A pioneering design that transformed interiors and revolutionized industrial production processes, bentwood furniture features an iconic appeal that has transcended time. Its sleek and sinuous forms are fashioned from a centuries-old technique rooted in steam-bent, laminated woodwork. As a formative feature in the history of furniture design, classic bentwood chairs emerged out of Austria during the 19th century. Characterized by efficient clean lines that are conveyed through minimalist construction means, the chairs continue to crop up across contemporary interiors today. The information that follows features a brief history of the beloved bentwood chairs and the enduring influence of their mark on modern industrial design.
Bentwood furniture began with the discovery of a new technique—the bending of solid beech wood—that was perfected and patented by the German-Austrian cabinet maker and craftsman Michael Thonet. After experimenting with designs based on birch rods bent into rounded shapes, Thonet’s curvilinear creations were conceived while he was working in Vienna during the 1850s. The furnishings emerged as a notable departure from the dense designs that were prevalent among predecessors of time period.
The understated and efficient designs were eagerly embraced after centuries of heavy, hand-carved alternatives. Many early bentwood pieces were stained in black or dark brown hues with seats made of cane or plywood. Moreover, the restrained construction of bentwood furnishings enabled mass production and lower price points. Disassembled chairs were packed with precision and shipped throughout the world, where they could be assembled on site. This concept set a new standard in the history of modern furniture.
The debut of the design for Thonet’s ever-popular Chair No. 14—an undisputed icon that has been called the “chair of chairs”—demonstrated that the novel technology behind bending solid beech wood would make it possible to produce furniture on an industrial scale for the first time. Its economy of materials and minimalist design meant that it could be exported to around the world with ease. Vended in vast quantities throughout Europe and the United States, the pioneering perch was exhibited at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 and earned a gold medal at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair.
Chair No. 14 was popular amongst the most prosperous examples of early mass-produced furniture and appeared across an international array of fashionable cafés, hotels, shops, restaurants, and residences. More than 50 million of Thonet’s signature chairs had been produced by the year 1930. The chart-topping Chair No. 14 still revels in popularity and remains as one of the best-selling seats around the world.
While Chair No. 14 is certainly a standout amongst Thonet’s signature seats—a ubiquitous element of restaurants and cafes all over the world—the master craftsman conceived a variety of other bentwood furniture styles. These include an aesthetically appealing rocking chair and minimalist barstool.
The bentwood technique was later revived by leading designers and architects of the twentieth century, including Le Corbusier, who showcased the seats in a number of his buildings. Employing his innovative methods, Thonet’s classic collections continue to be crafted in the factory he founded in 1861 and are still sold internationally. Commonly called “Thonet chairs,” expertly crafted bentwood creations are as ever-present as they are timeless.