by Dr. Lori Verderame
Michael Thonet (German/Austrian, 1796-1871) was the founder of the furniture firm which bears his name. He trained as an apprentice and established his own cabinet making firm in 1819.
In the 1830s, Thonet attempted to construct furniture, mainly chairs, from bent wooden slats and glue. His Boppard layerwood chair became a sensation in 1836 and with his success Thonet acquired the glue factory for his bent wood and glued furniture. While Thonet struggled for some time in the marketplace in the 1830s and early 1840s, there was interest in his methods of bending wood into curved and graceful forms using hot air steam. Thonet’s bent wood furniture rejected the oversized, heavy, masculine wooden furniture of the Victorian period and offered a new furniture style and design. The result was durable furniture that was attractive, fashionable, and lightweight.
Thonet chairs are marked with a label on the underside of the seat. Most of the chair seats are rush or canned and the bent wood supports the back and legs of the chair in gentle curved styles.
Thonet met Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich at the Koblenz Fair in 1841. Prince Klemens became Thonet’s main connection to the world of high style. With an invitation to travel to Vienna, Thonet introduced his furniture to the imperial court. Shortly thereafter, Thonet relocated to Vienna.
In 1849, Thonet founded the Gebrüder Thonet where he would go on to produce some of his most innovative pieces. Thonet received a bronze medal for his Vienna bentwood chairs at the World’s Fair in London 1851. In Paris at the World’s Fair of 1855, Thonet continued to make improvements and took a silver medal home.
By 1856, Thonet set up a new factory in Moravia where he introduced the use of beech wood. Thonet’s most important chair design was the 1859 coffee shop chair number 14 (called the Konsumstuhl nr. 14). Thonet secured the gold medal for the chair design at the 1867 World’s Fair competition in Paris. The coffee shop chair number 14 enjoyed widespread popularity and was produced in large numbers throughout the late 19th and early decades of the 20th Century.
Today, Thonet chairs are highly sought after. If you have a complete set of these stylish chairs, keep the set in tact as they will command more money as a set.
Get an online appraisal of your Thonet piece from Dr. Lori.