The Enduring Popularity of Michael Thonet’s Bentwood Chairs

Antique Bentwood Viennese chair – furniture with leather

Few styles of furniture have a long-standing reputation like bentwood pieces. In fact, you’re likely to see this design whenever you go to popular bars or restaurants in your area. Read below to find out what makes bentwood items so incredibly iconic and unforgettable. 

What Is Bentwood Furniture?

Bentwood furniture has a fascinating history behind its development. Like its name suggests, this style is defined by its unique bending of wooden rods through the thermal power of steam. It took a year to perfect, but once the prototype was complete, this type of mass produced furniture began to enter the market and revolutionize how furniture is made today. 

In the early 1800s, most beautiful furniture was hand-carved wood that took large amounts of time and money to complete. However, in the 1840s, bentwood rose in popularity because it was such a novel and quick way to produce beautiful furniture. It especially took off with chairs because it yielded comfortable and elegant pieces that were lightweight and had a variety of uses in the home and in businesses.  

Well-known designers and architects like Le Corbusier have praised this style of furniture and used them often in his lifetime. Le Corbusier said, “This elegant benchwood classic is a masterpiece in its construction and production…this chair has nobility.” He was known to have this chair in many of his buildings, including the Villa de la Rocca and in the Stuttgart Weissenhof Estate. 

Another famous architect and designer, Poul Henningsen, sings only praises about benchwood chairs, “This chair solves its task—to be a lightweight, comfortable armchair with a low backrest—with perfection.” 

Once benchwood entered the design world, it couldn’t be reimagined without it. From its manufacturing to its elegant beauty, bentwood is an icon in both historical and modern decor. 

The History of Michael Thonet

The creator most linked to the bentwood chair movement is Michael Thonet. Thonet was born on July 2nd, 1796 was a cabinet maker nearly all his life in Vienna, Austria.

HIs first successful item that used a similar method was called the Boppard Layerwood Chair. To craft these pieces, he simply glued bent wood slates together. However, this model did not get patented by countries like Germany, France, Great Britain, and Russia. It wasn’t until he developed an even more novel idea at the time that he garnered worldwide success. 

In the 1830s Thonet discovered how he could use steam and light materials to manipulate the wood better than typical techniques at the time. He mostly used birch rods, which were heated and melded into curved designs. Working alongside his sons, he crafted some of the most popular models and styles, including the now world famous Thonet bentwood chairs. 

Once people realized how much more affordable his mode of craftsmanship was, his company Gebrüder Thonet began to open factories not only in Austria, but all over Europe. In 1851, his chairs were shown at the Great Exhibition in London, which only grew his success. 

After his creations, chairs began to become mass produced and the furniture industry had a large boom in the market. Designer’s like Thonet were able to sell these light and quick-to-make pieces all over the world. He even received a gold medal at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair for his innovation. 

How Bentwood Chairs Are Used

Bentwood chairs were anti-Victorian in many ways. They reimagined the stuffy, oversized, heavy, and dark pieces of the era and replaced them with feathery and fashionable items that looked fresh and appealing. 

When browsing through photos of restaurants and hotels from the mid 19th century, you’re likely to see charming examples of bentwood furniture in its debut. However, many restaurants, bars, and homes still sport this beautiful style of furniture today. 

In fact, you’re likely to spot a piece or two in most large antique furniture retailers. What makes bentwood furniture so special is that even though its conception began nearly 200 years ago, it still remains a stylish and contemporary looking piece. 

You’ll often see this style of chair alongside the cafes and restaurants lining the streets of Paris. They are ideal because of how easy they are to arrange, stack, and style. They add a hint of vintage beauty that still melds perfectly with modern decor. 

Restaurant owners love these chairs because they are effortlessly assembled and reassembled as needed during transport. Not only that, but the peek-a-boo slates in the laminated seating of the chairs like the No.14 were intentionally designed for liquids to fall through without major damage to the chair, and create less staining on the customer who may be seated there during a spill. This makes cleaning up easier for everyone and bentwood furniture the go-to for anything in the restaurant industry. 

The Most Popular Chair

The chair that put Thonet on the map and is still highly requested today is called the Model No. 14 Chair, or more casually known as the “bistro chair”.  It reformed the modern chair in nearly every way. In fact, from 1859-1930, it is estimated that nearly 50 million of these chairs were sold. Now, almost 100 years later, this chair is still being sold commonly today. 

Once the production method was perfected, it was easy to recreate in factories worldwide. The original method required you to simply steam-bend six pieces of wood by heating them to over 200°F and then molding them into the desired shape. They then sat to dry for one day and were assembled together using screws and nuts. Due to this easy-to-learn technique and the lack of extra materials, this furniture style gave jobs to unskilled workers, who began mass producing the chairs. 

Later on, they further refined the design by adding diagonal pieces of wood to the seat and back. This helped increase the strength and durability of the chair for long-term use. 

Today, the bentwood chair model is far from being forgotten. In fact, it is still widely used. The design is now public domain, so many manufacturers have benefited from Thonet’s original ideas and used them to create elegant and lightweight pieces for everyday use. For example, popular retailers like IKEA have made their own versions that are used commonly in outdoor patios and kitchens. 

Design Versatility 

Bentwood chairs may have been introduced in the 1800s, but they still give a modern and contemporary feel to homes today. The current trend of minimal and modern design also started new bentwood inspired pieces like bentwood stools, loveseats, coat racks, children’s furniture, and more. 

Part of what makes bentwood furniture so ideal is its versatility and comfort. Each chair offers an organic looking silhouette defined by its curves and sweeping backing. Your arms, back, and legs rest naturally, so you can enjoy a long dinner or morning coffee in complete ease.

Now you can even choose the colors and materials to suit your home or business. Bentwood chairs are no longer made from just birch rods and beechwood. They are now made out of a wide variety of woods that come in a large selection of hues. They can also be made from plastic in bright colors like neon green or light pink.

Thonet’s innovation lives on today through the excellence of his design and the brilliance in simplicity. By investing in a piece of benchwood furniture, you can be assured your item will be beloved, functional, and stylish for decades to come.