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Michael Thonet – The Father of Bentwood Furniture

Have you ever found yourself in a charming café, sipping your favorite arabica blend, while being surrounded by the captivating curves of bentwood chairs? These chairs, with their lightweight yet sturdy frames and comfortable woven...

Have you ever found yourself in a charming café, sipping your favorite arabica blend, while being surrounded by the captivating curves of bentwood chairs? These chairs, with their lightweight yet sturdy frames and comfortable woven cane seats, have become an embodiment of elegance in furniture design.

But have you ever wondered who first came up with this simple yet ingenious idea? The answer lies in the visionary mind of Michael Thonet. A furniture designer, industrialist, and true pioneer, Thonet is the father of bentwood furniture, a style that has gained immense popularity in recent times. Let's delve into his life, his work, the history of bentwood chairs, and the Thonet brand as it stands today.

Thonet chair sketches The evolution of Thonet's designs

What was Michael Thonet famous for?

Michael Thonet is renowned for his creation of the iconic bentwood chairs that grace the Parisian cafes, New York coffee houses, and London eateries of today. Born in 1796 into a family of furniture makers, Thonet displayed an early aptitude for the craft. By the age of 23, he had already completed his cabinetmaking apprenticeship and taken over his father's workshop.

However, Thonet was not content with traditional furniture-making methods. Embracing the spirit of innovation prevalent at the time, he began experimenting with bentwood techniques. Hours would be spent manipulating wood, crafting unique and captivating shapes that revolutionized furniture design.

One of his breakthrough moments came when he started boiling veneer strips in glue and then bending them onto molded plywood. This experimentation led to the invention of the "twisted loop leg," which introduced gravity-defying curves to traditional chair designs. The uniqueness of Thonet's creations caught the attention of Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister, who invited Thonet to showcase his work to the Austrian emperor. Thonet's visit to Austria marked a turning point in his career, as he never returned to his birthplace.

Mid-century Thonet chair Marcel Breuer B35 Lounge Chair Armchair By Thonet Bauhaus, Circa 1940s | Splendid Antiques

The history of Thonet's bentwood furniture

Thriving in Vienna, Michael Thonet continued to refine his craft. He pushed the boundaries of bentwood techniques, utilizing steam and industrial processes. Here's a timeline of the significant developments in Thonet's bentwood furniture:

  • 1830s: Thonet started using glue and heat to bend wood into curved shapes, introducing organic and lightweight elements to chair designs.
  • 1841: Thonet's designs caught the attention of Austrian royalty, and he had the opportunity to present his work to the Imperial Family.
  • 1849: Thonet's bentwood techniques were granted a patent, preventing other cabinetmakers from replicating his unique designs.
  • 1851: Thonet's collection of bentwood dining chairs gained international recognition at the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, England.
  • 1853: Thonet established a company called 'Gebruder Thonet' (Brothers Thonet) with his five sons.
  • 1856: Thonet's ingenuity reached new heights when he discovered that hot steam could be used to make long cylinders of beechwood more malleable. This breakthrough revolutionized the industrial process, leading to increased production and the opening of multiple factories.

By 1857, Thonet was producing 10,000 chairs annually. The numbers skyrocketed over the years, with the company selling over 1.8 million chairs each year by 1913. By 1930, more than 50 million of Thonet's iconic No.14 chairs had found homes worldwide. From the early 1900s to the present day, Thonet, both the man and the brand, has continued to create timeless bentwood chairs, adapting to the changing design trends of each era.

Thonet no.14 Chair Thonet Chair No. 14, 1860s | Retrospectif

What is a Thonet bentwood chair?

A Thonet bentwood chair is crafted by bending beechwood or another hardwood using hot steam, which is then meticulously pieced together to create a chair. Thonet paid equal attention to both form and function when designing each chair that bears his name.

Though it is impossible to list every Thonet chair ever made, let's explore a few notable examples:

Thonet Chair no. 14

Thonet Fledermaus Chair Thonet Bentwood Armchair “Fledermaus” Design Josef Hoffmann, Austria Circa 1905 | Masterpiece Antiques

Thonet Bentwood Armchair "Fledermaus"

Designed by Austrian architect Josef Hoffman in 1905, this boxy chair proudly showcases its bentwood construction. With perfect circles highlighting the hollow sides and a symmetrical horseshoe frame, this chair stood out amidst the furniture of its time. Surprisingly, the "Fledermaus" chair looks as elegant and contemporary today as it did over a century ago.

Thonet Armchair no. 209

Thonet 209 Chair Thonet Chair 209 P Model “Le Corbusier” | Syn Brocante

Thonet Rocking Chair no.6

Thonet Rocking Chair Rocking Chair Thonet Nr.6 | Davint Design

Thonet Chair Mr.10

1950s Thonet Chairs 1950’s Pair Of Leather & Steel Mies Van Der Rohe Mr10 Chairs | Marylebone Antiques

Is Thonet still making chairs today?

Although Michael Thonet passed away in 1871, his design ethos and vision live on. Today, the Thonet company, led by Thorsten Muck in Frankenberg, Germany, continues to create exquisite bentwood chairs. Thonet's family members also play active roles in the business, providing valuable insight and advice.

From his humble beginnings in his father's workshop in Boppard, Michael Thonet built a furniture empire based on simplicity, innovative bentwood styling, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. Even today, Thonet chairs adorn homes across the globe, showcasing the enduring appeal and timelessness of bentwood furniture.

Why not explore Vinterior's curated collection of exquisite Thonet chairs? Discover the beauty and elegance of bentwood furniture and let it inspire your journey into the world of timeless design.