Michael Thonet

Michael Thonet was born in 1796 in Boppard on the Rhine. After an apprenticeship as joiner and cabinet maker Thonet became self-employed and started to make furniture from glued layers of thin timber. Thonet experimented with a process in which timber was boiled in a lime bath and subsequently bent. In the years following his experiments led to the invention of »bentwood furniture«. This gave rise to the »Boppard plywood chairs«. After years of wrangling over the patenting of his technique, Thonet moved to Vienna hoping to embark on the production of bentwood furniture. Working for a parquet laying company he was commissioned in 1843 with producing parquet flooring and seating for the Vienna City Palace of Prince of Liechtenstein. His »Liechtenstein chair« created there immediately found admirers. In Vienna in 1849 together with his sons he set up his own joinery business. Because his bentwood chairs were copied by other joiners, Thonet began to brand his chairs with a embossing stamp. The »Chair No. 1« was modelled on the »Liechtenstein chair«. This chair’s revolutionary innovation was that the four pre-finished elements from which it was made could be combined with elements of other models. This formed the basis for production along industrial lines, the start of mass production. In 1851 Thonet attended the London World Exposition where he presented his chairs as ensemble. Two years thereafter Thonet set up a factory, which he transferred to his sons and managed under the name »Gebrüder Thonet«. The Thonet brothers received the privilege that was vital for industrial production, namely for »the massive bending of chairs and table feet«. In 1859 they commenced production of the »Viennese Café Chair«. The »Chair No. 14«, as it was originally designated, was sold 50 million times up to 1931 and it was seen as THE industrial product of the 19th century. With its few dismantleable components it was predestined for export. The chair produced by craftsmanship was passé, in 1850 the Thonets were already manufacturing 200 chairs and other pieces of furniture daily. The »Thonet Wheel« followed, the first rocking chair in bentwood and a poster that depicted all available Thonet furniture. Production trebled within three years. The Thonet brothers were then selling their furniture worldwide. When Michael Thonet died in 1871 the company had sales subsidiaries in all European capitals, in Russia and the USA.

Almost 20 years after the death of the company founder the Thonet brothers opened their first German factory in the north Hessen town of Frankenberg. Here they developed the world’s first office swivel chair. The Thonet bentwood furniture in art deco was just as popular as the Bauhaus era, which was to be seen at the Stuttgart Werkbund Exhibition. In 1921 the Thonet brothers converted the family firm into a public company. Two years later they merged with Mundus AG and became the largest furniture manufacturer in the world. The corporate philosophy, always beings as innovative as possible in the seating furniture market, was pursued consistently by the Thonet brothers. In 1928 Thonet-Mundus secured the rights on the best designs from the Dessau Bauhaus and in 1931 finalized a licensing contract with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

The Thonet-Mundus concern was dissolved during the Third Reich. Leopold Pilzer, the main stockholder of Mundus AG, was forced to flee due to his Jewish origins. The Thonet brothers received back all Thonet shares in the German and Austrian company »Gebrüder Thonet« in exchange for the Mundus shares and were able to continue production in Germany. In 1945 the factory in Frankenberg was totally destroyed. Following dispossession in eastern Europe and the loss of the entire family fortune Georg Thonet began to rebuild the company after the War. He made the former smallest company location in Frankenberg to the new headquarters.

Today, the Thonet chairs are on show in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1899 the Viennese avant-garde architect Adolf Loos said of the Thonet bentwood chairs that there was nothing more classical since Aichylos.