Peter Thonet - Profile


Peter Thonet is the latest in the family-run eponyomous German furniture design business, in family hands since it started in 1819. Now a brand ambassador, with younger family members well established at Thonet, Peter has welcomed new blood being introduced, with Thorsten Muck recently appointed as CEO. They talk to FX about all things Thonet.


FX

Words by Emily Martin

Last June I went to Leipzig, approximately 200km south-west of Berlin, where I met Peter Thonet, the brand ambassador and not long retired managing director of historic German furniture manufacturer Thonet. I spent two days with him, along with recently appointed CEO Thorsten Muck, learning about the family business that is still in the hands of the Thonet family after five generations. Now in his more senior years he now sits on the company's advisory board, I was keen to find out from Peter how important a role the family plays in running the business today, about the decision to bring in 'fresh blood' and its impact on the company's future success.

'It's very important to maintain a family connection to Thonet,' begins Peter, who became actively involved in the family business after completing his military service in Germany. 'It's the genius of the family and we are all involved in the company,' he says. Peter was born in 1947, part of the baby-boom generation. When he was growing up, he says the Thonet company was reeling from the devastation of the Second World War, which had a major impact throughout his childhood and early adult years. Joining the family business, along with his two brothers Claus and Philipp, was never doubted.

From the exhibition in Leipzig, Sit. Lie. Rock
From the exhibition in Leipzig, Sit. Lie. Rock

'Our parents never asked us,' he says. 'You must imagine that the factory was destroyed during the war and my father (Georg Thonet, who retired from the company in 1994) had to build it up again.' For Peter, and the rest of the family, it was (and is) more of a question about family duty, heritage and pride.

It was founded in 1819 by Peter's great great grandfather Michael Thonet, a cabinetmaker who pioneered wood bending for use in furniture production. By applying this technique, Thonet's early designs - which include the iconic No 14 Bistro chair (1859-60) that is one of the most mass-produced products of all time - adopted its trademark simplistic and distinct styling forms and set the foundations for the company's success. By the time Michael's son and grandson (Jacob and Richard) had succeeded him, the company had acquired substantial land - including 20,000 hectares of woodland - which was used to supply raw materials to the factory.

Thonet’s tubular classics remain in the company’s product range. Shown are the S285 desk by Marcel Breuer (1935); Mart Stam’s Cantilever Chair S33 (1926); sideboard S290 (2014) by the Thonet design team
Thonet's tubular classics remain in the company's product range. Shown are the S285 desk by Marcel Breuer (1935); Mart Stam's Cantilever Chair S33 (1926); sideboard S290 (2014) by the Thonet design team

'For us the company grounds was always there, and it was a big adventure park as a child,' says Peter smiling at his childhood memories. 'The company was always the "thing" and we were automatically involved. So you grow up with this theme and for us it was not a question of doing something else.'

Before the outbreak of war the Thonet company was a leading manufacturer of tubular steel furniture that was largely being pioneered by Bauhaus students during the Twenties. Despite for the first time breaking away from its recognised wood manufacturing methods, as set out by Michael's original designs and incorporating alternative materials and processes, it's the simplistic design principle, and the innovation in these designs, says Peter, that Thonet celebrates as its established design mark 'We are always open to new products and new designs, but we don't want to leave "this" idea of design,' he explains. 'Using minimalist forms, which also save on materials, is what we need as a company.'

In production still is the No14 Bistro chair (1859-60) designed by Michael Thonet. Bistro features a signature knot to show its originality
In production still is the No14 Bistro chair (1859-60) designed by Michael Thonet. Bistro features a signature knot to show its originality

So Thonet's success hinges on its past and changing very little? Peter and Muck take me to the Grassi Museum, in Leipzig, where the 'Sit. Lie. Rock. Furniture from Thonet' exhibition is on, to help further explain the Thonet philosophy - which involves looking back over its nearly 200-year history. The exhibition, which explores the links between the post-war Thonet and Thonet today, focuses on products designed and produced post-1945, but does include a number of the pre-war steel tubular designs.

Products designed by Mart Stam and Breuer, were reproduced in the Sixties alongside Michel Thonet's original bentwood designs - which are still popular sellers for Thonet today and, in Peter's words, are still 'needed' for the company.

Steam wood bending at the Thonet factory in the 19th century. Same design but in the hands of a present day furniture maker
Steam wood bending at the Thonet factory in the 19th century. Same design but in the hands of a present day furniture maker

I am taken to the Bauhaus Achive, located in a redundant brewery in Dessau. The late 19th-century red-brick building is spectacular looking and not somewhere I'd imagine locating the original prototypes and artwork produced by Bauhaus students that helped pioneer the modern movement. But with its hugely thick walls and limited natural light, the building is just what its contents need in order to help preserve the delicate originals for future generations.

As we move pass some original Marcel Breuer cantilever chairs, which he himself had mocked up during his student days, Peter says that this place holds historic value to art historians and the Thonet family alike, which worked with design students such as Breuer to produce the then revolutionary designs. 'The Bauhaus furniture is a very important milestone,' he says. 'For us, there's no question over preserving its design legacy for the future.'

Steam wood bending at the Thonet factory in the 19th century. Same design but in the hands of a present day furniture maker
Steam wood bending at the Thonet factory in the 19th century. Same design but in the hands of a present day furniture maker

At the helm of a company run by one family for decades on end, CEO Thorsten Muck is the only other 'incomer', along with Roland Ohnacker who took over from Claus Thonet in 2008, demonstrating that blood is not necessarily thicker than water when it comes to business. 'In my opinion it's not really necessary to have one of the family in the front of the company. I think it's always the best person we can find should do this job,' says Muck.

'But in the end I think it will always be that family members work in the company - like now,' He speaks of a close working relationship with Peter and the two members of the current generation - Felix and Percy Thonet - who hold established roles within the business. Despite having one person nominally 'in charge' it's clear that decisions are made as a family unit, with its members working from a lifetime of experience. I imagine Muck is grateful for the help.

Thonet exhibited as part of Clerkenwell Design Week 2014, showcasing its newer range of products with Bauhaus appeal. 'It was the first time we exhibited at the event and we hope to be back next year with a bigger stand in the Familoe building,' says Muck, already working with a small network of UK dealers and keen to create a bigger presence.

Muck even talks of possibly establishing a Thonet showroom in London and Peter listens enthusiastically. No matter what direction the company takes, Peter hopes it continue as a family establishment. 'We are very happy that Thorsten follows me [in my aim] to develop the success of the company over the coming years,' he says. 'And I hope that the family will continue to be involved in the company in the next generations.' thonet.de








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