Simplicity is often the key to creating an iconic design. And in the case of the Thonet chair, only six elements were required to make each chair.
Designer Michael Thonet, who created the Vienna No. 14 in 1859, spent years researching the best way to not only put these elements together, but also the best way to bend timber, with the chair’s curved backrest providing its distinctive look and feel.
While the Thonet No. 18, Thonet’s later version, is regularly seen in cafes today, this design would certainly have been appreciated by those wearing their Victorian garb, the women with their bustled dresses and men draping their coat tails through the minimal backrest (the legs and backrest are made from a single piece of wood). And while the Viennese were enjoying sipping coffee from their Thonets, it didn’t take long before other European cities discovered these pleasures.
Made from laminated beech, with a woven cane seat, the Vienna No.14 took its name from the designer’s city, Vienna, and became a popular choice for cafes along the city’s Ringstrasse. And, as it intended, by 1930, this iconic chair, designed for the mass market, had sold in the vicinity of 50 million: hence it’s often referred to as the ‘consumer’ chair, and for many restauranteurs, the ‘bistro’ chair.
Thonet seemed to have thought of not just the comfort required for those extended café sojourns but also ensuring that any liquid spilt by a waiter drained through the seat, either made from woven cane or palm. Thonet spent considerable time experimenting with laminated wood and glue before he stumbled across the idea of steaming timber within a metal brace to create the amount of curvature he was looking for.
Nicholas Barratt, Commercial Sales and Marketing Manager for Thonet in Victoria, receives containers monthly which include both the Vienna No.14 and the Thonet No.18. As with many designs that improve with time, the latter version of the Thonet, released in the late 1860s, features more bracing, with a springing system aligned to the legs of the seat that allow for more moveability. “If you look at the Thonet chair, it was an important step in mass production,” Nicholas says, who sees this chair as popular for both commercial and domestic settings, together with period and contemporary spaces. And while there are reproductions, these Thonet chairs are clearly branded with the name ‘Thonet’.
The Vienna No.14 relatively modest price of $219 (while the Thonet No. 18 retailing for $209) makes it accessible to a broader audience and an affordable option for restauranteurs requiring multiple chairs for their customers. “It’s also extremely light, weighing only six kilograms, which allows it to be easily moved around,” Nicholas says, who also appreciates this chair’s visual lightness. “It doesn’t take up much ‘visual space’,” he adds.
Designer Suzie Forge purchased 12 Vienna No.14 chairs in one hit. “They’re easy to move around and also extremely comfortable. Some of these chairs were brought down to my holiday house. They work well with my stained plywood walls and timber ceiling,” Suzie says. And while she started off with 12, a few found their way into Suzie’s daughter’s house nearby. “They’re just so simple, but simplicity is often the best solution.”