Growing up in the early 1800s, Michael Thonet would surely have known the lavish, heavy aesthetic that dominated the furniture of the time. Perhaps his upbringing in peaceful Boppard am Rhein inspired a more simplistic look, wood flowing as if to mimic the gentle curves of the river. Perhaps it was just that, at the turn of the century, both Thonet and the rest of Europe were ready for something a little more modern. Either way, Thonet’s technique for steam bending wood is what eventually made his name, and set Gebrüder Thonet Vienna up as a legacy brand that would, over a century and a half later, still be synonymous with quality and modernity – whilst always maintaining those characteristic curves.
A chance encounter
Thonet started a small business in 1819 as a cabinetmaker. Over the next twenty years, he would see most success due to using the ancient technique of steam bending laminated wood to create lightweight, durable furniture – particularly chairs. A chance meeting in 1841 gave Thonet his breakthrough: he met Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich at the Koblenz trade fair, where Thonet had been exhibiting his elegant designs. The prince was so taken with Thonet’s innovative chairs that he implored him to visit the prince’s hometown, Vienna, to show them off. Thonet, facing financial pressure back home, consented, and moved his family to Austria the following year. From there, his famous bentwood chairs appear in the Palais Liechtenstein, where you will still find them on display to this day. His Vienna bentwood chairs began to receive international acclaim, winning a silver medal at the Parisian World Fair in 1855.
A bentwood breakthrough
What Thonet conceived in 1856 was not only a way to bend solid wood – using a strip of metal to exclude the need for costly laminated wood – but also a design that could, essentially, be flat-packed. His most famous design, Konsumstuhl Nr. 14 – café chair, or bistro chair – had been designed to fill a gap in the market. Chic, lightweight, and perfect for spilling out of Viennese cafés, these chairs took over Europe’s café scene, becoming meeting places for the artists and authors of the day. As @Austria_UK says, “Vienna’s #coffeehouses were THE place to be for famous authors”. In fact, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of scoffing Sachertorte in Austria (incidentally also introduced by Prince Klemens), or eating pain au chocolat in Paris, you’ll likely have sat on something inspired by Thonet’s design. And Thonet, a keen businessman, capitalised on this niche: Konsumstuhl Nr. 14 went into mass production. The chairs were sent out in parts, to be assembled by either distributor or buyer, making them relatively cheap whilst maintaining their stylishness.
Thonet in the 20th & 21st Centuries
By 1853, Thonet had rebranded as Gebrüder Thonet Vienna and went into business with his sons. Thonet’s chairs, and the jovial, conversational atmosphere they strived to enhance, have been immortalised – both through Thonet’s own fame and in art. You can spot Thonet chairs in Matisse’s Intérieur au Violon, and in Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge. Michael Thonet’s design was not some short-lived trend, either: the brand Thonet exists to this day, creating sleek furniture designed, like Thonet’s original Konsumstuhl Nr. 14, to bring people together, whether for a chat or a bite to eat. Take a look around my website for wood steam bending ideas and inspiration. If you’ve got a commission in mind, please get in touch