Thonet – Vienna’s Iconic Chair, Made in Germany

(C) Thon

A chair usually has four legs, a backrest and a seat. You can take a break on it, or work on it, eat, read, study, or just wait. For modern humans, life without the chair is hard to imagine. But in Vienna, there is a very special, paradigm chair that came to define the homes and offices of government high and low and most memorably, the Wiener Kaffeehaus where politicians, artists, writers and just about everyone else meet to chat, read the paper, have a bite, or simply be “alone in company,” all over a coffee or a glass of wine.

Wiener Kaffeehauskultur

On average, most Austrians (63.5%) sit more than 4.5 hours a day. This is what the Spanish Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (URJC) found out in a Europe-wide study for Eurobarometer. This may have to do with the smartphone, but more likely it is simply part of Viennese culture – to spend hours in a Kaffeehaus. It isn’t the office with its responsibilities or home with its distractions. Here you find reflection and quiet conversation, and the chance to read for hours without being disturbed.

This way of life is typical here, and still an important part of Viennese life, so that in 2011, the Wiener Kaffeehauskultur (Viennese coffeehouse culture) was named a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.

Besides the coffeehouses you will find Thonet chairs, such as the typical chair No. 14 (today: 214) in paintings like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge (1892) or films like Some Like It Hot directed by Billy Wilder, starring Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe.

(C) Thon

Today, Thonet GmbH managing director Norbert Ruf is convinced that the city of Vienna was one of the success factors for the family company, with its headquarters in Frankenberg, Germany: “Thonet would not be what it is today without Vienna,” Ruf told Metropole. “The foresight, innovation culture and national networking of the time enabled Michael Thonet to put his design concepts and entrepreneurial ideas into practice and lead the company to success.”

Michael Thonet perfected a new technique of bending solid wood in the 1850s. The resulting simple aesthetic is popular still today./ (C) Thonet

Vienna Chooses Thonet

It all started with the master joiner (today: cabinet maker) Michael Thonet, who opened his first workshop in Boppard on the Rhine in 1819 after his father moved there from Andernach, where I graduated from high school. His chairs were known for two things: First, they were extremely elegant and delicate for the time; and second, for the first time, wood was reprocessed and bent to get the curved backrests. It was this combination that would make Thonet famous. Word came to Austrian Chancellor Klemens Graf von Metternich, who persuaded him to move his headquarters to Vienna, where he contributed to the interiors of the Palais Liechtenstein, thus launching his triumphal march with the famous chair No. 14 that would characterize the imperial offices and salons.

In 1857, Thonet’s sons, as Gebrüder Thonet, commissioned the first Thonet furniture factory to be built in the Moravian town of Koritchan, using their father’s plans. The workshops of the Thonet company became a manufacturer of global renown with roots in Vienna – a successful “start-up” if there ever was one.

Part of that success was a new manufacturing process based on division of labor, that enabled industrial series production for the first time. The chair No. 14, for example, could be dismantled into six individual parts – and thus shipped all over the world (6 parts, 2 nuts and 10 screws), allowing its markets and its popularity to spread around the world.

In the 1930s, the Thonet style of bended forms was also extended to metal and other materials, as this Thonet catalog picture from 1931 shows. / (C) Thonet

Thonet Today

Now, 200 years later, Thonet is still up to date, and in 2020, earned the first German Sustainability Award in Design for the world’s oldest industrially manufactured chair. The reason: resource efficiency, environmental compatibility and fair supply chains, along with design quality, aesthetics and functionality.

Others, too, have carried the tradition forward, the legacies of other branches of the family – there were five sons in the second generation – and of the political upheavals of mid-century Central Europe. Apart from the German company Thonet, today there are two other companies that make similar bentwood furniture. One of them is Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, now legally GTV Designs, an Italian craft manufacturer that bought rights from the Austrian branch of the Thonet family just after the millennium. However, with no descendant of Michael Thonet in the company – a 2015 court decision required the formal name to be changed.

The second is TON in Czechia. The Villa Thonet residence and factories were built in 1873 following a second fire in the family’s Czech factory, and remained a family residence into the 1940s. Expropriated after World War II, the machinery was acquired by the Czech company TON, which also reacquired the villa in 2008 and meticulously restored it to its original design and use. Today, the original machines are again producing bentwood chairs in the villa, under the TON label, with a showroom and museum open to the public. These companies are independent and have no business ties to Thonet GmbH or the Thonet descendants.

Have a Seat

If you want to try it out: Thonet chair No. 14 can still be found in Viennese coffeehouses today: in Café Tirolerhof near the Albertina, with k.u.k. Purveyors to the Court L. Heiner in the 1st district, as well as in the Sluka confectionery near the Rathaus, and in Café Weimar near the Volksoper. The armchair, too, fits perfectly in a modern space, as the current Thonet 214 in Café Ulrich shows. An overview of many other models can be found in the Hofmobiliendepot Möbel Museum in Andreasgasse in Vienna’s 7th district.

For the future, Ruf sees his guiding role as particularly pivotal in the area of new work: “We see unusual developments, especially in the changes in the world of work and the design of adequate spaces to accommodate it. Here, because of our origins, we believe in communicative platforms like coffeehouses and in our ability to make a special contribution to a hybrid approach to furniture design.” Design that is “modern, timeless, sustainable.” Their guiding principle: “Always be centered in today and with an eye on tomorrow, but without forgetting yesterday.” 

Many people in Vienna own Thonet furniture: But if you are not sure, the company has introduced the “Thonet authenticity determination” – a qualified confirmation of Thonet originality here:

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