Old forms in new robe
The bending of wood was already known to the Greeks and Egyptians, though this knowledge was used not in furniture making but in shipbuilding. The method first appeared as a patent in England, which actually meant that the wood was bent by cooking in hot water, steaming, or being exposed to fire.
Still, Michael Thonet is considered the father of curved furniture. Michael was born in 1796 in Boppard, Germany, and initially earned his living by making Biedermeier-style furniture, but even then he turned with interest towards the technique of bending. The reputation was founded by the so-called Boppard chair, which was a heavy-duty and light chair. As early as the 1840s, Thonet believed that mass production was the future, so his prefabricated pieces of furniture were waiting in a warehouse to be sold. Meanwhile, he tried to patent his own bending technique. But this did not go so easily, his patent application was rejected by the Berlin office, as the master kept mum about the detailed manufacturing process, and the bent wooden furniture, as mentioned earlier, was not really a novelty. Meanwhile, he ran out of money, there was no way to file another patent, and his tight situation was helped by loans from Boppard businessmen. Eventually, he succeeded in registering his patent on behalf of his patron van Meerten. However, his financial problems were not resolved, and his creditors, while he was trying his luck in Vienna, harassed his wife until she sold the stock left in the warehouse, so the family arrived in Vienna almost beggarly. He came to the imperial city at the suggestion of Prince Metternich, who was said to have been a great admirer of Thonet, but he believed he would remain poor in Boppard forever. Presumably the prince's promise – that he would recommend him at the court – motivated him harder.
In Vienna, Michael took a carpentry job with his eldest son, and the goal floated before his eyes to get rid of the restrictions of the guilds, to start machine-production, and to refine his technique. Luck smiled at him again, an English interior designer Peter Hubert Desvignes also noticed his talent and recommended him to a carpenter working on the parquet floors of the Liechtenstein Palace, which was currently being rebuilt, so he actually took part in the work as a subcontractor.
His so difficultly-accepted patent expired in 1847, and although he could have renewed it, he did not. From 1847, he operated as an independent manufacturer, this time without a patent. After the family worked for others for 7 years, they finally established their workshop in Gumpendorf with the support of Desvignes. They developed a chair that consisted of four prefabricated elements that could be replaced with elements from their other models. It became the No. 1 chair. They did not have to wait long for the seat number 4, which brought world success and was introduced in 1850. The seat of the chair he made was reeded, which later became a trade-mark of the company.
When the shape adapts to the function
Thonet wanted to satisfy the widest possible customer base with the cheapest bulk goods, but this did not mean deterioration in quality. Model No. 14 was made using little material but was rugged at the same time. Of course, the chair presented in 1859 was not without precedent, it followed the path of its designer's idea and development. Its novelty was the circular seat frame and the fact that the inner arch of the backrest was not fixed by a traditional carpentry method with pins, but by screwing. It gained its final form during the 1867 Paris World's Fair; the seat could be assembled from 6 elements, 10 screws and 2 washers, this is something our generation grown up on Swedish “furniture puzzle” doesn’t even jerk up, right? But why was it so popular? Because it was very cheap, and Thonet was adept not only at making furniture, but also at selling them, though he entrusted this task to his sons. The company finally became a fully industrialized enterprise in 1856; a little earlier in 1853 the Gebrüder Thonet, or Thonet Brothers, was formed, although at that time the older Thonet was only 57 years old and very active, he made his sons co-owners.
The company was able to keep pace with the growing number of orders by moving the factory from Vienna to Moravia (Koritsch) that was rich in beech wood. Thonet's furniture factory is a typical example of industrial development in the Monarchy in the 19th century, as they had cheap labour, good transport and sufficient raw materials in the "countryside." The beech forests, which were used only as firewood, were almost intact, the locals had neither land nor work, so they were in a very dependent relationship with the factory, which exploited it maximally. With low wages and rather harsh conditions, the factory was able to compete with the ever-increasing competition. But most importantly, with very precise work organization, production and marketing began to separate already during this period. Their first store was opened in Vienna and it was no longer next to the factory but on the luxurious Stephansplatz, followed by the stores in Milan, Berlin and Paris. Of course, there were warehouses in many other cities around the world, including Budapest. This was the Thonet Courtyard, built in 1869-71 on Vigadó Square. Its designers were Antal Skalnitzky and Henrik Koch, and its master builder was János Wagner. In 1898, part of the building was destroyed by fire, which also affected the local warehouse, after which the house functioned as an apartment building. Several celebrities lived here, such as Gyula Illyés. There were several beer-houses on the ground floor, the most famous of them was probably the “Pilzeni” (Pilsen).
Their multilingual catalogue, in which all their models were presented, also contributed to the widespread awareness of the company. After that they developed an ordering principle that could easily guide customers through the plethora of numbered pieces of furniture. These catalogues were later specialized, some were made for theatres and some were made for cafés. Production peaked in the Thonet Empire in 1912, with an output of 1.8 million pieces of furniture a year, two-thirds of which were chairs. The First World War reduced their orders drastically; two rival manufacturers already merged as Kohn and Mundus in 1914. The Thonet factory tried to survive, and eventually became a joint stock company in 1921, but was compelled to merge with the company Kohn-Mundus in 1923, so the company Thonet-Mundus was established this way. The fashion of bent furniture remained in the 20th century, but it was no longer bent from wood, but from plastic and sheet-metal. One of the most famous designers in the 1930s was Marcel Breuer or Marcell Breuer, whose cantilever chair is perhaps still known to many people today.
The company still operates today, so much that if you are wondering if your dusting chair in the corner is an original Thonet product, there is also an option to "authenticity check" on their website.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Alexander von Vegesack: Thonet, Cser kiadó, Budapest, 2009.