Monday, April 13, 2015

Bent Into Shape

QUESTION: I recently purchased two bentwood chairs at an antique shop in a nearby town. Both have woven cane seats and the number “14" pressed into the wood under the rim of the seat. I bought them to use in my kitchen. The cane is in good condition and the chairs are stained a dark brown. Can you tell me anything about these chairs—who made them and how old are they?

ANSWER: You made a great purchase. Your chairs are commonly known as “bistro” chairs, and while most people think they date from the early 20th century, they actually date back to the mid 19th century.

Michael Thonet (pronounced “toe-net”), a clever and creative cabinetmaker from Boppard am Rhein, Germany, invented the process for bending wood and as a result created the first pieces of bentwood furniture. He originally made your chairs in 1859, however, his company, which is still in existence, made over 50 million by 1930. So yours could date from the early 20th century.

Thonet, the son of master tanner Franz Anton Thonet, started out as a carpenter's apprentice in 1811. Eight years later, he opened his own shop. In the beginning, he carved his pieces from European beechwood.

In the 1830s, Thonet began trying to make furniture out of glued and bent wooden slats. His first success was the Bopparder Schichtholzstuhl, or Boppard layerwood chair, in 1836. The following year, he purchased the Michelsmühle, the glue factory that made the glue that he used. However, he failed to obtain the patent for his new process in Germany and England in 1940, so he tried again in France and Russia the next year, but again failed.

The steam engine appeared on the scene around the time that Thonet's was experimenting with his bending process. He discovered that he could bend light, strong wood into curved, graceful shapes by forming the wood in hot steam. This enabled him to design elegant, lightweight, durable and comfortable furniture, which appealed strongly to style trend at the time. His pieces were a complete departure from the heavy, carved designs of the past.

At the Koblenz trade fair of 1841, Thonet met Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, who was enthusiastic about Thonet's furniture and invited him to his Vienna court. During 1842, Thonet presented his furniture—particularly his chairs—to the Imperial Family. On July 16 1842: Metternich granted Thonet the right "to bend any type of wood, even the most brittle: into the desired forms and curves by chemical and mechanical means." The Prince granted him a second, nonrenewable 13-year patent on July 10, 1856 "for manufacturing chairs and table legs of bent wood, the curvature of which is effected through the agency of steam or boiling liquids.”

When his first factory in Boppard establishment got into financial trouble, he sold it and moved his family to Vienna, where in 1849, he opened a new factory called the Gebrüder Thonet. In 1850, he produced his Number 1 chair, which he intended to sell to café owners. 

He received a bronze medal for his Vienna bentwood chairs at the London World's Fair in 1851, at which he received international recognition. At the next World's Fair in Paris in 1855, he received the silver medal for his new and improved bentwood chair design.   In 1856, he opened a new factory in Korycany, Moravia because of the country’s ample supply of beechwood.

By 1859, he developed his most famous chair—the Number 14, known as Konsumstuhl No. 14 or coffeehouse chair No.14—for which he finally received a gold medal at the 1867 Paris World's Fair.

Thonet produced his No. 14 chair using six pieces of steam-bent wood, ten screws, and two nuts. He made the wooden parts by heating beechwood slats to 212 °F, pressing them into curved cast-iron molds, then drying them at 158 °F for 20 hours. The chairs could be mass-produced by unskilled workers and disassembled to save space during transportation—an idea used today by the Swedish company IKEA to flat-pack its furniture.

The firm’s later chairs used eight pieces of wood and also had two diagonal braces between the seat and back to strengthen that particular joint.

Today, a pair of these icon chairs with a table is selling on eBay for nearly $1,000.