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The firm of Thonet has revolutionised furniture design over the last two centuries by pioneering everything from cheap cafe chairs to the Bauhaus. Alexander von Vegesack, the author of a new book on the family business, reveals its dramatic history

Alexander von Vegesack
Sunday 01 December 1996 01:02 GMT

When Michael Thonet died on 3 March 1871, he was the most important furniture manufacturer of the century and famous all over the world. He had been born in Boppard on the Rhine, in 1796, the only son of a poor family. His father was a tanner but Michael had been apprenticed to a cabinet maker. In 1819, aged 23, Thonet opened his own workshop and a year later married Anna Maria Grahs. Over the next 10 years they had four sons: Franz, Michael, August and Josef. A fifth son, Jakob, was born later in 1841.

As bent wood seemed a promising technique, both in Europe and the US, Michael Thonet began to develop his own method of laminating wood. The chairs he built were revolutionary in design and construction.

In the summer of 1841 Thonet exhibited his elegant bent-wood pieces at the Koblenz fair, where they attracted the attention of Prince Klemens von Metternich, Chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Prince is supposed to have encouraged Thonet by saying: "You will always remain a poor man in Boppard. Go to Vienna, where I shall recommend you to the Court." Indeed, Metternich arranged for samples of Thonet's work to be shown to the Emperor.

Thonet's main intention in Vienna, however, was to avoid the restrictions of the guilds and proceed with his vision of mass-production; but while he was struggling to have his patents registered in Vienna, a catastrophe was brewing in Boppard. His creditors had become nervous and forced his wife to sell all the family property. The penniless Michael Thonet finally moved his family to Vienna in 1842.

Unable to work independently due to his financial troubles, Thonet and his older sons worked for the Viennese furniture manufacturer Clemens List in Gumpendorf. List introduced Thonet to the fashionable English avant-garde architect Peter Hubert Desvignes, who supported Thonet and found the family work manufacturing the parquet flooring for the renovation of the prestigious Palais Liechtenstein.

The Thonets were employed by other people for seven years, but then - with the continuing help of Desvignes - they were again able to set up their own workshop, and when Thonet designed a light chair that was also cheap, it was an instant success. He exhibited this Model Number 4 in Vienna and the dainty chair caught the eye of the proprietress of the Cafe Daum, who wanted to transform her fashionable coffee-house into a modern cafe with light chairs. Soon Thonet's creation was known as the "Cafe Daum chair".

By the spring of 1853 the first workshop had become too small and a new one was opened at Mollardgasse in Vienna. In the November Gebruder Thonet (Thonet Brothers) was founded when Michael Thonet transferred the business to his sons.

The demand for bent-wood furniture soon outstripped the capacity of Thonet's second workshop. Apart from the lack of space the company also had to contend with its increasing demand for beech wood which had to be shipped to Vienna in barges along the Danube. Gebruder Thonet decided to transfer production from Vienna to the densely wooded areas of Moravia. In the village of Koritschan, 150km north of Vienna, it found all the prerequisites for the foundation of a factory: an abundance of beech wood, the railway, and an unlimited reservoir of poor local workers. So, in the spring of 1856, Michael Thonet with his sons Michael and August, moved to Koritschan. Franz, the oldest son, and Josef were left in charge of the Vienna company.

But just three years after Koritschan began production its capacity was insufficient, although 300 workers were producing 200 pieces of furniture every day. Demand had grown so much that there was once again a shortage of wood. To solve these problems it was decided to build a factory in Bistritz, 50km from Koritschan. After 12 months, production reached 20,000 pieces per year - as much as the first factory - and the bulk of the production was still taken up with Chair Number 14. Soon the two factories employed 800 workers between them and manufactured 70,000 pieces of furniture each year. By 1865 annual production had more than doubled to 150,000.

Ten years after the opening of the first factory, a third was needed and in 1865, a country seat with huge beech forests in Hungary was purchased. In 1899 the first limestone factory to produce building materials for factories and houses was opened. The brickworks produced bricks with a Thonet stamp. Thonet now provided housing estates for the workers complete with schools, libraries, creches and shops.

Protective import taxes had just been introduced in some countries, which made those markets unprofitable, so to circumvent, the duties factories were also opened in Polish Russia and at Frankenberg an der Eder in Germany.

The company's success was due in large part to the strict separation between production and marketing. With the help of his sons, Michael Thonet had succeeded in developing an international marketing network that was able to keep pace with the rapidly growing production. The extravagant retail branches, at the best addresses in all the major international business centres, were monuments to the legendary success of Thonet in the late 19th century. As a result of skilled marketing techniques, by 1912 Thonet reached its zenith with an annual output of 1.8 million pieces of furniture.

Immmediately after the last patent ran out in 1869, about 30 bent-wood companies sprang up in competition with Gebruder Thonet, and by the turn of the century the number had risen to hundreds all over the world.

Leopold Pilzer, who worked for the Austrian bankers Credit Anstalt, masterminded the consolidation of 16 of the smaller companies into one large firm called Mundus AG. Pilzer was a shareholder in the new company, holding 6 per cent of the shares.

The market now had three main competitors: Gebruder Thonet, Jacob & Josef Kohn and Mundus AG, all of whom banked with Credit Anstalt.

The onset of First World War changed things drastically. Exports stopped, raw materials were in short supply, and 75 per cent of the workforce was conscripted. The Thonet factories were only able to work for two days a week and, as the Austro- Hungarian Empire had collapsed, except for Frankenberg, they were now located in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

A price war broke out between the three major manufacturers and this, in addition to the war, reduced profits so drastically that Kohn and Mundus merged in 1914. Gebruder Thonet tried to hold out but in 1921 it became a joint-stock company, Thonet AG, in order to sell shares. In 1923, however, Thonet was forced to merge with Kohn-Mundus to form Mundus-Allgemeine- Handels-und Industrie-Gesellschaft, the largest furniture concern in the world. Leopold Pilzer was president with an 18 per cent share in the new company. Gebruder Thonet owned about half of the Mundus stock but only exerted influence over the former family business.

Mundus operated two separate companies in the USA - Thonet Brothers and Kohn-Mundus. Towards the end of the 1920s Thonet Brothers opened a factory in Long Island, initially to assemble bent-wood furniture made in Europe and to produce those items which were only sold in America.

At the end of the 1920s, the new architectural ideology equated tubular steel with modern living. Thonet-Mundus purchased the rights to the best furniture designs by leading architects and consequently led the field in tubular-steel furniture from 1929.

When Credit Anstalt collapsed in 1931 Pilzer bought the Thonet-Mundus shares held by the bank, thus becoming the major shareholder. At this point the Nazis were coming into power in Germany, however, and Pilzer, being Jewish, decided to move the official headquarters of Thonet-Mundus to Switzerland and then in 1936 began moving the company to the US.

By 1938 Pilzer had managed to emigrate to the US and had sold the Eastern European and German factories back to the Thonet family who, in return, relinquished their stake in Mundus Holdings. Gebruder Thonet was allowed to manufacture for the markets east of the Rhine, while Thonet-Mundus kept the rights for America, France and England.

After the Second World War it looked like the end of Thonet in Europe. The factories in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary were nationalised by the socialist governments. In Czechoslovakia Thonet became a state enterprise, and in 1954 the company name was changed to Ton.

The Frankenberg factory in Ger- many had been destroyed by Allied bombers on 12 March 1945; the Thonet House on Stephansplatz in Vienna had burned down and all the family property was lost. All that was left in Europe was the Thonet name. But Georg Thonet - the great-grandson of the company's founder - began to rebuild the Frankenberg factory with the help of some former employees.

Five years later many more of the old staff had returned, including some from the Bistritz factory. Their knowledge was invaluable, as all the models and drawings had been destroyed.

In the US, Thonet Brothers Inc had been least affected by the war and was ready to expand. Electronically moulded plywood seemed a sound alternative to traditional labour-intensive bent wood, and indeed the technique was similar to that developed by Michael Thonet in the 19th century. Thonet Bentply, introduced in 1945 and proclaimed as "solid-sturdy- strong-streamlined", proved so popular, that Thonet could hardly keep up with demand for the furniture.

When the first Gebruder Thonet post-war catalogue appeared in Europe in 1949 its pages featured many bent-wood, and also a few tubular-steel, models from the Thirties. New designs based on contemporary taste and demand were soon developed, however, and in 1953 Gebruder Thonet produced the first innovative post-war model: Chair Number 652 which was made from wood and tubular steel. It was a great success and the profits from it were used to expand the factory at Frankenberg. By 1955 the catalogues included plywood chairs, a large number of updated bent-wood models and a new line of wooden chairs with upholstered seats and plywood backs. Similar styles, with thin tubular-steel frames, soon became very popular too.

In 1962, there were developments in each of the Thonet companies. In France, Thonet Freres was sold to its manager, Andre Leclerc. In the US, Thonet Brothers Inc was bought by Simmons, a hospital-furniture firm. In Germany Gebruder Thonet agreed that the USA company would take over the rights to the Gebruder Thonet trademark for Germany and the rest of the EEC. In 1979, Simmons was sold to the Gulf & Western Corporation, and in 1985 the American Thonet Com- pany, now called Thonet Industries, was taken over by successful businessman Manfred Steinfeld who, like Leopold Pilzer, had had to leave Germany in 1938. Steinfeld owns Shelby Williams Industries, which makes restaurant and hotel furniture.

In the Sixties there was a revival of bent-wood and tubular steel furniture in both Europe and America and Thonet became a household name yet again. Throughout the following years, Gebruder Thonet in Germany continued to develop new models and won numerous awards. But even today the greater output of Gebruder Thonet consists of the bent-wood models on which its original reputation was built by Michael Thonet over a century ago.


`Thonet: Class Furniture in Bent Wood and Tubular Steel' by Alexander von Vegesack is published 5 December at pounds 25. Independent on Sunday readers can purchase copies for pounds 20, including post and packaging, by sending a cheque made payable to Hazar Publishing Ltd, to Marie Clayton, Hazar Publishing, 147 Chiswick High Rd, London W4 2DT


Thonet's association with tubular steel dates from the Twenties, when, as Thonet-Mundus, it began to propagate the new architectural ideology which equated tubular steel with modern living. It was a logical consequence for the bent-wood industry to switch to tubular steel. Thonet purchased the rights to the best designs by leading architects and led the field from 1929 until the Second World War.

Half of Thonet's production in the early Thirties was designed by Marcel Breuer, who was at home with utilitarian and elegant models. Thonet purchased the best designs in Germany and France, where a tubular-steel tradition had grown up under Le Cor-busier. The co-operation between German and French manufacture was unique for the time and only possible because of the international nature of the Thonet-Mundus company.

After Leopold Pilzer bought Thonet-Mundus stock, his stepson Bruno Weill, an architect, took over the management of Thonet Freres in France. Weill was progressive and mass-produced his own designs and those of the team of Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, Lurcat and the architects Guillot and Guvot.

The work of Marcel Breuer - a teacher at the Dessau Bauhaus - was crucial in the development of tubular steel. He produced many influential designs between 1925 and 1927, and was the most intelligent and consistent in the realisation of the Bauhaus ideas - as is shown by his world-famous chair, model B3. He also developed a double-cantilever chair. His inspiration, as well as that of Mies van der Rohe who was one of the 20th century's most important architects, came from the Dutch architect Mart Stam. Stam was obsessed by the idea of a cantilever chair, as were his colleagues, who wanted to apply the principle in architecture as well as furniture.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe immediately started work on his own design for a cantilever chair and was granted a patent. What he wanted to protect was not the shape, but the principle of the suspension. It was more difficult for Breuer because he never managed to separate his cantilever chair designs from Mart Stam's idea.

Standard Mobel was taken over by Thonet-Mundus in 1929. Thonet be- lieved it had purchased the rights to Stam's cantilever chair along with Standard Mobel, but Lorenz successfully argued in court that he still enjoyed the rights to the chair.

This "Lorenz Monopoly" provoked interesting reactions from other designers forced to find variations which could not be attacked on the basis of the Lorenz/Stam patent. It was as a result of this pressure, for example, that Marcel Breuer improved on the original idea with the principle of a chair on runners (model B35) with a free-swinging seat.

The 1932 Thonet catalogue introduced the designs of Mies van der Rohe. Mies van der Rohe, the last great designer not working for Thonet after Le Corbusier and Breuer had joined the company, finally signed a contract with Thonet in November 1931. Thonet now began to manufacture the Mies van der Rohe cantilever chair as model MR533.

In that year's catalogue, however, it became clear that popular tastes could not be changed as radically as the architects had hoped at the end of the 1920s. The strict architectural designs sat oddly with the more popular pieces, which included upholstered chairs, dressers, flower and umbrella stands. During the Thirties, tubular steel moved away from the avant-garde towards bourgeois conformism - even the room displays of the 1932 catalogue ref-lected the bourgeois taste with glass cabinets full of bric-a-brac. The days when Thonet had dared to present tubular steel as pure and abstract had passed. Breuer's B3 chair, the symbol of avant- garde, was nowhere to be found in the catalogue and was not re-introduced until the 1960s.

By the mid-Thirtiess the political and artistic landscape of Germany had changed and under Hitler no compromises were possible. By 1935 the Bauhaus had already ceased to exist as an institution for two years and some leading designers were working in Switzerland and England, from where they would eventually emigrate to the US. The catalogue of 1935 reflects this change. Although the most important models of the Dessau Bauhaus are still included, they are integrated in a non-committal way.

When the first post-war catalogue appeared in 1949 it featured many bent- wood and a few tubular-steel models of the Thirties, but in 1953 Gebruder Thonet produced the first innovative post-war model. Chair no. ST664 was designed by Edelhardt Harlis with a conical plywood seat and iron rod legs. It was such a success that the profits from it largely financed the expansion of the Frankenberg factory. By 1955, Gebruder Thonet offered plywood chairs, a large number of updated bent-wood models, a new line of wooden chairs with upholstered seats and plywood backs, and models with thin tubular-steel frames.

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