Interiors: Hooked on Classics

Thonet's bentwood chairs are so familiar and friendly, it comes as a shock to discover the technical innovation and history behind them. The grandaddy of them all, Chair No 14 (today known as 214), looks more at home in a 20th-century cafe than a Victorian parlour, but was actually first produced commercially in 1859. Brahms and Lenin both used it. And they weren't alone. It proved an immediate and continuing hit, so much so that by 1930 some 50 million of them had been sold around the world. Made of only six components glued together (with no screws or nails), it is one of the world's first mass-produced chairs, and is still being manufactured today.

The man who devised it, Michael Thonet (1796-1871), was a brilliant furniture-maker from Boppard on the Rhine. Trained as a traditional carpenter, he was also a ceaseless experimenter and pioneer, more interested in techniques to bend wood and glue layers of veneer than in making money, and always in debt. His big break came in 1841, when the Austrian chancellor, Prince Metternich, saw his furniture at the Koblenz trade show and encouraged him to move to Vienna.

He did so, with his family. And it was with his five sons that he founded Gebrüder Thonet in 1853. Extraordinarily, it has been a successful family business for five generations, and today is run by three brothers, Claus, Peter and Philipp, a jolly and engaging trio who are descended from Jacob, the youngest of the original five.

And while no Thonet so far has inherited Michael's creative inventiveness, they have proved astute at spotting talent in others. Thus Thonet worked with the Bauhaus designers Mart Stam, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1920s as they played with pipes, devised tubular metal furniture and invented the cantilever chair, and has manufactured it ever since.

Thonet's metal furniture has always been made in Frankenberg, in Germany, conveniently close to the beech woods often used for the 214 chair. Today it is Thonet's only factory – others in East­ern Europe were expropriated during the Second World War. The Frankenberg factory was dest­royed by air raids in the last few weeks of the war, and rebuilt by Georg Thonet, father of the current owners. Production of tubular steel furniture resumed in 1954 and bentwood in 1960.

Today it is a gloriously tranquil place, consisting of a number of long, low buildings plus a fabulous museum set against a rural backdrop. Some 180 workers variously fashion metal, leather and wood. The bentwood chairs are still made by hand, and it's astonishing to see poles of wood being removed from the steamer (where they are softened) and then bent into a mould by two leather apron-clad men. Today bentwood designs account for only five per cent of Thonet's business, and the labour-intensive 214 chair costs more than £500. It has been enormously copied – Ikea recently came up with a plastic version – but nowhere else is it made so lovingly.

Alongside its classics, Thonet has always produced more up-to-date pieces – by Verner Panton in the 1950s and 1960s, and more recently chairs by Norman Foster for the British Museum courtyard cafe. The current creative director, charged with introducing new designers to the firm, is James Irvine, an effervescent British designer who has lived and worked in Milan for the past 25 years (apart from a year with Toshiba in Tokyo).

Irvine is a Royal College of Art-educated industrial designer with his own design studio. He has worked on everything from bottle openers to buses (a Mercedes fleet for Hanover) and describes himself as 'not a designer with a particularly strong signature; I've always liked working in a context and Thonet likes that of me.' His most successful design, royalty-wise, is 'a tiny wheel for office chairs – it's very simple, with a disc on the side you can pop in and out in different colours'. He credits the great Italian designer Ettore Sottsass (a colleague for many years) with 'opening my mind to becoming involved in companies'.

Irvine's introduction to Thonet came when Philipp Thonet dropped into his office in Milan, said how much he liked his work and asked him to design a new bentwood chair. They became friends, and Irvine designed Thonet's trade fair stands for five years before taking on the mantle of creative director just over two years ago. He took three years to perfect his take on the bentwood chair. 'I had to come up with a different concept,' he says, 'a rotating office chair – the best thing I've ever done, a luxury product.'

The resulting A660 'Loop' chair (2004) won lots of prizes. He has subsequently produced a bar stool for Thonet – 'not a world-shaker but something that was missing from the catalogue' – and a sofa which he describes as 'the one the Bauhaus forgot to do'.

Irvine is a passionate advocate of family-owned companies such as Thonet and most Italian brands he works with. 'They believe in things instead of being marketing led,' he states. The working situation is positive, not based on looking at balance sheets. 'One of the nicest things that you can do as a designer is work with a company that has a history and a context,' Irvine explains.

He has thought laterally about making Thonet's iconic pieces more widely available at a reasonable price. This spring Muji is launching several simplified versions of Thonet's bentwood and tubular steel pieces, all made in Frankenberg. The metal furniture, including a cantilevered chair and desk, is by Konstantin Grcic. The first piece, though, is Irvine's reinterpretation of the 214 chair, fulfilling his aim 'to work within Thonet's tradition, to bring it forward, make it relevant now'. It should be a very happy birthday.

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