The Story of Michael Thonet

Never was a better and more elegant design and a more precisely crafted and practical item created than the Thonet No. 14 chair.

Le Corbusier

The Story of Michael Thonet

Michael Thonet was born on the July 2,1796 in Boppard, Germany. He was the son of a carpenter. He took over his father’s workshop in 1819 and created a successful business. He was a innovative and entrepreneurial artist and businessman.

In 1841, he showed his furniture at a trade exhibition in Koblenz. Prince Metternich saw the show and was so impressed that he invited Thonet to his Johannisburg Palace. When Thonet visited the Palace, the Prince advised him to start a new life in Vienna. The Prince was reported to have said that: “In Boppard you’ll remain a poor man.”

Thonet invented a process for making furniture out of bent wooden-veneer slats boiled in glue. He attempted to patent the process in 1840 but was successful. He also tried to apply for foreign patents but these too came to nothing. Therefore in the spring of 1842, he accepted the Prince’s offer to come to the Vienna court. During his absence, his eldest son Franz looked after the businesses in Boppard.

After his visit to the court, Thonet presented his glue-layer process to the Austrian trade association for patenting. In 1842 he received a patent “to bend any type of wood, even the most brittle, into the desired forms and curves by chemical and mechanical means.”

In 1849, Thonet opened his own workshop in Gumpendorf near Vienna. He made parquet flooring as well as furniture. At about the same time Thonet developed the prototype for Chair No.4 which he provided to Café Daum in Vienna in 1851. With Chair No.4 he began to expand his customer base.

In the same year he opened his first shop in Vienna. He later relocated his workshop to Mollardmühle. He needed to expand his workshop due to the large number of orders he had received. He employed 42 workers in total including nine carpenters, a wood turner, eight veneer cutters, two gluers, eight raspers, two wood stainers, ten polishers and two workers who screwed the furniture components together.

Thonet began to use a horse-powered steam machine to power saws and turning lathes. His workshop was a mixture of a hand crafted business and a factory. On November 1, 1853 the company Gebrüder Thonet was founded. Michael Thonet transferred the business to his five sons but reserved for himself the role of overall management.

In the following years the new company showed its products in Munich and at an exhibition in Paris. Thonet began to receive the first orders from abroad. However, when the chairs were exposed to humidity in tropical climates, the glue lost its adhesive strength and the chairs came apart at the seams. Thonet needed to invent a process to bend solid wood.

Thonet began to experiment and, in 1856, his attempt to bend solid wood was successful. His invention was to place long pieces of beech in a steam oven where they were exposed tosteam for several hours to make them pliable. A tin strip was placed on the external side of the bentwood to keep the wood from splitting. The wood was then stretched and bent in iron moulds. Thonet obtained a patent for this ingenious yet simple procedure in the same year. It led to an industrial breakthrough.

Thonet used a highly organized manufacturing process. Wood was cut in the saw mills and it was sent to bending stations and then to assembly and packaging. Men carried out the heavy work, lighter tasks were carried out by young assistants and women.

Here is a description of the process:

The starting point for each chair component is a squared timber, free of knots and cut in the direction of growth. On the turning lathe it is either turned to produce a uniform thickness or using light compressions to produce round timber. Then it is placed in the steam oven and it is exposed to the hot steam for one to two hours depending on the thickness. A strip of tin is placed on the future external surface of the piece, to prevent splitting. Finally the wood is bent in a cast-iron mould.

On May 1, 1851 the first World Exhibition was opened at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. The exhibition showed products of contemporary industrial production and went down in history as the first and most important forum for innovation in design and technology. More than six million people visited the Exhibition.

Thonet’s products attracted the attention of the public and were widely praised by the critics. Thonet was awarded a bronze medal by the Exhibition committee which was the highest award for manufactured products. Thonet subsequently showed his chairs at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair and was awarded a gold medal.

After receiving his patent to make furniture out of bentwood, Thonet opened a new factory to expand his prodution. In the Moravian town of Koryčany, he found abundant beech forests, a pool of workers and a train station was only a few kilometres away. The factory was finished in 1857 and production was moved there from Vienna.

Three years later the new factory could not satisfy the growing demand. Even the supply of wood, which Thonet thought was inexhaustible, dwindled, so the company had to enter into wood supply contracts. To avoid transport costs, Thonet set up another factory in Bystřice, which was 50 kilometres away. The annual production of both factories increased enormously in the following years and Thonet opened several new factories to satisfy demand.

At the same time Thonet opened international sales offices. At the time of Michael Thonet’s death, there were offices in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brno, Brussels, Buda, Geneva, Hamburg, Hoek, Linz, London, Paris, Pest and Rotterdam. In 1873 the company opened stores in New York and Chicago.

In 1860 the first sales poster for the Thonet company was printed. It showed a total of 26 pictures of bentwood models: 14 different chairs, five armchairs and just as many benches and ables.

Michael Thonet died on March 3, 1871. His sons and grandsons continued to lead the business successfully. In the following years, three new factories were opened as well as many new stores.

In 1928 Thonet began producing models made of bent tubular steel.These were designed by Bauhaus architects Mart Stam, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. The cantilever tubular steel chairs became a classic for a new era. They embodied functionality, transparency and lightness. They put into practice the principles of the avant-garde.

The Thonet Chair No. 14

In 1859, Michael Thonet created chair No. 14. Chair No. 14 is known as the “bistro chair” and the “chair of chairs.” Starting in 1830, Michael Thonet began to experiment with shaping laminated wood. He boiled wood strips in glue and bent them into prepared iron molds. Thonet made the chairs using a patented process of bending wood by using steam. He called the process “bentwood.” In response to a demand for cafe-style chairs, Thonet designed the chair with seats made of woven cane or palm. The idea was that they could easily drain spilt liquids.

Chair No. 14 became one of the best-selling mass-produced chairs ever made. It sold 50 million chairs between 1859 and 1930, and millions more have been sold since 1930. Chair No. 14 was affordable and simple. It assembles and dissembles easily and uses only six pieces of wood, two nuts, and ten screws. Because the chair was assembled with screws, it was possible to ship the chairs in their individual parts for final assembly at their destination. The parts for 36 No. 14 chairs could be packed into a crate with a volume of only one cubic meter. Since the screw connections could be retightened when necessary, the chair has a very long the lifespan.

Brahms sat on a No. 14 chair to play his piano and Lenin did while writing his political essays. Picasso and Einstein where also known to have used these chairs. Millions of us have sat comfortably on No. 14 chairs in cafés. It’s safe to say that this chair has cradled more bums than any other chair.

What Makes the Thonet No. 14 Chair So Special?

There are many things that makes the Thonet No. 14 chair special.

First, it fulfills its function as a bistro chair perfectly.  It is elegant but utilitarian. It is not fussy or pretentious. The look and feel of the chair evokes the archetypal French bistro.

Second, it is beautiful and elegant. The chair becomes softer and more comfortable as it ages. Furniture designer Konstantin Grcic said: “And it has exactly the right weight. When you pick it up, it feels perfect. That’s an important aspect of chair design that’s often overlooked.”

Third, the chair was innovative when it was created. Thonet created a new process of bending wood into strong smooth curves and patented the process. The chair has only six parts, is simple to build, and enables unskilled workers to make them in high volumes. It was designed for mass production. It took advantage of the shift from craft production to mass production and distribution. It leveraged the invention of railroads, and the rise of the leisure class who were able to spend time in cafes and restaurants.

Fourth, the chair is timeless. It seems to reflect every era in an authentic way. The broad range of bistros, cafes and restaurants that use the chair supports this fact. “It has the freshness of a new product, because it has never been bettered,” observed the British designer Jasper Morrison.

Fifth, manufacture of the chair was based on sustainable practices. It was ahead of its time. To quote from Alice Rawsthorn:

The early models were made in a factory in the village of Koritschan in what is now the Czech Republic from beech wood grown in nearby forests. Even when demand rose and extra supplies of wood had to be shipped in from further afield, Thonet limited its carbon footprint by making its own tools and machinery.

Thonet developed a successful, international company by inventing new furniture designs, a mass manufacturing process and developing an international distribution network.


Museum Boppard (A comprehensive resource on Thonet)

Vitra Design Museum


Alice Rawsthorn, No. 14: The chair that has seated millions (Harold Tribune, November 7, 2008) (