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Michael Thonet (Austrian, 1796–1871)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Austrian furniture-maker of German birth. Around 1830 he began to develop the bentwood technique (long, narrow veneers glued together) to make Biedermeier chairs in Boppard; his new technique made it easier and cheaper to produce bold designs. In 1841 he applied for a patent in France and exhibited his bentwood products in Koblenz, after which Prince Klemens von Metternich invited him to move to Vienna. In 1842 Thonet presented his furniture to the Niederösterreichische Kunstgewerbeverein and received a licence authorizing him to practise in Vienna. From that time he and his sons, Franz (1820–98), Michael (1824–1902), August (1829–1910), Josef (1830–87) and Jakob (1841–1929), began to produce cheap furniture in the workshop of the Viennese master joiner Clemens List. From 1843 to 1847 Thonet worked under the direction of the English architect Peter Hubert Desvignes (1804–83), together with Carl Leistler, on the refurbishment of the Baroque Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna; Thonet made the parquet floors and produced several extremely light stools (in situ).

In 1849 Thonet started his own cabinetmaking business and in 1850 he was commissioned to make chairs to furnish the Café Daum, Vienna. In 1851 he exhibited luxury furniture, which reflected the contemporary taste for the Rococo, at the Great Exhibition in London. In 1852 he applied for a licence to bend laminated veneers in any direction (although he had in fact already applied this technique to the furniture for the Palais Liechtenstein), and he set up a shop in central Vienna. In 1853 he made the business over to his five sons, and in 1856 the Gebrüdern Thonet applied for a licence to bend solid wood. At the same time Thonet started equipping his first factory in Koritschan where in 1859 he began producing the Chair No. 14 , which became the most popular model. In the company’s first catalogue (1859), with 26 designs, the tables and especially the chairs show the signs of mass-produced, industrial objects. All the chairs were uniform up to the height of the seats, and only the backs differed, so that at the production stage the units remained largely interchangeable but the styles harmonized. In addition, the motifs on the backs of the chairs were repeated on armchairs and sofas so that a matching suite of furniture could be assembled. In 1860 the first bentwood rocking-chair, which was similar to a metal rocker manufactured in Birmingham by R. W. Winfield & Co., came on to the market. At the International Exhibition of 1862 in London, the Gebrüdern Thonet showed seating that was cheap and light and at the same time of good quality; these models were to win universal acclaim.

With the expiration of the Thonet licence in 1869, the market opened to several competitors, notably J. & J. Kohn, but by this time the Thonet brothers already had several factories and an international trade network. In the 1880s their variety of products was expanded to include hat stands, mirror frames, bedsteads, garden furniture, cradles, couches and folding theatre stools, so that, with the exception of wardrobes, it was possible to purchase any type of furniture from Thonet. Furniture in Renaissance and Gothic Revival styles or with upholstered seats was also now available.

Around 1900 such architects and designers as Adolf Loos became interested in using bentwood in their interiors; bentwood was now considered as a work of art and as furniture for the home (it had been used mainly in cafés, offices and waiting-rooms previously). In 1904 the seating and shelves of Otto Wagner’s Postsparkassengebäude, Vienna, were made by Kohn and Thonet. Some of Wagner’s pupils, including Marcel Kammerer (1878–1959), Leopold Bauer and Otto Prutscher, worked for Thonet. Their furniture for the Thonet presentation at the Deutsche Werkbund Exhibition of 1914 in Cologne is characterized by an ornamental, classical heaviness, which pointed to Art Deco. Several small bentwood firms, which had joined Mundus A.G. in 1907, became part of J. & J. Kohn in 1914 and in turn linked up with Thonet in 1922 to form Thonet-Mundus. In the 1920s Thonet furniture, particularly the stools, became important as industrial furniture or ‘object types’ (as defined by Le Corbusier, who indeed used Thonet stools in many of his interiors). In the Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition of 1927 in Stuttgart many architects used the classic Thonet models Nos 14, 18 and B9 in the furnishing of their houses. New models were also designed in the late 1920s by Josef Frank, Ferdinand Kramer (b 1898) and Adolf G. Schneck (1883–1973).

In 1929 Thonet took over the tubular-steel business Standard-Möbel and published the first tubular-steel furniture catalogue, and in 1931 the tubular-steel furniture designs of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were licensed. In 1932 the firm Desta was taken over, and Thonet/Paris took out contracts for French tubular-steel furniture designs; Thonet now produced designs by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, André Lurçat, Marcel Breuer, Lilly Reich (1885–1947), Bruno Weill (Bewe) and Mies van der Rohe. In 1933 the business split into a French and a German division under separate management, and after World War II the businesses in Austria and Germany were run independently.

Eva B. Ottillinger
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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