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Argyle Chair
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Bendable Beauty


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?








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 He originally made your chairs in 1859, however, his company, which is still in existence, made over 50 million by 1930.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.

Thonet simplified the complicated technical properties of wood: explored the limitations of its flexibility, and developed a new type of design with an appeal that reached far beyond its novelty. His furniture designs were simple and graceful with a distinctive quality that belied their true strength.

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.”

Beechwood: proved to be less prone to splitting than other kinds of wood, such as oak or birch. After placing the rods of beech in a pressure vessel, Thonet applied steam until the resin surrounding the timber fibers became pliable. In this changed state, he could bend the rod around a form .Once the rod had taken shape, he would leave it to cure. The hardened resin would effectively hold the timber fibers firm in the new shape, which he could then use as a solid component in the manufacture of bentwood furniture.

Protected by patent, Gebruder Thonet was to be the only firm in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for more than a decade that could legally produce bentwood furniture..

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 coffee shop chair No.14—for which he finally received a gold medal at the 1867 Paris World's Fair. It became the most popular chair manufactured in the 19th century.

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.

Minimal in its design and economical in its use of material, the No. 14 chair employed elements later seen in classical modernism. The production model, which appeared in the late 1850s, spanned the transition from workshop to factory production. A complete economy of process, suitable for mass production, distinguished Thonet’s final model.

Thonet’s company, Gebruder Thonet, entered the No. 14 chair in many industrial fairs. Its success prompted the opening of branches throughout Europe in the 1860s. The variety of models manufactured by Thonet broadened to include furniture for work and leisure, for public and private use. Before long, patrons in fashionable cafés all over Vienna sat on his bentwood chairs while enjoying their coffee.

Gebruder Thonet launched the No.18 chair in 1876, one of a group of chairs with back inserts of curves and loops of bentwood. With the insert reduced to this single loop, the chair is more stable and more comfortable than No.14, since it provides support for the back without touching the spine.

The company introduced the tip-up theater chair in 1888. Designed for the new Deutsche Volkstheatre in Vienna, its impact was revolutionary and soon theaters all over Europe began ordering it.

To most, bentwood stands as the shining example of what can be achieved through design. Its form both expresses and symbolizes the manufacturing process that lays behind it. Technically simple, it was the embodiment of the principles of mass production: inexpensive to manufacture, transportable in large quantities, and it was strong and durable, making it an excellent choice for commercial use.

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. The basic technique of making furniture from bent materials hasn’t changed significantly since the 19th century.

Today, a pair of No. 14 chairs with a matching table is selling on eBay for nearly $1,000.


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