Thonet - A Milestone in Industrial Design and the Beginning of the Modern Furniture Industry
The manufacturer Thonet is one of the oldest family-run furniture manufacturers in the world and has made history with its revolutionary café furniture and its iconic chair no. 14 (now 214).
The Company History
Thonet's success story began in 1819 in Boppard on the Rhine, where Michael Thonet operated his workshop for bentwood technology. In 1830 he was the first to develop a process to bend solid wood using water vapour: a revolution in the wood industry. After placing the rods of beech in a pressure vessel, steam was applied until the resin surrounding the timber fibres became pliable. In this changed state, the rod could be bent around a form. The result: The outside does not split and the wood is permanently bent. For the wood industry this innovation meant much more efficient work since the loss of wood was reduced to a minimum and new shapes could be made.
In 1842, Prince von Metternich became aware of Thonet's work and brought him along with his family to Vienna. He perfected his bentwood technology in the 1850s. In 1853 he handed over his company to his sons and the company was named "Brothers Thonet". The company reached the big breakthrough in 1859 with the Viennese coffee house chair - the No. 14 chair. Today, the chair is still one of the most successful industrial product of all times and Michael Thonet is considered a pioneer of industrial design. The era of the modern furniture industry began with him.
On a cubic meter of a transport crate, 36 dismantled No. 14 chairs including screw seats had been sold around the world in a cost-effective way. They were mounted upon arrival. Until 1930, 50 million chairs were produced and took over the cafés of the European metropolises.
The No. 14 chair changed the appearance of the city's public squares. Heavy upholstered furniture was replaced by light, graceful bistro chairs, which could be used flexibly and stored in a space-saving way.
Stainless Steel Furniture Completes the Product Range
From Vienna, the brothers expanded the Thonet empire. They set up factories in different European countries and were supported and encouraged by Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria-Hungary. At the end of the First World War, however, the patriotic emperor's trust led the company into a crisis. The Thonet brothers therefore decided to merge with the Jewish merchant Leopold Pilzer from Hungary and his Mundus stock company in 1921, making them the largest furniture manufacturer in the world.
Pilzer was responsible for introducing furniture made of steel into the Thonet range. Thonet recognised early on the potential of bent steel furniture and secured the rights to designs from numerous Bauhaus representatives such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Mart Stam or Le Corbusier.
Marcel Breuer’s cantilever chair for Thonet is considered as one of the most important innovations of the last century. The clear appearance of the steel furniture, which is regarded as a milestone in design history, was the expression of a new everyday culture and architecture called "New Objectivity". At that time, Thonet was not the only market leader for bentwood furniture; however, it was number 1 in the steel furniture industry. The factory was located in Frankenberg / Eder.
The time of National Socialism is one of the dark sides of the successful Thonet story. The Jewish merchant Leopold Pilzer had to emigrate to the United States. All factories in the Eastern European countries were lost through expropriation, and the Viennese sales office in Stephansplatz was also destroyed. Thonet was battered and faced ruin. In the years 1945 to 1953 Georg Thonet, great-grandson of the company founder Michael Thonet, rebuilt the completely destroyed factory in Frankenberg.
In the last decades since the war, Thonet has been working to improve the classics and collaborate with renowned designers such as Egon Eiermann, Verner Panton, Eddie Harlis, Hanno von Gustedt, Rudolf Glatzel, Pierre Paulin, Gerd Lange, Hartmut Lohmeyer, Ulrich Böhme und Wulf Schneider, Alfredo Häberli, Christophe Marchand, Lord Norman Foster, Delphin Design, Glen Oliver Löw, James Irvine, Piero Lissoni, Stefan Diez, Lievore Altherr Molina, Lepper Schmidt Sommerlade, Hadi Teherani, Läufer + Keichel and many more. The list of designers is long and high-profile.
In Frankenberg, the Thonet factory, built in 1889, is still developing innovative products which are always geared towards longevity and are characterised by material quality and a timeless design language. Thonet GmbH has the latest production technology as well as specific know-how collected over two centuries of company history.
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