Michael Thonet (1796–1871) was a German-Austrian cabinetmaker who pioneered the use of bentwood in furniture.
Thonet was born just a few miles up the Rhine River from the workshop of renowned cabinetmaker David Roentgen. Count Metternich, Austria’s chancellor, invited him to Vienna in 1841 after seeing Thonet’s furniture on tour to Germany. He marketed his furniture to the imperial court and the nobility. Still, his main ambition was to reach a larger market with mass manufacture.
By 1856, he had established his workshop in the Moravian forests, complete with machinery and architecture, near a source of beechwood for his bentwood furniture. He was the most forward-thinking German furniture maker and designer of the nineteenth century.
His bentwood chair-making technology yielded low prices, durability, lightness, and flexibility, as well as the elimination of hand-carved joints and, most importantly, decoration. Thonet began bending wood by glueing veneers together to construct portions of furniture, then devising a new procedure in which solid lengths of beechwood were steamed or boiled in water and glue, allowing lengthy pieces to be bent to make chair frames, some in unique designs.
In 1841, he patented his bentwood procedure in France, the United Kingdom, and Belgium and showed bentwood chairs in Coblenz. The folding theatre seat was designed in 1888 by Gebriider Thonet, which Thonet’s sons then produced.
Chair No. 4 has been produced in 50 million copies and may be found in cafés worldwide. Thonet’s B9 chair (made of six pieces of bentwood with caning for the seat) was Le Corbusier’s favourite, and he frequently used it in his interiors.
Thonet’s French branch was established in 1929 to make Modern chromium-plated tubular steel furniture, including Marcel Breuer’s designs and those of Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand. When this subsidiary closed, Bruno Weill took over as director. He moved the entire tubular steel furniture manufacture to Frankenberg, Germany.
Gilbert Rohde designed bent tubular metal chairs for Thonet in America in 1932. The company is still going strong today, with new designers and older models being reissued.
Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing. https://amzn.to/3ElmSlL
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