Michael Thonet was born in Boppard in 1796, the son of a tanner. After serving an apprenticeship in cabinet-making, Michael Thonet established a cabinet-making workshop in Boppard in 1819. Around 1830 Michael Thonet began to experiment with bending battens that had been cut and laminated, thus inventing the Boppard laminated wood chair.
In 1841 Michael Thonet showed his furniture at an exhibition mounted by the Koblenz Art Association, where they caught the eye of Austrian Chancellor Prince Metternich, who invited Michael Thonet to Vienna. From 1843 until 1846 Michael Thonet and his sons worked for Carl Leistler, a company that made parquet flooring. The Thonets made the parquet floors and the chairs for the Palais Liechtenstein.
In 1849 Michael Thonet and his five sons were finally again in a position to establish a furniture-making workshop. The Thonets made bentwood furniture. Since other carpenters began to copy the bentwood process, Michael Thonet marked his chairs on the underside with an impressed stamp.
The 1849 Thonet “Sessel Nr. 1” chair made for the garden palace of Prince Schwarzenberg exemplifies a revolutionary, stunningly novel way of making chairs. It was not just that it was made of bentwood; its individual elements were prefab and could be recombined with elements of other models to make other pieces of furniture on the modular principle. Thus Michael Thonet laid the groundwork back in the mid-19th century for type furniture that anticipated industrial mass production. Another advantage of this process was that these pieces were inexpensive to make and this was reflected in retail prices paid for them.
From 1853 Michael Thonet’s workshop was registered as “Gebrüder Thonet” (Thonet Bros.) since he had handed it over to his five sons. The Thonet Bros. bentwood furnishings were staggeringly successful. The firm continued to expand and added more retail outlets and branch factories. By 1859 the Thonet Bros. “Sessel Nr. 14” was launched, today renowned worldwide as the “Viennese Coffeehouse Chair” – by 1930 50 million had been sold, making it the world’s bestselling chair, the epitome of the elegant and serviceable modern mass-consumption article.
By the time Michael Thonet died in 1871, Thonet Bros. had branches in nearly all large European cities as well as in Russia and the US. From 1900 leading designers created furniture for Thonet Bros. In 1929 a French subsidiary was created, Thonet Frères, which ventured into new territory by making the tubular steel furniture designed by Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier her. As a firm, Thonet Bros. has been involved in all the most important developments in modern design. It survived the upheavals of both world wars although it was dissolved several times. Now Thonet GmbH is based in Frankenberg, North Hesse.
In 1861 Michael Thonet lays the first bricks for his new furniture factory and in 1862 just 1 year later the legendary No 14 Classic bentwood chair was produced. The No 14 chair was an icon for the factory and continues to be produced to date and purchased by cafes, bistros and households around the world.
The No. 14 chair is the most famous chair made by the Thonet chair company. Also known as the bistro chair, it was designed by Michael Thonet in the 19th century using a unique steam bent technology that required years to perfect. With its affordable price and simple design, it became one of the best-selling chairs ever made. Some 50 million No. 14s were sold between 1860 and 1930, and millions more have been sold since.
Thonet’s No. 14 was made of six pieces of steam-bent wood, ten screws, and two nuts. The wooden parts were made by heating beechwood slats to 100 degrees Celsius, pressing them into curved cast-iron molds, and then drying them at around 70 degrees Celsius for 20 hours.The chairs could be mass produced by unskilled workers and disassembled to save space during transportation, an idea similar to flat pack Ikea furniture.
Later chairs, as illustrated here, were made of eight pieces of wood: two diagonal braces were added between the seat and back, to strengthen this hard-worked joint.
The design was a response to a requirement for cafe-style chairs. The seat was often made of woven cane/palm, because the holes in the seat would let spilt liquid drain off the chair.
Chair No 14, today known as 214, is still produced by Thonet.