Bending the rules, then creating a timeless set of new ones: The evolving icons of Thonet

2019 has been a benchmark year for one of the world’s most distinctive and influential furniture brands. Two hundred years ago, carpenter Michael Thonet started a furniture making enterprise in Boppard-Rhein, Germany. Having mastered the art of curving wood, he went on to create a simple yet elegant chair made from six parts of bentwood (plus ten screws and two nuts) which would revolutionise the furniture industry. This new design established the foundation for serial mass production, as when disassembled into its individual parts, thirty-six chairs could be packed into a shipping crate then delivered throughout the world.

One hundred years later this family company, still thriving and adhering to a profound set of values, became a key production partner for pioneering designers from the Bauhaus school – and a second wave of furnishing icons was created by bending tubular steel. Thus, 2019 represents a double anniversary of re-shaping the nature of furniture design, with much to celebrate.

Today, Thonet (the one and only original company, based in Frankenberg, Germany) still produces such essential pieces as part of an extensive and evolving portfolio of designs, inspired by a clear ethos and yet tailored to each era’s personality and practical considerations.

True to its traditional values while conscious of the primary demands of the present day (for both work and living spaces) the company remains at the heart of contemporary interior aesthetics. By nurturing talent within its own in-house design team – and inviting collaborations with like-minded studios (be they established luminaries or rising stars) – the brand regularly  presents subtle yet relevant updates to its bentwood and tubular steel classics, alongside completely new designs drawn from the unique Thonet DNA.

Culturally (and literally) interior design has ‘grown up’ with Thonet. Original Thonet pieces are highly collectible and often bequeathed as heirlooms. Ubiquitous in historical art, film and photography Thonet icons have claimed their places in the homes, offices and coffee houses of yesterday, and in a well-deserved rival, increasingly so today. Thonet is an indelible feature of the design canon, familiar to both students and aficionados of the discipline, and to museum visitors and auctioneers alike.

In the build-up to its double centenary celebrations, Thonet invited designers such as Studio Besau Marguerre and Sebastian Herkner, as well as the in-house creative team, to revisit and subtly update certain classic pieces – or to take these much-loved icons as the starting point for new generations of bentwood and tubular steel. These pieces include:

Bentwood Revisited:

A smart colour concept for a design icon: Chair no. 14 (today 214) created by Michael Thonet in 1859 and re-interpreted by Studio Besau Marguerre in 2019

Eva Marguerre and Marcel Besau have created a special version of the famous Thonet Coffee House Chair 214 in four fresh, two-tone versions: black, white, velvet red and sage. The special feature of this lightest of touches is the subtle visual distinction it creates between the connecting elements of the chair (which are stained several shades paler) and the seat ring and legs.

This discreet interplay of colours at once draws the eye to the ingenious, minimalistic construction of the chair, while at the same time transporting its traditional silhouette into a new and current context. The natural tone of the chosen stains creates an almost translucent effect lending these classic colours a contemporary touch.

With their colour concept, Eva Marguerre and Marcel Besau draw attention to the essential construction of chair 214, thereby also to the essence of the brand. Based loosely on Charles and Ray Eames’ famous quotation “The details are not the details, they make the product”, their application of toned hues makes the chair’s revolutionary design visible, as the individual elements become subtly differentiated through such chromatic nuances. Eva Marguerre and Marcel Besau comment that “the iconic nature of the chair is emphasised.”

The colour concept represents a spectrum of discrete shades in combination with suggestions of strong character. The two-tone white and two-tone black versions add simple elegance that works well within any style of interior. The two-tone velvet red version evokes the look of 19th century coffee houses, while the fresh harmony of the soft sage green version adds a contemporary edge.

The 118 Chair: Sebastian Herkner reimagines bentwood in a contemporary way

Minimalistic and honest while at the same time graceful and sophisticated: the 118 is a classic wooden chair which ensures subtle elegance at any dining table or in any restaurant. With this design, Sebastian Herkner pays homage to the diversified heritage of the company. Based on the principle of reducing a chair to the fewest elements possible, which Michael Thonet developed in the mid-19th century, Herkner has taken this ethos one step further with the 118: adding refined details to the simplicity that is prevalent in current chair design, thus making this evolution less stark and more polished.

The new 118 chair references the 214, the archetype of a Thonet chair, by virtue of a seat frame bent from a single piece of wood and with the wicker caned seat. (Optionally, the 118 is offered with a moulded seat.) The shape of the legs also distinguishes the design: rounded at the back and characterised by subtle edges at the front, they reference the horseshoe shape of the seat. The incline of the back panel is perfectly coordinated with the seat and ensures optimum seating comfort. Chair 118 is available in natural beech and in lacquered or stained versions and now also in high-gloss versions.

Bauhaus brought forward:

The ‘Atelier’ version of the S 64 chair: A classic becomes mobile

The working world is adapting to greater flexibility and mobility and, accordingly, a Thonet icon from the Bauhaus era has evolved. The classic chair S 64 by Marcel Breuer is now available as a swivel design with a central leg and castors. The S 64 Atelier maintains all the comfort and elegance of the original, but now offers greater flexibility in application.

This Atelier version has a tubular steel frame with the seat and backrest elements mounted on a five-star aluminium swivel base. The design of these main elements combining metal, wood and wicker remains untouched and the mobile version has been created with respectful sensitivity for the original. The new base can be chrome-plated or powder-coated and the chair’s wooden elements are in stained beech in a range of colours choices. The stretched cane seat is supported by a transparent mesh, alternatively it can be upholstered in leather or fabric.

These new and revisited pieces join the extensive Thonet portfolio to demonstrate the welcome ways in which ingenious design and the highest standards of manufacture, remain timelessly relevant and meaningful.

For further information on Thonet in the UK:

Thonet showroom in the UK: 3rd Floor, 104-110 Goswell Road, London, EC1V 7DH

T +44 (0) 7980 019 194


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