Michael Thonet was born in the small river town of Boppard am Rhein, Germany in 1796. A skilled craftsman, he painstakingly carved his furniture from European beech until he discovered a method of bending wood. Thonet unravelled the complicated technical properties of wood, explored the limitations of its flexibility and developed a new body of design whose appeal extended beyond mere novelty. His furniture designs were simple and graceful with a distinctive quality that belied its true strength.
In 1841 Thonet exhibited at the Koblenz fair and came to the attention of Prince Metternich who immediately recognised Thonet’s work as demonstrating ideas matching his own. He had intentions of promoting Austria’s industrialisation and invited Thonet to his castle, urging him to relocate to Vienna to establish a workshop.
On July 16 1842, the Austrian court granted Michael Thonet the right “to bend any type of wood, even the most brittle, into the desired forms and curves by chemical and mechanical means”. A second, nonrenewable 13 year patent was granted to the Thonet firm on 10 July 1856, “for manufacturing chairs and table legs of bent wood, the curvature of which is effected through the agency of steam or boiling liquids”.
Thonet’s technique made use of solid rods of beech, proven by Michael Thonet to be less prone to splitting than other species such as oak or birch. After placing the rods of beech in a pressure vessel, steam was applied until the resin surrounding the timber fibres became pliable. In this changed state, the rod could be bent around a form. Once the rod had taken shape, it would be left to cure. The hardened resin would effectively hold the timber fibres firm in the new shape, which could then be used as a solid component in the manufacture of bentwood furniture.
Protected by patent, Gebruder Thonet was to be the only firm in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for more than a decade that could legally produce bentwood furniture.
Essential to an understanding of Thonet’s genius is his development of the Model No.14 chair, the most popular design manufactured in the 19th century.Minimal in its design and economical in its use of material, it anticipated classical modernism. The production model, which appeared in the late 1850s, spanned and embodied the transition from workshop to factory production. The final model is distinguished by complete economy of process. Suitable for mass production, it represents a high point in Michael Thonet’s creativity.
Gebruder Thonet became a highly visible international presence, entering countless industrial fairs and opening branches throughout Europe during the 1860s. The variety of models manufactured by Thonet broadened to include furniture for work and leisure, for public and private use. Before long, there wasn’t a fashionable cafe in Vienna in which patrons were not perched on bentwood.
Michael Thonet’s death on March 3 1871, may have marked the end of an era, but it did not stop the Thonet family from continuing research and experimentation.
The No.18 chair was launched in 1876, one of a group of chairs with back inserts consisting of curves and loops of bentwood. With the insert reduced to this single loop, the chair is more stable and more comfortable than No.14, since it provides support for the back without touching the spine.
The company introduced the tip-up theatre chair in 1888. Designed for the new Deutsche Volkstheatre in Vienna, its impact was revolutionary and it was soon being ordered by theatres throughout Europe.
To most, bentwood stands as the shining example of what can be achieved through design. Its form both expresses and symbolises the manufacturing process that lays behind it. Technically simple, it was the embodiment of the principles of mass production: inexpensive to manufacture, transportable in large quantities and it was strong and durable.
The basic technique of making furniture from bent materials has not changed significantly since the nineteenth century. In Australia, Thonet is proud to be associated with the innovation and tradition of Michael Thonet. The bentwood furniture available to today’s users is manufactured at one of Thonet’s original factories to the exacting specifications of Michael Thonet’s unique and original designs.