You may not know the name Michael Thonet, but you’ve probably sat in one of his chairs hundreds of times.
Thonet was a German-Austrian furniture maker and designer who developed bentwood furniture and the incredibly popular No. 14 chair, known as the Cafe Chair, that is used in bistros and restaurants around the world. It is, in fact, the most reproduced and copied chair in furniture design history.
This international success had its beginnings in 1796 in a small town called Boppard on the Rhine River. Thonet’s father was a tanner, a job that Thonet wasn’t inclined to do himself. Instead, he began work as an apprentice to a local cabinetmaker.
Once he had established his own business carving cabinetry and furniture, Thonet liked to experiment – first with bundles of veneer strips to create furniture, and later trying to bend wood by heating it with steam. He eventually created a method that allowed him to bend solid rods of copper beechwood, which he started to use to create chair frames.
This let Thonet develop designs that were simple in style, with sleek curves that were more modern. That clean-lined style has helped keep his No. 14 bistro chair in production over 150 years. It is made of only six pieces of steam-bent wood, ten screws, and two nuts, with a seat of woven cane or palm.
But what really pushed No. 14 into the iconic chair it is today was Thonet’s production methods. He was fascinated by the new manufacturing developments of his day, and established a factory system of mass production that allowed his company to dominate the chair market. Fifty million of his No. 14 bistro chairs were sold between 1859 and 1930.
The chairs could also be shipped in flat packs – an early precursor to Ikea’s methods today. This allowed the chair to be shipped around the world easily, which also helped it monopolize the seating market for restaurants, bistros, and hotels across the globe.
No. 14 also earned a gold medal at the 1867 World Exposition in Paris, and Le Corbusier said of the chair: “Never was a better and more elegant design and a more precisely crafted and practical item created.”
The success of the chair allowed Thonet’s company to employ more than 6,000 workers, and his sons joined the company to help run operations. When Thonet died in 1871, no new designs were ever introduced by his sons, but there was no need for them to, either. No. 14 continues to sell, both in its original design and through new styles with slight modifications, with the chair now known as 214 by the Thonet company.
A small-town man – born over 200 years ago – who dared to dream big is still a major presence in furniture design today. Michael Thonet was both of his time, and ahead of his time, designing for the 1800s and through more than a century of changing tastes and styles.
If you are interested in learning more about Michael Thonet, bentwood furniture, or his No. 14 chair, the Berniece Bienenstock Furniture Library has all the resources you need. We welcome students and design professionals to visit the library for unparalleled inspiration for their own work.