THONET CHAIRS – Vintage Life Magazine

Once again I found myself walking through a muddy field just as the sun was coming up, scouring stalls at an antiques market. Having spent almost the entire content of my purse on Jindrich Halabala chairs I was feeling more in need of a stiff drink rather than a coffee!Chatting away with my upholsterer David, we turned onto another aisle, again we were stopped in our tracks. This time by beautiful chromed curved steel. There in front of me was a pair of fabulous tubular steel cantilevered chairs which had to be made by Thonet. There was only one thing I could do, and although the van was already pretty much packed to the roof with Jindrich chairs, I purchased them.

Let me share with you some history behind the Thonet name, especially for all you Mid-century Vintage enthusiasts, enabling you to share in my excitement.

When I think of cubism I tend to think of artists like Pablo Picasso, but in the early 1920’s and 30’s the Czech furniture industry was applying cubism to furniture at the request of select clients. Just as we know Jindrich Halabala famously produced bentwood and tubular steel chair designs, there was another name on the eastern block. Again with a family history of bending wood starting back in the 1830’s!

Michael Thonet, often mispronounced ‘Tho-nay’ but is in fact ‘Toe-net’, was the son of a master tanner in Boppard Germany, where he went on to become a cabinet maker following his apprenticeship. Now does this sound familiar to you?!

Thonet developed new processes for bending and forming strips of beech by steaming and gluing the wood to create curved elegant, light but strong, fashionable furniture. He became very successful at making these bentwood designs under the name Boppard, to the extent he gained recognition by Vienna’s Imperial family. His business came into some financial difficulty and he sold up, emigrated to Vienna with his family, where he went on to set up a shop with his four sons.

In 1850 things started to get exciting, with the design and manufacture of his N°1 chair. He received a bronze medal in a London exhibition for his Vienna bentwood chairs. You can find images of Pablo Picasso casually relaxing his Vienna rocking chair. As you will see it’s an impressive piece of furniture, especially for its time. Later the famous architect and designer Le Corbusier was said to adore the curves of chair N° 209 …… we all like our curves to be adored, don’t we!!

Now his ‘chair of chairs’ was produced in 1859, the N°14 Konsumstuhl, it is, believe it or not, one that most of us will have sat in at some point. Known as the coffee shop or consumer chair, with its beautiful double curved beechwood back and cane seat making it easy to recognise. Its clever easy assembly meant shipping wasn’t a problem as it took up so little space. Its still popular today with over 50 million having been made and with the design still being manufactured.

The running of the family business was taken over by the sons in 1853 and began trading under the name Gebruder Thonet. Their first factory began production in 1857 allowing the business to grow. With a further five more opening in Eastern Europe, Thonet became a global name. Sadly Michael Thonet died in 1871. He left an amazing archive of iconic bentwood design and a business his family could continue to build upon with research and experimentation into different methods and techniques.

The business grew and grew, seeing the peak of its bentwood furniture manufacture in 1912. By 1930 there was a change in the market place occuring with the arrival of the Bauhaus era. This meant that furniture was beginning to be produced from tubular steel. The Thonet brothers mastered the techniques and intricacies of the art of bending steel and soon had their factories established as one of the leaders in the industry.

Although they did not produce any of their own designs they became manufacturers for big design names such as Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. The established Jindrich Halabala also had his designs produced in the Thonet factory’s.

The company continues today with its long history of bentwood and tubular steel furniture still being in demand. Understandably so, as once you have sat in a Thonet cantilevered chair you can realise the lightness and comfort bought by such a simple but strong design.

Thonet old and new can be found at your fingertips in today’s online world. Whether you want to simply browse the eye catching designs or purchase that special piece of Thonet furniture to add to your own eclectic home, there is plenty to be found!


Words and Images by Karen Barlow