The story of the Michael Thonet bentwood chair dates back over 150 years all the way to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was there that the industrial pioneer Michael Thonet started experimenting with the mass production of the bentwood chair. Though it is common for people to attribute the actual development of the bentwood chair to Michael Thonet, this is not the case. It was Michael Thonet that had the vision of how to efficiently build millions of bentwood chairs.
Through the use of steam bending technology, Michael Thonet manufactured bentwood chairs that had interchangeable parts. That is to say the legs, seat and brace from one chair could be used on another style of bentwood chair. This concept allowed for Michael Thonet to develop and manufacture thousands of bentwood furniture items.
From bentwood chairs to bentwood beds, from bentwood rocking chairs to bentwood coat racks, Michael Thonet’s company made any type of bentwood furniture you could possibly need for the house. As each of the bentwood furniture items used beechwood, an abundantly available material, and could be manufactured by workmen with little training, prices were low enough for the masses to afford.
Perhaps the single chair that is most linked to Michael Thonet is that of the A14 bentwood chair. It is this particular bentwood chair that was mass produced more than any of the others. It was light, incredibly strong and inexpensive.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Michael Thonet’s company had become vast. The ability for one factory to meet all of the demand for bentwood chairs was impossible. Therefore many bentwood factories were set up around eastern Europe. Such chairs as the A14 bentwood chair would end up being made in several different factories with each having the own slightly different version.
The design of new bentwood furniture was not soley Michael Thonet’s responsibility. In fact his sons, especially August Thonet, took on much of the responsibility of designing new bentwood chairs, marketing and manufacturing. Out of house designers also played a large role in designing new items, Josef Hoffmann being one of them.
Over the years, and due to a myriad of reasons, Michael Thonet’s original bentwood chair factories have closed. Today only a few are still in existence. Ton in the Czech Republic and Fameg in Poland are two of the original bentwood chair factories still producing. Notably neither of these is associated with the original family of Michael Thonet.
The Michael Thonet Bentwood Chair has become popular again in recent years in America, probably for the same reasons it was first popular 150 years – functionality, attractive styling and great pricing.