The Henry Ford of Chairs

Witold Rybczynski

Now I Sit Me Down

One of the first chairs you need, when furnishing a new home, is a dining chair. You can make do with cushions on the floor instead of an easy chair, as I did in my first apartment, and you can read a book or watch television lying in bed, but if you are going to eat at a table you need something to sit on. Early in our marriage and shortly after we had finished building our house, my wife and I decided to replace our collection of beat-up side chairs, accumulated separately over the years, with proper dining chairs. I knew what I wanted. I had a bentwood-and-cane chair in my university office. I had used it for several years so I knew it was comfortable, and I liked the way it looked.

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We visited a furniture distributor in the east end of Montreal who carried bentwood chairs. The one I wanted turned out to be pricier than we expected—or could afford—so we looked at other models that were on display in the showroom. We were attracted to a bentwood chair with a curved hoop for the back, thin slats, a circular bentwood leg brace, all stained black. It was not quite as elegant as our first choice, and the padded seat was not as pretty as woven cane, but I knew from experience that cane would eventually sag and need to be replaced. This armless side chair was affordable, and equally important, with a taller back it offered better support and was actually more comfortable. The dealer offered a reduced price if we took eight of them, so we did. More than thirty years later they continue to serve.

Our dining chairs are stamped MADE IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA on the underside of the frame. Czechoslovakia has been associated with bentwood furniture since the mid-nineteenth century, when bentwood chair factories appeared in the beechwood forests of Moravia (today a part of the Czech Republic but then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The man responsible for these factories looms large in the history of the chair. He transformed furniture-making, from a craft practiced by individual cabinetmakers in workshops, to an industry operating on a world scale.

Michael Thonet was born in 1796 in Boppard, a small town in the Palatinate, a border region of France but soon to become a part of Prussia. He came from a modest background—his father was a tanner—and as a boy he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker. Eventually, he opened his own shop in Boppard, making furniture by hand in the timetested way. Thonet was ambitious and inventive, and he began experimenting with laminated veneers, cutting wood into thin strips, boiling bundles of strips in glue, and bending them in molds. His earliest applications were curved headboards, baseboards for sofas, and back rails for chairs; his first large commission was cartwheels for the Prussian military. By 1836 he was making entire chairs out of bent veneer. Bentwood chairs required less material and labor and were cheaper to produce than hand-carved chairs, and because laminated wood was stronger they could be extremely light and graceful.

Thonet was not the first to explore bending laminated wood. Samuel Gragg had produced the Elastic Chair almost thirty years earlier, and Jean-Joseph Chapuis of Brussels, a Paris-trained master joiner, developed a technique for steambending laminated wood at about the same time. Chapuis served an exclusive clientele—he furnished the royal castle of Laeken in Brussels—and his delicate neoclassical chairs of laminated mahogany and beech are very beautiful; the curved legs recall those of a curule chair. It is unlikely that Thonet, a provincial cabinetmaker, would have known of Chapuis’s work, any more than he would have heard of Gragg in far-off Boston. The Boppard craftsman seems to have arrived at the technique on his own.

In 1841, a display of Thonet’s unusual furniture at a craft fair in Koblenz caught the eye of Prince Klemens von Metternich, chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Impressed by Thonet’s handiwork, the noted statesman invited the cabinetmaker to his nearby country estate—Thonet showed up with several bentwood samples: a chair, a cartwheel, and a walking stick. Metternich convinced his guest to visit Vienna, where, with the chancellor’s support, Thonet received a furniture order from Emperor Franz Josef. More important, Thonet was granted an Austrian patent for his woodbending process.

Back in Boppard, things were not going well. Thonet had borrowed heavily to finance patent applications in Britain, France, and Belgium, and his impatient creditors forced him into bankruptcy. Finally, the penniless cabinetmaker and his large family—he had five sons and six daughters—immigrated to Vienna. It took Thonet several years to get back on his feet. While working for a Viennese furniture maker, he produced laminated wood flooring and exquisitely delicate laminated wood chairs for wealthy clients. But his real aim was to develop a light, inexpensive chair for a very different market: the growing number of restaurants and coffeehouses in the city.

When he was finally in a position to reopen his own workshop, his first customer was the fashionable Café Daum in Vienna, which he supplied with side chairs and coat stands. This was followed by an order for five hundred chairs from a Budapest hotel. Thonet’s café chairs were exceedingly simple in design: round caned seats, independent front legs, and a single curved piece forming the rear legs and the backrest. The pieces were made of veneered mahogany—four veneers for the back and legs and five for the seat ring. By now Thonet had refined his technique, and the wood strips were first boiled in water, bent and allowed to dry, then glued together. A commercial chair takes a lot of punishment, and perhaps the greatest testament to Thonet’s process is that the Café Daum chairs are said to have remained in continuous use for thirty years.

Shortly after the Café Daum, Thonet received a commission from the princely Schwarzenberg family to provide fancy side chairs for their palace in Vienna. The breathtakingly slender chairs are very beautiful. Similar chairs, together with a settee and side tables, were displayed by Thonet at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Crystal Palace. The exhibition jury, not quite sure what to make of this novel furniture, which was obviously not made by hand in the traditional manner, awarded the “curious chairs” second prize. Prizes in trade fairs in Munich and Paris followed.

The furniture market had changed in the hundred years since Chippendale, and goods now moved regularly between countries. Orders for bentwood chairs started coming to Thonet from the far-flung reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from continental Europe, and from even farther afield. It was the South American trade that led to his crucial technical breakthrough. Thonet was getting complaints that during shipment chairs were delaminating because the glue was affected by maritime humidity. The obvious solution was to replace the laminations with solid wood. Although all his previous attempts at bending solid pieces of wood into tight curves had ended in failure, Thonet persevered. He invented a technique that involved clamping a metal strip to the wood, to relieve the pressure as the piece was bent. In 1856, he was granted a patent for this crucial invention. That gave the company thirteen years of exclusive rights over the bending process.

Michael Thonet’s bentwood chairs, which were considerably cheaper than conventional furniture, were a commercial success. Within five years he had two Viennese workshops employing more than a hundred cabinetmakers and craftsmen. However, they couldn’t keep up with demand, so Thonet set out to build a full-fledged chair factory. The first challenge was the raw material. Although in the past he had used a variety of tropical woods, including mahogany and Brazilian rosewood, he wanted a local source. Copper beech, suitable for bending, grew abundantly in the forests of neighboring southern Moravia, and he chose the small market town of Koritschan (today Koryčany) as the site for the factory. He organized the production process into a series of discrete steps. First, beechwood logs were cut into strips that were then turned on a lathe. The round pieces were steamed until pliable, and bent to shape in castiron molds. Once dried, which took at least twenty-four hours, the pieces were taken out of the molds, sanded, and stained. These operations did not require skilled labor—the factory employed no cabinetmakers or carpenters. Local men did the heavy work of bending, women the lighter tasks of sanding, staining, and caning. When the Koritschan factory was up and running, three hundred workers could turn out as many as fifty thousand chairs a year. Even so, soon additional factories were needed and three were built in Moravia as well as a fifth in Hungary.

The cover of the first Thonet catalog, published in 1859, carried the proud motto Beigen oder Brechen, To Bend or to Break. The broadsheet illustrated twenty-six products: chairs, settees, and tables. The chairs were designed with interchangeable parts, so that different models could be created by recombining assorted backs and arms. Number 14, a café chair, was the least expensive item; it sold for three Austrian florins, about the price of a bottle of good wine. Known as the Konsumstuhl, or Consumer’s Chair, No. 14 was the workhorse of the Thonet line. The design had been reduced to absolute basics. There were only six pieces: a caned seat, two front legs, a single curved piece that formed the rear legs and the back, a circular leg brace, and a curved back insert. That makes the design sound utilitarian, but it wasn’t; the slender legs tapered and flared gracefully and the circular leg brace echoed the round seat. The absence of decoration gave it a timeless quality that makes No. 14, in its own way, as enduring as the klismos or the cabriole chair.

Thonet chairs left the factory disassembled. They were shipped flat and put together after delivery. Assembly was simple; the six pieces of a No. 14 chair, for example, required only ten screws and two washers (the hardware was manufactured by Thonet, too). Thirty-six disassembled chairs could be packed into a compact crate only one meter a side. Flat-packing, as much as ingenious design and rationalized production, accounted for the remarkable success of Thonet’s chairs.

Michael Thonet died in 1871; he was seventy-five. Photographs of him in later life show a handsome man with longish hair and a full white beard; he resembles Karl Marx, another Rhineland Palatinate native. The resemblance ends there, for Thonet was an early example of the capitalist entrepreneur. Fifty years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T automobile assembly line in Highland Park, Thonet had already put in place the basic elements of mass production: division of labor, interchangeable parts, mechanization. As Ford would later do, he integrated his business vertically, buying forest land, laying railroad track, operating his own sawmills, and building his own machine saws, steam retorts, and iron molds. He even manufactured the bricks that were used to build the worker housing, schools, and libraries in his company towns. He must have been something of a benevolent despot, for he required his workers to use “Thonet currency” in the company stores. The firm’s offices were housed in an ornate seven-story block on fashionable Stephansplatz in Vienna. From there, the family directed its international operations. There were showrooms in all the major European cities: London, Paris, Berlin, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Brno.

Michael Thonet is a landmark figure. Not only did he invent a new technique for making chairs—and design beautiful chairs to suit that technique—he also put in place an industrialized method of mass production and global mass marketing. What is unexpected is that unlike the firearm or the automobile, which were also early products of industrialization, the chair was a traditional artifact whose basic form dated back thousands of years. It was an unlikely candidate for one of the first mass-produced objects of the Industrial Age—a consumer’s chair, indeed.

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Witold Rybczynski is a writer and an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of How Architecture Works and Mysteries of the Mall and has written about architecture and design for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. Among his award-winning books are Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He is the winner of the 2007 Vincent Scully Prize and the 2014 Design Mind Award from the National Design Awards. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia.

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All illustrations in Now I Sit Me Down by Witold Rybczynski