Thonet and the invention of bentwood furniture

Pioneering manufacturing techniques and processes, Thonet and Sons have produced some of the most remarkable designs in the history of furniture.

Michael Thonet (1796 – 1871) was born in Boppard am Rhein, Germany, 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 in Austria 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 wood made up of stacks of veneers glued together, he discovered that by adding steam and attaching a metal strip along its length, solid wood could be bent in a similar way. Not only was this a cheaper process, but it also earned Thonet patents guaranteeing a virtual monopoly on production.

(Left to right:) Model no. 1, armchair, designed and manufactured by Thonet Brothers (Gebrüder Thonet), about 1859, Vienna, Austria. Museum no. W.30-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 'Thonet 18', chair, designed and manufactured by Thonet Brothers (Gebrüder Thonet), about 1876, Vienna, Austria. Museum no. W.4-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Chair, designed and manufactured by Thonet Brothers (Gebrüder Thonet), 1890 – 1920, Vienna, Austria. Museum no. W.5-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Thonets were now ready for mass production. In 1857, they built a new factory in Koritschan in the Moravian forests (modern-day Koryčany in the Czech Republic) 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.

Thonet factory
(Left to right:) Bending wood in a Thonet factory, about 1920, Gebrüder Thonet, via Wikimedia Commons; Sanding wood in a Thonet factory, about 1910, Gebrüder Thonet, via Wikimedia Commons

The firm's key design principle was to manufacture as many chair models as possible from as few 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.

(Left to right:) Chair, model no. 14, designed and manufactured by Thonet Brothers (Gebrüder Thonet), about 1887 – 1900, Vienna, Austria. Museum no. W.10:1 to 8-2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Chair, model no. 14, designed and manufactured by Thonet Brothers (Gebrüder Thonet), about 1859, Vienna, Austria. Museum no. W.31-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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. In 1851, Thonet took part in the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, London and exhibited two armchairs, six side chairs, four tables, and two additional pieces described as 'what nots'. Although describing the chairs as "curious", the jury awarded them a prize medal.

The Thonets 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.

Thonet Brothers advertising broadsheet, 1873, United States. Museum no. E.2314-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Header image: (Detail:)Armchair, model no. 1, designed and manufactured by Thonet Brothers (Gebrüder Thonet), about 1859, Vienna, Austria. Museum no. W.30-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London