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Makers: Thonet

Posted by George Sims on

Michael Thonet

If, like most people, you aren’t a furniture geek then there is a good chance you’ll never have heard of Thonet.

However, there is an even better chance that Thonet informed the design of the last chair you sat in.

Big claim? Maybe. Let’s test it:

    • Did you assemble the chair yourself?
    • Does it feature bent wood?
    • Does it have a metallic frame?

If the answer to any of these questions was yes, then, Thonet helped pave the way.

Thonet revolutionised the furniture industry—twice.

It was the first company to work with tubular steel and founder Michael Thonet’s Vienna Chair was probably the world’s first example of mass produced, flat pack furniture. Not bad when you consider he designed it in the 1800’s.

It’s unlikely that a quick flick through the company’s current offering will leave you weak at the knees.

However, when you learn who has worked with Thonet and the market conditions it has survived, you’ll see that this is a brand worthy of more appreciation than it gets.

Breuer Cesca Thonet

Where to Buy Thonet Furniture?

Thonet still produces furniture. Its current catalogue (which contains the likes of Breuer’s Cesca Chair) can be viewed but not purchased through the website. A list of dealers is available instead. Expect to find pieces in the Conran Shop and Aram in London.

If vintage Thonet is your game, then start with our furniture collection before heading to the usual suspects like Vinterior, eBay, Pamono, 1st Dibs et al.

Note, some of the most iconic Thonet designs are, weirdly, no longer made by Thonet.

Breuer’s Wassily Chair and the Le Corbusier models are made by Knoll and Cassina respectively.  

Where is Thonet From?

Thonet is a German furniture maker that has been active since it was founded in 1819 by Michael Thonet.

Its head office and production facilities are located in Frankenberg, Germany.

Thonet Vienna Chair

What does Thonet do?

Make some pretty high-end furniture.

Their catalogue consists of truly iconic pieces and a number of newer designs, some of which are interpretations of shapes from the Thonet archive.

Where is Thonet Furniture Made?

Frankenberg, Germany. Their website suggests its always been made in the same place, which we find reassuring.

Anecdotally, the name of the street on which they are located is Michael Thonet Straße.

Nice.

thonet LC7 chair

What is Thonet Furniture Made From?

This is where it gets interesting.

There are two things that you really need to know about Thonet.

The first is that Michael Thonet was the trailblazer in bentwood production. In fact, this is how the company made its name.

These new techniques saw furniture made in an assembly line and not, as had been the case, by skilled craftsmen and this completely changed the game.

Well worth noting that his early techniques predated Alvar Aalto, who is usually credited as the father of bentwood, by around 100 years.

The second thing you need to know is that Thonet pioneered tubular steel furniture. They had little to do with designing the most notable shapes (that honour goes to Breuer, Stam, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier) but they were able to spot an evolving market and secured major production rights.

Those timeless pieces were churned out on a scale never seen before and this had an immeasurable impact on the industry.

Simply put, their story reads like a “chapter in the history of industrialization” (MOMA, NYC, 1953) and in modernist design.

So expect a lot of bent beechwood and metal frames. They also moved into moulded plastics in the 1970's.

How to Identify Thonet Furniture

Most of the Thonet pieces we have sourced have been stamped in some way (stickers, lining or branding).

However, establishing authenticity in some of those early designs is complicated because the patents have expired or the licenses sold to other furniture makers.

Your best bet is to cross reference the dimensions against a reputable source (the Thonet site, official archives or the likes of Pamono).

However, it’s probably worth noting that some of the Italian remakes of the original designs are built to a very high standard and shouldn’t be dismissed as tat just because they weren’t made by the original producer.

What is Thonet Most Famous For?

The production processes previously outlined.

The fact that so many of those early shapes were shipped in parts to be assembled upon landing should also earmark them as a pioneer in knockdown/ flatpack design.

They almost never get the credit they are due for that innovation either.

Breuer Wassily Chair

What’s Thonet’s Most Famous Design?

A difficult question to answer but we have reduced the list to three:

The Vienna Chair (M. Thonet, 1859), which has been described as “the most successful mass produced product in the world to date” cannot be ignored even if it might have become so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible. 

The Wassily Chair (Breuer, 1925), which ushered in a new modern world, would be hard to overlook as well.

The same could also be said of his Cesca chair (Breuer, 1928), although more credit should probably go to Mart Stam as his cantilevered design was the earliest, if not the best.

Flex armchair Thonet

Is Thonet Furniture Valuable?

Correct at time of writing, there is a Wassily Chair on Pamono for £30,000 (plus shipping). 

So yes.

An early Breuer, Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe piece will fetch a lot of money.

Everything outside of that is less clear.

Many pieces from the award-winning Flex series by Gerd Lange, for example, can be sourced for reasonable prices. They are really good quality and are a nice little slice of history themselves, designed, as they were, to be used as part of a modular set up.

Regardless of what piece you find, however, if it bears the Thonet mark it will always have value in so far as it has been made to the highest standards.


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