Today, the interest in Thonet bentwood furniture is enormous: high auction prices, a new book and a major exhibit/sale in New York. But bentwood furniture for years was chiefly famous for being the first mass-produced, knock-down furniture, easy to ship, cheap to make and sell. Every bar, restaurant and public building had Thonet.
THE FIRST bentwood I remember were the four chairs (in the style I learned later to call the "hairpin back chair") that always sat around my parent's breakfast table.
Mother had brought them home from a drugstore my father owned. We had two sets of "drugstore chairs," as we called them. The others were similar in design but were made of steel with more curlicues. They were often called "Coca-Cola chairs."
Every year, mother would take them all outside and paint them a different color. They were a pale yellow the last I remember.
Eventually, mother gave us the bentwood chairs. When we were living in an apartment too small for our chair collection, I gave them away to a friend who moved them to Thailand and back.
We acquired a marvelous collection of bentwood made in Czechoslovakia, with elaborate carved motifs tacked on the top.We bought them in Belize, British Honduras, just before we left. We had several pieces: a rocker and a plant stand and I think there was a settee and table as well. In a fit of real madness, when we got a limited shipment of effects to Vienna, I gave them to another friend. Today, with the prices of bentwood, that's like saying you gave away an oil well because it wouldn't fit in your back yard.
Still, we were on our way to Vienna, Austria, the home of Thonet, the biggest producer of bentwood. In Vienna, bentwood chairs were ubiquitous in the used furniture stores. Often dirty, usually with their cane seats busted, they were in surprisingly good condition for their age and present state of life.
We left Vienna with a bentwood music rack, a side table, three piano stools and 21 chairs. I'd like to buy back the ones we gave away.
Bentwood chairs have great advantages. They are light -- you can pick them up with one hand. Their rounded surface makes them easy to clean. The usual unarmed chair takes up only the necessary amount of room, so you can crowd lots of them around a dining table. Their form is curved and pleasing, soft enough to suit a modern space. Because their design is so open, space flows through them, so the eye is not stopped -- a great advantage in a piece of furniture used in sets.
Their biggest advantage in Vienna was the price -- $1 for the usual cafe or side chair without arms, $2 for the more elaborate armed versions.
In the Palais Liechtenstein, we saw a bentwood show collected by an Austrian who was fond of bentwood. On the day in the year when a special trash pickup encouraged Austrians to throw away big things from their attic, he hired a truck and went around removing bentwood from the piles on the sidewalk. The resulting exhibition eventually traveled to the United States.
When we came back to Washington in 1966, before our furniture arrived, I went down to the Salvation Army store and bought a pair of chairs. When I got them home, I found they were Thonet -- made of molded plywood in 1946. I think they were $5 each. A similar chair, with arms, is currently up for sale at Lord & Taylor for $495.
This month Philip Cutler, who is the best curator without a museum in the world, has mounted a wonderful exhibition at Lord & Taylor in New York City. (It seems mean of Lord & Taylor not to bring it to the Washington area stores. The show really is worthy of the Renwick Gallery and far better than many furniture shows I've seen in museums).
Famous New York architects such as Richard Meir and designer Joe D'Urso lined up to buy furniture from the Lord & Taylor show on the first day. There were even some polite fights about who was to get which chair. Even so, not quite a third of the sale pieces are still available (at this writing), and the entire show is intact through its closing Saturday. So you have to make it to New York this week.
Some prices in the Lord & Taylor show: a child's arm chair, cir 1898, $500; a costumer (coat rack), circa 1910, designed by Koloman Moser for a cafe, $2,950; an arm chair designed by Joseph Frank, circa 1931, $850; a side chair by Marcel Breur in 1928, exhibited in Paris this year, $1,950; arm chairs designed by Emil Gillot in 1930, $3,500 for a pair; a bentplywood chair, 1946, $495; a rocking sofa, $4,950.
The show coincides with the publication of Christopher Wilk's scholarly, well-written and illustrated book: "Thonet: 150 Years of Furniture" (143 pages) just published by Barron's. Wilk served as a consultant on the Lord & Taylor show. His book traces the story of the family and the firm.
Michael Thonet, a poor but talented cabinetmaker lived in a town with the unlikely name of Boppard-am-Rhein in Prussia. He was an inventive man, and in 1830 began to experiment with bending wood into curved shapes, a faster way to shape wood than carving. Wilk points out that while Thonet thought he had invented bending wood, English and American bowback Windsor chairs and an early 19th-century chair were also of bentwood. Samuel Gragg in 1808 made a bentwood birch and oak chair. Even so, in Central Europe, bentwood was a marvel.
Thonet's early work was very Biedermeir in style: restrained and simple with rich grains. The rocking sofa first became popular during the 1815-1848 period, and one of Thonet's 1850s pieces was a settee.
In 1841, Thonet exhibited in Koblenz. Prince Klemens von Metternich, chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and prine minister to Emperor Franz Josef, saw the chairs and invited Thonet to his Johannisberg castle to show his wares. Metternich urged Thonet to move to Vienna, and even offered to let him travel with the royal courier.
Thonet had a hard time getting started. But thanks to the patronage of an English architect, P.H. Desvignes, he found work on the renovation of the Palais Liechtenstein, owned by the furst (reigning prince) who owns the country of the same name. Thonet kept on making his name. Thonet kept on making his chairs, and did three chairs of laminated wood for the palace. The first of the 1843 Liechtenstein chairs was a marvel of delicacy and beauty, without a doubt the loveliest he ever made.
Thonet was finally able to set himself up in business, thanks to money from Desvignes. And in 1849 he designed the wonderful Cafe Daum laminated mahogany veneer side chairs, in high Art Nouveau style -- almost 40 years before the whiplash style gained popularity. Wilk rightly points out that the influence of Thonet on the Belgium and Paris Art Nouveau style has not been properly appreciated.
He writes: "It is surely one of the more interesting ironies of the period that the Viennese designers so emplatically rejected the sinuous and curvaceous Art Nouveau style of Belgium and France which, in its formative stages, had been so profoundly influenced by the shapes and curves of bentwood, which was always referred to as 'an Austrian specialty'. . . In fact, the widespread popularity of Thonet bentwood throughout Europe during the late 19th century and its familiarity to architects and furniture designers made it a more direct and important source for the Art Nouveau style than many of the more remote or esoteric influences that have often been suggested."
Thonet's delicate chair for the Palais Schwarzenberg in 1850 became No. 1 in his catalogue. His chairs for the Crystal Palace at the 1851 world's fair in London won a prize medal.
In the late 1850s, the firm began to make what Wilk calls "the first consumer chair." This is one we collected the most of in Vienna. And no wonder. Wilk says: "Only six pieces of bent wood, 10 screws and two washers were used in its construction. Devoid of any decoration, it was as simple as a chair could be. Its strength, light weight and low price in time made it the most popular commercial chair in the 19th century, and perhaps of the last two centuries.
"The chair's quasi-deification by the modern movement more than half a century later may have given rise to the mistaken impression that it was used widely in domestic settings in the 19th century. Such was not the case. The less expensive chairs were not thought of as appropriate for use in the home. They were furniture of cafes and restaurants."
The chair, according to the 1873-74 catalogue, sold for $3.
In 1876, after Michael Thonet's death, Thonet, now under the name Gebruder Thonet, began to make No. 18 in the catalogue, now called the "Vienna Cafe Chair." Wilk notes: "It was the first chair in which the back insert and seat were directly connected. The design of its back insert, echoing the shape of the back, offered additional support for the sitter and greater stability for the chair." This is the chair mother had. I think it was more popular in America. Mother still thinks it is a more comfortable chair than No. 16.
Thonet soon had branches all over Europe to sell the chairs, which were shipped unassembled -- or, as we say today, knocked down. In 1875, Thonet's five factories made 620,000 chairs. In 1869, the Thonet patents lapsed, and there was a free-for-all race to set up factories to copy them. Jacob & Josef Kohn of Vienna became one of Thonet's chief competitors. By 1893, there were 52 bentwood companies in Europe.
The bentwood rocker, first made in 1860, still remains the chair most admired. The rarer rocking sofa sold in Philip Cutler's show right away for $5,000. Wilk points out that rockers were popularized by the show at the Crystal Palace. A brass-tube version, made by R. W. Winfield of Birmingham, England, was a direct source of the Thonet rocking chair. Rockers, at first thought to be for the sick, became so popular that by 1913 they accounted for about five percent of the Thonet sales. In 1873-74, the rocker sold for $22.
In 1888, Thonet introduced the first tip-back theater seating, among 348 designs.
Vienna's famous architects began to design for Thonet. The first, in 1899, was Adolf Loos. He designed a chair for the Cafe Museum in Vienna to be manufactured by Thonet. Wilk says that in the first decade of the 20th century Thonet and especially its Viennese rival, J&J Kohn, "produced designs of the important architects of the Viennese avant garde: Gustav Siegel, Koloman Mosr, Otto Wagner, Marcel Kammerer and Josef Hoffman. The Loos Chair is like No. 14 but with a slight dent in the top of the back and the upper back frame curves into the seat. A chair is by Otto Wagner, based on a Thonet Design, was manufactured by J&J Kohn for Die Zeit and then modified in 1904 for Wagner's well known Vienna Postal Savings Bank. Thonet made the chair in 1907.
The American Thonet is celebrating 150 Thonet years by bringing back some of their old stars. The Austrian Postal Savings Bank Stool, designed by Otto Wagner in 1902, is one of them. Wagner was a principal force in the formation of the Wiener Sezession, a design group that was one of the principal grandfathers of the modern movement.
Also being reproduced by Thonet is the "Fledermaus" chair, designed in 1905 by Josef Hoffman for the Cafe Fledermaus, the locale for the Sezession artist and the other turn-of-the-century Viennese intellectuals. A set of two chairs and a table in the "Fledermaus" design, manufactured by Thonet in Vienna, currently is offered for $3,300 at Lord & Taylor's new Twentieth Century shop.
Available soon from the American Thonet will be the much sought after Fledermaus chair for $215 and the Austrian Postal Savings Bank stool, $165.
Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York recently held a sale of Art Nouveau. The estimates for Thonet were, to say the least, high. For instance: a chaise lounge, $800-$1,200; four highback side chairs with arms, $1,200-$1,500; two similar chairs without arms, $700-$1,000; a settee $500-$800; a circa-1900 settee and two side chairs, $600-$900; a hall unit, designed by Joseph Hoffmann, $4,000-$6,000. A Hoffmann "Cafe Fledermaus" chair, $1,880-$2,500; a pair of children's side chairs, $600-$900.
Thonet in 1922 merged with Kohn-Mudus company, though the Thonet family, according to Wilk, got only a minority share. Meanwhile, an American branch opened in New York in 1873, though the first American factory didn't open until the 1940s.
Wilk has a fascinating story to tell about Thonet in World War I. The company manufactured chairs at an all-time high in 1912 and 1913, hiring the largest number of employes since 1880. Furniture was stockpiled all over the world, especially in America.
"As the United States entered the war," Wilk writes, "the Thonet warehouses were full to the breaking point. In an attempt to forestall possible legal complications or hostilities against an Austrian company, the firm temporily signed over title of Thonet in New York to A.P. Wanner, their general manager and brother-in-law of Alfred Thonet."
A Thonet revival began in 1923, hitting a high in 1936, when the Art Moderne and early modern architects, especially Le Corbusier, appreciated the simple, pleasing lines that seemed as new as when they were designed in the mid-1800s. Le Corbusier used so many of one type of arm chair it is often called by his name. Le Corbusier wrote:
"We have introduced the humble Thonet chair of steamed wood, certainly the most common as well as the least costly of chairs. And we believe that this chair, whose millions of representatives are used on the Continent and in the two Americas, possesses nobility."
Le Corbusier later designed a tubular-steel chair for Thonet. At the Deutsche Werkbund's 1927 exhibit "Die Wohnung" (the home) half on the 16 architects used Thonet bentwood chairs. Lily Reich, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's colleague and companion, used many Thonet chairs in the furniture exhibition. In the '20s and '30s many wellknown architects designed for Thonet, though they weren't credited. Wilk says the best known is the one attributed to both Josef Hoffman and Josef Frank. This comfortable chair has a cane back and seat and is widely reproduced now.
In 1928, Thonet produced tabular-steel furniture first developed by architect Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus in Germany. This chrome-plated tubular-steel cantilevered side chair is now seen in almost every dining room of people who espouse the modern style. About the same time, tubular-steel furniture by Le Corbusier, with his colleague-companion Charlotte Perriand and his associate Pierre Jeanneret, was manufactured by Thonet. The greatest piece may well be the chaise lounge of 1932, now manufactured by Atelier International.
Today, Peter Danko, and Alexandria designer, has just sold Thonet a remarkable design of an armchair molded from a single piece of plywood. It is now in production and in the Museum of Modern Art's collection. Thonet makes a variety of other furniture from old designs and new. The Thonet rocking chair in a natural beechwood finish costs $248.20 and in the light walnut finish, $236.50.
Many other manufacturers in many other countries reproduce the Thonet designs today. Stendig is one of the biggest. Chair No. 14 is a popular as ever.
But you won't find many old Thonet No. 14s for the $1 I paid for mine in Vienna in 1966.
The Door Store in D.C. (3140 M St., NW.), has the largest collection of bentwood chairs in the area (possibly in the country, according to co-owner Norman Tokan) -- made primarily in Poland, Czechoslavia, Yugoslavia, Romania and Taiwan. Their chairs include an art deco arm chair ($69); a Bauhaus chair with arms  or without arms ($89); a cafe chair ($39), a Corbusier chair, comes only with arms ($100); and a Lena chair, comes only as a side chair ($69, or four for $260). The Door Store also carries four different bentwood rockers, ranging in price from $99-$199; as well as bentwood bar stools ($44-$99); standing Bentwood hat racks ($59-85); and a wall-hung hat rack ($19.95-$23). Most of the Door Store's bentwood is made from beechwood and comes in a natural, clear lacquer color or a walnut stain. Some come with a caned seat, others with a walnut seat.
At Modern Living, 4821 Columbia Pike in Arlington, Thonet bentwood rockers are available in a walnut finish for $159.95. At Conran's in Georgetown, bentwood furniture manufactured in Poland and Romania includes rockers ($175), bistro chairs ($62) and "Prague" arm chairs ($95). And at Theodore's, 2154 Wisconsin Ave., Thonet rockers and Vienna cafe chairs can be ordered, though they don't carry them in stock. Their prices: light walnut or lacqured (black, red, white or yellow) rockers, $210; beechwood rockers, $207; and cafe chairs in a natural finish with cane seat, $81.
Pier 1 Imports, 3307 M St., NW, also has a large selection of bentwood which includes: a foot stool for $24.99, and oblong coffee table for $69.99, a round end table (69.99), a bentwood arm chair (also $69.99), a love seat ($99.99), bentwood rockers in natural or walnut stain ($99-$129.99) and a side chair ($39.99 and $59.99).