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Michael Thonet: an Introduction to Bentwood Chairs

Vintage Postcard of Vienna Cafe in the 1900s

Michael Thonet is one of the most famous furnituremakers in the world, whose legacy still lives on today. Born 2nd July 1796, Thonet was first an apprentice to a carpenter before he established himself as an independent cabinetmaker in 1819. He is particularly known for the No. 14 chair, which today goes by many names; the Bistro Chair, the cheap Consumer chair or the Vienna Café Chair.

Thonet was the first furnituremaker to introduce such a wide variety of chairs using the

Thonet and the No.14 Chair

bentwood technique in their respective designs. You can see from the wide range, that the designs spanned from intricate expressions to simplistic elegance, which look incredibly modern yet simple even in today’s climate. When I look at the No.14 chair, I’m simply drawn to it perhaps because of its simple clean lines, rounded frame and how light and airy the overall form appears to be. It is the perfect chair for any space, be it a bistro-style breakfast corner or an outdoor longue area. As a society, it is my belief that we are all drawn to simple, sophisticated design. Bonus points if the design peruses materials that remind us of the natural environment.

No.14 Chair/Vienna Chair

Casual glamour, is the best way to describe Thonet’s chairs. Though in the 1800s, his chairs were meant for the bourgeoise and aristocracy, his designs gradually became more simple and the process of making them even more systematic to make them affordable and easy to produce for the masses. At first, Thonet used to bend solid rods of beech wood to form the back frame of his chairs to be connected to the legs, which is done by placing the wood pieces into a steel frame before steaming them into the desired shape. Later on, Thonet moved towards using a laminating technique where he took wood veneers, or thin strips of beechwood to glue together and steam them into place.

Urban Salvation's Carina Chair

It is the curvatures, softness and roundness of his designs I feel that are synonymous towards today’s trends in the furniture industry. Homeowners are leaning more towards mid-century modern furniture and though Thonet’s chairs were first introduced even before Mid-Century Modern or Bauhaus was even invented, his designs still strike a chord in today’s audience simply because of the very similar design language. Of course, it’s the most fascinating thing to ever learn; that a design language was communicated 200 years forward into the future.

Perhaps it is the touch of handmade artistry that is co-related towards natural materials like rattan or solid wood that makes Thonet’s chairs so popular. Many commercialized furniture now peruses man-made laminates (not to be confused with Thonet’s laminating technique) which divulge the design of the classic grain or natural texture that wood offers to begin with.

I’d like to think it’s the legacy and history behind these chairs instead, that introduces a whole new perspective to what one would simply think, is just a chair.

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