Michael Thonet (1796–1871) was born in Boppard am Rhein, Prussia, and trained as a traditional cabinet-maker. In the 1830s, as an alternative to the laborious technique of carving, he began bending wood to create furniture.
The road to success was not an easy one. Following bankruptcy and aged nearly 50, Thonet was forced to move to Vienna with his wife and five sons. It took nearly another decade to finally establish the family business, Gebrüder Thonet, in 1853.
The firm went on to mass-produce ‘bentwood’ furniture in unprecedented numbers, manufacturing up to 1.8 million pieces a year by 1912.
In 1855 Thonet made a key technological breakthrough. After years of bending laminated wood, he discovered that by attaching a metal strip along its length, solid wood could be bent in a similar way. This eliminated the costly lamination process and earned patents guaranteeing a virtual monopoly on production.
The Thonets were now ready for mass production. In 1857 they built a new factory in Koritschan in the Moravian forests (in what was then Austro-Hungary) with a ready supply of beech wood, plenty of cheap labour and access to important rail links.
The design of Thonet furniture directly reflected its ‘production line’ manufacturing process. The making of each element was broken down into a series of individual tasks. Men did the steaming and bending, women the less arduous sanding, finishing and caning.
The firm’s key design principle was to manufacture as many chair models as possible from as few different parts as possible. These parts were then packed in boxes, for ease of shipping, and assembled elsewhere by the distributors or retailers. In this way, Thonet was able to increase production from 10,000 chairs per year in 1857 to 1,810,000 by 1913.
A family affair
Gebrüder Thonet was a family affair with father and sons closely controlling every last detail of production. They also understood that mass production required a mass market.
Starting in the 1850s the firm exhibited at many international fairs and established a global reputation. They built a worldwide network of retail outlets and, from 1859, published multi-lingual catalogues showing every model, individually numbered, to facilitate orders.
Their strategy proved so successful that by 1930 over 50 million model No. 14 chairs alone had been sold. Today the Thonets are considered pioneers of both furniture design and manufacture.