Thonet, Geschichte
Thonet, Geschichte

In the beginning was the bentwood chair – how a material and idea shaped a company  

Our history begins with the work of master joiner Michael Thonet. Since founding his first workshop in Boppard on the River Rhine in 1819, the name Thonet has been synonymous with quality, innovation and clear aesthetics. A look at our company’s development impressively shows how a single idea can endure through the centuries and continue to live as a source of inspiration in future-oriented, trend-setting ideas.

 

In the 1830s, Michael Thonet experimented with strips of veneer boiled in glue until he succeeded in inventing the “furniture made of bent wood” after several years. When Prince Metternich heard of the outstanding talent of the joiner from the Rhineland, he brought him to Vienna in 1842. Together with his sons, Thonet first did parquet and furniture work at Palais Liechtenstein and Palais Schwarzenberg before crossing the threshold to the coffee house with his chair no.4 for Café Daum located at Vienna’s Kohlmarkt. The innovative piece of furniture soon made this type of chair part and parcel of the Vienna coffee house culture and laid the cornerstone for what we call “project business” today: the production of furniture for public spaces.

Thonet, Geschichte
Thonet, Geschichte, Michael Thonet

When many people were out of work after the 1848 revolution, many workers were available for the new Thonet factories – steam engines were put into operation, and the first export orders were received. Gebrüder Thonet – the company had meanwhile been signed over to Michael Thonet’s sons – had its breakthrough in the year 1859 with the chair no. 14 bent from solid wood, the famous Vienna coffee house chair that is one of the icons of design history today. The Thonets understood from the beginning the need to integrate new movements and technological developments into their work, even when they were still more of an idea than a reality. From the onset, the brothers presented their designs at the contemporary trade exhibitions. The multi-lingual catalogues of Gebrüder Thonet soon assured that the products became export hits. Sales offices were established in both near and distant foreign countries until, in the end, a worldwide distribution system for the marketing of Thonet furniture was in place.

 

The year 1900 lifted Thonet’s furniture idea from the anonymity of in-house designs: now, architects of the Secession – Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner, Marcel Kammerer – discovered the design possibilities of bent wood and located the bentwood furniture in space, in architecture: art nouveau and bentwood united. 

 

 

 

 

A phase of disillusionment followed this period. The crisis of bourgeois ideals during World War I brought with it demands for “machine-cleansed” forms that came along with The New Objectivity in the 1920s. For the architects of the Bauhaus era, the Vienna chair of Gebrüder Thonet represented the ideal of contemporary seating furniture and an expression of the modern spirit. However, another material, similar to bentwood in its simplicity and honesty, was in high demand among architects: tubular steel. The invention of tubular steel furniture made of cold-bent tubular steel – revolutionary at the time – marks a new era in design history from today’s perspective. To this day it has had a decisive influence on the Thonet portfolio. During the 1930s the company was the world’s largest producer of this innovative furniture, which was designed by Mart Stam, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, to name but a few.

Thonet, Stahlrohr, Geschichte
Thonet, Geschichte, Stahlrohr

Thonet, Geschichte

Then came World War II, and Thonet lost all of its facilities in the Eastern European states through expropriation. The Vienna sales office at Stephansplatz was destroyed. In the years 1945 to 1953, Georg Thonet, company founder Michael Thonet’s great-grandson, rebuilt the facility in Frankenberg/Eder (in the north of Hesse), which had also been reduced to ash and rubble. Economic success quickly returned, and again the company sought the cooperation of outstanding designers such as Egon Eiermann, Verner Panton, Eddie Harlis, Hanno von Gustedt, Rudolf Glatzel, Pierre Paulin, Gerd Lange, Hartmut Lohmeyer, Ulrich Böhme and Wulf Schneider, Alfredo Häberli, Christophe Marchand, Lord Norman Foster, Delphin Design, Glen Oliver Löw, James Irvine, Piero Lissoni, Lievore Altherr Molina, Naoto Fukasawa, Lepper Schmidt Sommerlade, Hadi Teherani and Läufer + Keichel. The list of designers who have worked for Thonet in the past 70 years is long and top caliber.  

 

 

To this day, the legacy of Michael Thonet, who wrote a piece of design history with a material and an idea, continues to live on in our furniture. Today, the family tradition is co-designed by the sixth generation, which is currently actively involved in the company’s business. 

Thonet, Produktion