Classic Furniture Design: Michael Thonet and Bentwood Furniture

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Bentwood furniture New Orleans

Turn of the (last) century saw Bentwood furniture being used in all kinds of commercial spaces. The design endures today in many of these same spaces, as well as in residences. (photo: public domain).

Until the Industrial Revolution, furniture was made by hand out of natural materials. Elaborate carvings on local wood expressed the social and political mores of the era. Royalty and the wealthy were the only people who could afford the luxury of handmade goods.

Once the furniture industry became mechanized in the 19th century, furniture was mass-produced. Parts were standardized, and ornamentation was machine carved, replacing handwork. Factories were built near timber, water and transportation to produce quickly and ship to stores and consumers.

Furniture was now affordable for and available to the general public. Catalogs were printed, and mail order was born. Sadly, the large manufacturers put the small furniture makers and shops out of business.

Brief history of mass produced furniture

The first chair to be mass-produced was the Bentwood, developed by Michael Thonet (Toe’-net). This changed how furniture was made and distributed from this point forward.

Thonet (1796-1871) was a German/Austrian cabinetmaker. He experimented with gluing together slats of wood, but the glue did not hold, especially in humid climates. Instead, he developed a way of laminating wood by steaming small pieces of wood and scraps. They were put into cast iron molds and allowed to dry, creating a strong, single piece of wood.

Bentwood chairs were unique at the time. All furniture being made was of wood, and was heavily carved. Thonet’s pieces had gentle curves, which was completely new. By using beechwood, his furniture was light and durable. There were no complex joints. Chairs were made of a few pieces of laminated wood and put together with a few screws. This also allowed for them to be shipped unassembled. Parts for dozens of chairs could be put into one box for shipping, which cut costs.

In the 1930s, Gebrüder Thonet began to work in tubular steel with Bauhaus designers, including Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. Steel was modern and forward thinking at the time, and Bauhaus designs were very simple, keeping in line with Thonet’s original idea of simplicity.

The Bentwood furniture making process

Today, the Bentwood process would be considered eco-friendly, because it used scraps of wood, eliminating waste. Thonet also kept production costs down by having his manufacturing plants close to the forests and the railway for shipping. He used an assembly line for the most efficient use of worker time.

This mass production meant unskilled labor could be hired inexpensively, and the labor pool would be larger. When Thonet died in 1871, his son took over the company, Gebrüder Thonet, and expanded it. Between 1859-1939, over 40 million Bentwood chairs were sold.

Timeless Bentwood furniture design

Bentwood design is timeless. Chair #14 was designed in 1859 and is still being manufactured today. It was originally made of 6 pieces of wood, 10 screws and 2 nuts. Two more pieces of wood were added later for strength. Chair #14, now renamed #214, is the common bistro chair of today.

It is suitable in a café, a dining room or as a single side seat. Today, Chair #214 has many options – with or without arms, with or without a backrest, and cane, leather or plywood seating.

Thonet chair 214 illustration

An illustration of the Thonet #214 chair, designed in 1859 and still in use today. This is classic design.

Designers such as Le Corbusier and Loos used #14 in their interior designs. Modernists liked its simple form and function, the way it was manufactured with few materials, and the physical and visual lightness. Picasso had one in his studio, and #14 appeared in many paintings of the era.

Bentwood rocking chair

The Bentwood rocker, Rocking Chair #1, was designed in 1860. It was comprised of complex scrollwork, which was integral to the design of the rockers. Other pieces Gebrüder Thonet manufactured are cradles, side tables, stools, coat racks and settees.

Bentwood rocker rocking chair

Photo: The Living Room

Bentwood furniture blended well with the Art Nouveau period of the early 20th century. It was curvy, simple, beautiful and functional. It also held no historical reference – it was completely new and forward thinking at the time, just as the Industrial Revolution was.

Bentwood is here to stay

Bentwood design is here to stay. It is light, timeless, durable and aesthetically pleasing. Gebrüder Thonet still manufactures #214. I don’t think it can be improved upon!

For more information, and more furniture, investigate the official Thonet furniture site.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.