The sleek curves that reshaped furniture design
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The sleek curves that reshaped furniture design
MAK Exhibition View, 2019. Bentwood and Beyond Thonet and Modern Furniture Design. MAK Exhibition Hall © MAK/Georg Mayer.

by Palko Karasz

VIENNA (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Millions have sat on one in Vienna’s cafes, and its sleek curves have earned it a place among the classics of European design.

More than a century after it was first produced, the Thonet furniture company’s chair No. 14, with its light bentwood structure and its circular seat covered in hand-woven cane, is instantly recognizable. No. 14 and similar models have also had many uses, furnishing offices and homes and appearing onstage with Liza Minnelli in the film “Cabaret.”

The exhibition “Bentwood and Beyond,” through April 13 at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, shows how Thonet’s bentwood chairs ushered in a revolution in design and changed furniture as we know it. Around 240 pieces in the show, from the historical to the contemporary, include original Thonet chairs, replicas and designs inspired by bentwood shapes.

In 19th-century Vienna, Thonet chairs challenged a long-standing tradition of ornate handmade furniture by using inexpensive materials and a straightforward design.

Michael Thonet, a master joiner from Germany, arrived in the city in 1842. In Germany, he had experimented with wood bending using veneer strips and glue. But in Vienna he developed the much simpler technique that brought him fame: a process to bend rods of solid beechwood, steaming them to make them flexible and then fastening them onto a mold to give them the desired shape.

Reducing the number of parts helped speed up production while still delivering good craftsmanship. And No. 14, known as “the three-guilder chair” for its price, brought the company its biggest orders. But — as happened with the Mini, Britain’s popular low-cost car from the 1960s that became a design icon and is now sold at premium prices — Thonet chairs are no longer a mass-market product, and now also come in materials like tubular steel and plastic.

Before he set up his own workshop, Michael Thonet’s first big project in Vienna was on a refit of the flamboyant neo-rococo interiors of a city palace owned by Liechtenstein’s royal family. The chairs he made for the palace were ornate, luxury pieces. Their delicate carvings were, at first sight, a far cry from the simple lines of famous Thonet models.

Yet under the ornaments, even those early pieces showed signs of what was to come. “It was important for us to show how these models developed further for industrial production,” Sebastian Hackenschmidt, the curator of “Bentwood and Beyond,” said on a recent tour of the exhibition.

“Formally it’s already there,” he said, gesturing at a dark rosewood “Liechtenstein chair,” upholstered in deep purple fabric with an elaborate floral motif, and then to Thonet’s chair No. 3, which more resembles the classic coffeehouse chair — less fussy, with a simple arch of bentwood, and the backrest and seat covered in hand-woven cane.

This reduction in complicated, labor-intensive decoration facilitated mass production and was the origin of Thonet’s distinctive style. Even the circular shape of the chair’s seat stemmed from rationalization: It was easier to make and fasten to the rest of the structure.

To respond to increasing demand, Thonet built factories near beechwood forests in today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as in Germany and Russia, establishing sales points around Europe and America and creating one of the first multinational furniture brands for a global market.

To facilitate shipping as far as South America, No. 14’s six parts were packed into wooden crates lined with straw and assembled at their destination with a handful of screws.

Those design and distribution techniques prefigured another mass-market product a century later. In the 1960s, the Swedish company IKEA reproduced a classic Thonet shape, chair No. 18, a design similar to the cafe model. Then in the 1980s, it created a version made of plastic, without the constraints of bentwood. That “Ogla” chair became one of the company’s bestsellers and is still sold, flat-packed in cardboard boxes, in its stores worldwide.

Hackenschmidt, the curator, said that because Thonet’s mass-produced chairs were so simple, few people appreciated them aesthetically when they were first produced in the 19th century. They were considered “an object for use,” he said. It was only with the arrival of modernism in the 20th century that avant-garde architects and designers saw their beauty.

Praise came from figures like Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect famous for his functional use of concrete and writings about modern design. “We have introduced the humble Thonet chair of steamed wood, certainly the most common as well as the least costly of chairs,” he wrote of a model that he included a 1925 design for a model home. “And we believe that this chair, whose millions of representatives are used on the Continent and in the two Americas, possesses nobility.”

In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art in New York became the first major museum to show 13 of Thonet’s chairs, in an exhibition honoring their contribution to modern design. As well as classic bentwood pieces, the show included chairs made of tubular steel — a material that, despite being alien to Thonet’s original concept, the company embraced, inspired by Bauhaus designers.

The Thonet style continues to fascinate designers today. Naoto Fukasawa’s chair No. 130, for instance, uses Thonet’s beech rods.

Another example on display at the Museum of Applied Arts is a minimal version of the No. 14 by the British designer James Irvine, designed in 2007 for the Japanese lifestyle brand Muji and made by Thonet in Germany. The model further simplified Michael Thonet’s work, keeping only the backrest and legs as strong reminders of the original forms.

“These designs remember the efficiency, the reduction, the rationality, of what the best bentwood pieces are all about,” Hackenschmidt said. “The No. 14 is of course something that we will always come back to.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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