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an important Thonet Design exhibition, Munich

THONET & DESIGN is an exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich until Feb 2020. Founded in 1819 by Bopparder master joiner Michael Thonet, one of the world's leading manuf­acturers of bent wood furniture has since emerged. The Pinakothek is showing that from a one-man business to a global enter­prise, 200 years of furn­iture design are reflected in the history of the Thonet family business. Their pioneering achievements - the new tech­nologies, design possibilities, dis­tribution and marketing channels - are on display. Later the conn­ect­ion to the Bauhaus design­ers delivered a new type of tub­ular steel furniture. Since these tubular steel fur­n­it­ure and the early bent­wood furniture have long been integrated into the perman­ent exhib­ition of the Neue Sammlung, the current exhib­ition also focuses on the groundbreaking modern designers.

Now, back to the beginning. German born Michael Thonet (1796-1871) founded his first workshop in Boppard on the River Rhine in 1819 and became a joiner. By the mid-1830s he experimented with a new furn­it­ure-making process. The Boppard Layerwood Chair was his first success, although he could not get his technology pat­ented. Basically the Thonet Chair was the result of using light, strong types of wood that were bent into curved, graceful forms via hot steam. Slowly his use of hot steam and sel­ect­ion of light, strong wood set a new standard for comfortable and dur­ab­le furniture.

Thonet eased his task by buying a glue factory in 1837. This enabled him and his four surv­iving sons to open a business in Moravia and to avoid the heavy, carved designs of the past.
#4 Café Daum Chair by Michael Thonet, 1870s
Beech and bentwood

The success of his Chair #14 began in 1841 when Thonet was at the Koblenz Fair and received an invitation from Austrian Chancellor Clemens Prince Metternich, inviting him to Vienna. Thonet soon succeeded in bending solid wood as well: long wooden rods were made flexible with pressure and steam, then bent into the desired three dimensional form with special equipment and muscle power. Together with his sons, Thonet first did parquet work and chairs at Palais Liechten­st­ein and Palais Schwarzenberg and soon orders for both palaces invited a wider range of furniture eg stools, tables and cabinets.

With unemployment after the 1848 Revolution, many workers were available for the new Thonet factories, steam engines were put into op­er­ation and the first export orders were received. He succeeded in 1859 with Chair #14 bent from solid wood.

After Michael died in 1871, the Gebrüder Thonet Co. stayed with Michael Thonet’s sons who kept the business in Vienna. The brothers always understood the need to integrate new move­ments and technological developments into their work. They presented their designs at the trade exhibitions, and translated catalogues of Gebrüder Thonet for ex­ports. Sales offices in many coun­t­ries opened.

Chair #14 quickly became central to Vienna coffee house cul­ture, at first for Café Daum located at Vienna’s Kohl­markt. Examine the 1896 painting of Cafe Griensteidl by Reinhold Völkel, full of Thonet chairs. This post on Vienna coffee house culture was one of most popular in the long history of my blog.
Adolf Loos Café Museum chair, 1898

The Vienna Secession (1897-1905) was created as a reaction to the conservatism of the artistic institutions in the Austrian capital. By 1900 Thonet’s light and elegant manufacturing greatly appealed to the Viennese designers. The Brothers joined Jacob and Josef Kohn Co to become the leading manufacturers of bentwood furniture. And produced to the designs of Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner, Otto Prutscher, Marcel Kammerer and Gustav Siegel.

On Hof­f­mann’s recommendation, Gustav Siegal was hired to head the design depart­ment of Jacob and Josef Kohn whose works were first acclaimed at the 1900 Exposition Universelle held in Paris. In 1901 Jacob & Josef Kohn displayed an ent­ire house of bent­wood furniture at an Austrian Museum for Art and Industry exhibition.

Vienna had become Europe's 4th-largest city after London, Paris and Berlin. But at the turn of the century many families were still using a style that belonged to the aristocratic courtly society. As soon as there was an emerging, strong bourge­oisie in Vienna, they needed their own aesthetic expression. There were new social, econ­omic and technical developments. So the Vienna Seces­s­ion artists joined for­ces against the conservative in­stit­utions. Despite not lasting for too long, the Vienna Secession Movement was infl­uent­ial. Their des­ig­ns were eventually mass-produced, both in Austria and Germany, launched by the Seces­s­ion artists. My favourite archit­ects of the Secess­ion, Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner and Marc­el Kammerer, dis­cov­ered the design pos­s­ibilities of bent wood furniture in turn-of-the-century architect­ure.

Both Hoffman and Loos wanted to break with Victorian tradition and borrowed heavily from other traditions, Classical sources for Hoff­man and Japanese minimalism for Loos! The Vienna Workshop's mission was to give the individual a voice. In fact the Secess­ion­ists’ 6th Exhibition, in 1900, was dedicated to Japanese exhibition, the flat surface decor being a running theme throughout.

Adolf Loos disliked the elitism that came to be assoc­iated with Vienna Secession work. The furniture he designed was unpretentious and functional, showing his und­er­standing of materials and of form. So I care that Loos used Thonet bent­wood chairs in sev­eral of his comm­is­sions. His 1901 bench was made of stained beechwood. 

Vienna Secession design of Gustav Siegel, 1905 
Used at the Sanatorium Purkersdorf, Austria. 

Beech and bentwood etagère
Vienna Secession,  with Thonet signature
Mahogany-stained beechwood, c1906

Marcel Breuer for Thonet
Tubular steel and glass table, 1928

But deaths and unem­ploy­ment left families struggling during and after The Great War; and the crisis of bourgeois ideals brought demands for change. For Bauhaus era architects, Gebrüder Thonet represented the ideal of con­temporary seating furniture. However another material, sim­ilar to bentwood in its simp­lic­ity, came into high demand among architects. The revol­ut­ion­ary invention of cold-bent tubular steel furn­it­ure marked a new era in design history. In the 1930s the Com­p­any saw design­s by my Bauhaus favourites: Mart Stam, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer

Many thanks to the Thillmann Collection.


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