FURNITURE 101: THONET & BENTWOOD

Chances are you have a spare Bentwood chair, stool, barstool, or hat rack in your furniture collection already. Or maybe you’re like one member of our design team who has 10+ Thonet pieces in her home (not naming any names). They can be found at virtually any yard sale anywhere in America or Europe, TROSA usually has a few on hand, IKEA has multiple knock-offs, and we guarantee you’ve sat in more than your fair share in a restaurant or two (or 10). Why the plethora of Bentwood? Could it be the world’s most popular AND stylish chair? Does it epitomize the marriage of craft and mass production? Read on friends!

Michael Thonet was born in 1796 in Austria-Hungry in a region known for its woodworking craft. He followed in his father’s furniture-related footsteps and began his career as a carpenter’s apprentice. Realizing the need for a lightweight, easy to move, yet “nouveau” form, he began bending wood via hot steam as early as 1836 but when he tried to patent his process in Germany (as well as Great Britain, France, & Russia), he failed every time. We love a tenacious man though and thank goodness he kept trying! In 1841 at the Koblenz trade fair a representative from the Austrian Imperial Court happened upon Mr. Thonet and the rest is design history, thanks to the backing of the royal court. Later showing the original chair at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 and Paris’ World Fair in 1855, along with his four sons they began taking orders for Bentwood from all over Europe.

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The Thonet family’s most popular chair (No. 14 in the lineup) has been produced over 50 million times and is still in production today. Unbelievable right? What’s even more extraordinary is that it uses only eight individual pieces of formed wood + 10 screws + 2 nuts = an assembly line’s dream. Peaking in 1912 with over two million different products sold world-wide, Bentwood became a household name. Le Corbusier’s favorite piece was the rocking chair and the company excelled at making furniture beautiful enough for residential applications yet tough enough for commercial spaces as well.

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Still active in furniture design and production today, the Thonet (pronounced ‘toe-net’) company later adapted their bent technology alongside the designs of Bauhaus artist Marcel Breuer making his tubular steel furniture world-famous with modernists. The Bentwood factory has almost always used materials local to their manufacturing areas as well as quickly growing trees. If you combine that with the lightweight product and the fact that they also made their own machinery, Thonet’s chairs could also be characterized as some of the most sustainable pieces of furniture ever made. They coordinate perfectly with every style interior and can be creatively altered using paint and upholstery to fit every room.

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So. . .is this the world’s BEST chair? Weigh in on our Instagram & Facebook pages or tag us in your photos showing how you design with Bentwood!