Thonet, the history of an industrial dynasty

Thonet is a name that counts in the history of design. Since 1819 and the beginnings of Michael Thonet in Boppard on the Rhine, this name of German-Austrian origin has been at the origin of industrial mass production of furniture. The adventure of this outstanding entrepreneurial family could have ended with the first and second world wars. However, the direct descendants of the founder of the Thonet dynasty, Michael Thonet, continue to produce and distribute bentwood furniture around the world, the trademark of the company launched more than 150 years ago. Thonet

is a symbol of industrial success, but its history is also closely linked to the most creative designers of their time.
It all began with Michael Thonet, born in 1796 in Boppard, a town on the Rhine near Koblenz. The son of a master tanner, Michael Thonet set up his own business as a carpenter and cabinetmaker in 1819 and began producing furniture in the “Biedermeier” style, a term used to describe a certain way of life in German-speaking countries from 1815 to 1848. He made cupboards, beds, tables and seats with a light movement, without excessive decoration, with a cherry, pear or mahogany veneer.

The story accelerates in 1953 when Michael Thonet decides to found the company “Thonet Brothers” and transform his business into a company established in the name of his 5 sons. The stroke of genius of the family patriarch was that he quickly understood that his company, in order to be successful, would have to mass-produce furniture that met the market. In a way, it was a vision ahead of its time of what would become mass consumption. To succeed in industrializing his furniture, Michael Thonet understood that the constituent parts of his wooden creations had to be interchangeable. That is to say to produce elements in mass, interchangeable thus, allowing to produce in factory a great variety of models. The economic interest is unstoppable: this method will allow him to reduce the number of spare parts and thus keep production and storage costs low. The story of a prodigious industrial success story is now underway..


Michael Thonet and his children, circa 1840 ©

The Thonet family decided to move into industrial mass production and built a factory in the Moravian forests, in Koristschan to be exact. This was a clever choice as it allowed the company to be close to the raw material, to take advantage of a railway line, and to employ a poor and therefore easily-worked workforce. Thus, in 1859, the emblematic piece of the worldwide success of Thonet brothers was born, which continues today to be distributed throughout the world: the consumer chair n°14.


Left: A THONET bistro chair n°14 from 1859 – Internet credit. Right: The Thonet 214 chair, presented on the brand’s website in 2016. ©

Composed of only 6 parts – backrest and rear legs are one piece, the inside of the screwed backrest, the seat, the two front legs, a stabilizing ring for the four legs – the different elements fit together naturally. The model is thus effectively suitable for mass production: few parts, light and, above all, the assembly of the furniture allows it to be exported quickly. Thonet invented the kit, long before IKEA! Indeed, the chair fits into a box of about 1 M3 which can contain up to 36 chairs dismantled. The low price of the chair also contributed to its worldwide success chair no. 14 the chair subsequently chair 214 became the most popular chair model of the 19th century. From 1859 to 1930, 50 million chairs were sold worldwide! It is still the most produced chair in the world today. Many cafés and brasseries were in favour of this light and stackable chair, hence its nickname of “Bistro Chair”.


36 THONET No. 14 chairs disassembled inside a crate, Thonet invented the Kit long before IKEA ©

In 1860, Thonet brothers released a new model that would become a milestone in the history of design the rocking chair n°1 the “rocking chair” made full use of the bentwood technique patented by Michael Thonet on previous models. The company invented the archetypal rocking chair. The model created by Thonet was a resounding success in the United States, in contrast to Europe where the seat is synonymous with old age. In response to demand, dozens of variations of the original model invaded the American market. To ensure the success of his bestsellers, Michael Thonet worked hard to develop the bentwood technique. He drew inspiration from other fields such as cooperage and boatbuilding, which were thinking about exploiting the natural elasticity of wood. His revolutionary idea was to boil sheets of wood of the same thickness in glue to give them the desired curvature


Thonet Frères, Rocking Chair, 1860. ©

At the beginning of the 20th century, Thonet Frèreswas a prosperous company. The firm employed nearly 6,500 workers and produced 1.8 million pieces of furniture in 1913 alone. At the end of theFirst World War, the company weakened, export markets collapsed, and the company merged with the Kohn-Mundus group to form a single holding company. It is Le CorbusierThe first person to bring the famous manufacturer out of its lethargy was the architect, an admirer of Thonet’ s ingenuity and design, who chose to exhibit the 6009 model for the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. A new generation of architects and designers will then revive Thonet ‘s creativity..


Thonet Frères, Chair model 6009 ©


Thonet chairs installed in the La Roche-Jeanneret Houses, 1923. House designed by Le Corbusier, a great admirer of Thonet chair design ©

In the 1920s, theBauhaus School laid the foundations of modern architecture. In this prestigious school, the greatest artists and designers of the beginning of the century taught the younger generation drawing, architecture and plastic arts, or simply collaborated with the famous institute. Among them was Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright etc. In 1926, the Dutch architect and chair designer Mart Stam invented a cantilever chair made of steel tubes, i.e. a seat without legs at the back. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe learned about the Dutchman’s work and shared it with Marcel Breuer, then a professor at the Bauhaus. Breuer and Stam designed chairs based on the principle of the cantilever chair, but using the new material of the time: tubular steel. The discovery of the cantilever chair, a kind of cantilevered chair with no back legs, is now considered one of the most important design discoveries of the 20th century.

And it was Thonet that produced these chairs, which have since become classics in its range and are considered to be classics in the history of design. Thus, the chair model S33 by Stam, considered as thefirst cantilever chair in the history of furniture, presented for thefirst time in 1927 and which has since become a great classic at Thonet, is still published today. Other models such as the S 32, S 64 and the cantilever chair S 35 by Marcel Breuer, or the armchair S 533 chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe make Thonet the world’s leading manufacturer of tubular steel furniture


Mart Stam’s S33 chair (artistic copyright), 1926, a classic still produced by Thonet.


Marcel Breuer’s S 32 chair (Model S 64 with armrests), artistic copyright Mart Stam, 1929/30.


Armchair S 533 R, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1927 ©

After the Second World War, Thonet went through another difficult period and the company suffered the expropriation of its factories in Eastern Europe. Its central factory on Stephanplatz in Vienna was even destroyed. Fortunately, at the end of the 1940s, Georg Thonet, the great-grandson of the founder Michael Thonet, had the factory in Frankenberg/Eder rebuilt in the north. The Thonet dynasty was born again and continued to attract the most brilliant designers and architects to the brand. As proof of the historical imprint left by the furniture manufacturer, the famous MoMA in New York devoted an exhibition to Thonetin 1953.

Successful collaborations between the Thonet brand and world-renowned designers include the famous S-chair (model 275) in its original white colour, designed in 1956 by Verner Panton and produced by Thonet from 1965 onwards. Made of plywood, it was inspired by the equally famous zigzag chair by Rietveld. The list of talented designers who have collaborated with Thonet over the past 60 years would be long. Among them: Egon Eiermann, Pierre PaulinGerd Lange, Hartmut Lohmeyer, Ulrich Böhme and Wulf Schneider, Lord Norman Foster, James Irvine, Piero Lissoni, Stefan Diez, Läufer + Keichel, etc. Thonet brings together the world’s top designers around its know-how!


French desk CM 141 in oak by Pierre Paulin, published by Thonet in the 1950s.


Verner Panton, S-chair (model 275), manufactured by Thonet from 1965.

The company is now run by a direct descendant of Michael Thonet, Peter Thonet, assisted by other family members. They continue the creative spirit of the world’s oldest furniture brand. The headquarters and production site are located in Frankenberg/Eder, Germany. While Thonet is known for its famous bentwood furniture and classic tubular steel furniture from the Bauhaus era, the brand continues to enrich its collections with creations by renowned contemporary architects and designers. So the Thonet dynasty is not about to die out!


Armchair and two or three-seater sofa, “model S 5001 – high high”, design James Irvine, 2006, published by Thonet ©

Written by François Boutard