houses. The architect Marcel Breuer, then a young master at the Bauhaus in Dessau, came up with the idea of bending tubular steel into continuous loops to form the frames for chairs and tables. The idea was said to have come to him while riding his bicycle, and, in 1925, Breuer constructed the first tubular steel chair.
For three years the design, which had been conceived for mass production, had to be made piece by piece in a small metal shop. In 1928, Thonet took over the design and was soon manufacturing Breuer’s chair in Germany and France. Others followed with Mart Stam’s S 33, the first ever cantilever chair; Mies van der Rohe’s S 533; as well as Breuer’s cantilever classics, the S 32 and the S 64.