Born in 1796 in Boppard am Rhein, Germany, carpenter and furniture designer Michael Thonet is famed for the invention of bentwood—a revolutionary process that played a key role in the development of the modern design movement.
Thonet opened his eponymous woodworking shop in his hometown in 1819. In the early 1840s, he began experimenting with bending and gluing laminated battens together, which resulted in the Boppard Chair (1841), the first furniture design to use bentwood.
During an exhibition at the Koblenz Fair in Germany in 1841, Chancellor of Vienna Prince Metternich discovered Thonet’s work and convinced him and his family to relocate to Vienna. Between 1843 and 1846, Thonet and his sons made parquet flooring for Carl Leistler and helped to furnish Liechtenstein Palace and Schwarzenberg Palace. In 1853, the company became Gebrüder Thonet (Thonet Brothers), in honor of Thonet’s five sons who would eventually inherit the hugely successful business.
In 1859, Thonet designed his company’s most renowned piece, the classic Chair No. 14, which is internationally known today as the Viennese Coffeehouse Chair. With this design, Thonet had evolved and refined his bentwood process to enabled mass production for the first time in history. Having sold over 50 million models by 1930, the No. 14 is the world’s bestselling chair.
During the 1860s, the Gebrüder Thonet opened subsidiaries across Europe. Other design classics include, Chair No. 04 for Café Daum (1849), Rocking Chair No. 1 (1860), No. 18 (1876), No. 209 (1900’s)—widely used by Le Corbusier in the 1920s—and Otto Wagner’s 247 (1904).
Thonet’s revolutionary designs inspired many designers— including Le Corbusier, Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto, Yngve Ekström, Otto Wagner, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—and his process allowed for the creation of elegant, lightweight, curvilinear designs that anticipated the minimalist forms associated with modernism.
By the time Thonet passed away in 1871, Gebrüder Thonet had branches in nearly all major European cities. Today the company is known as Thonet GmBh and is headquartered in Frankenberg, Germany.