Discover the fascinating ‘rags to riches’ story of Gebrüder Thonet Vienna's German founder, the company's role in the genesis of industrial design, and how more than 160 years after it was founded, GTV continues to merge tradition and innovation in their designs.
Gebrüder Thonet Vienna's founder Michael Thonet came from modest beginnings but by the time of his death in the 1870s he was one of the most famous design figures in the world.
Thonet was in his early 20s when he set up his first furniture-making workshop in Boppard, Germany. It would take the traditionally trained cabinetmaker 25 years of research and development, before he found success.
In the 1830s, the Thonet began bending wood to create furniture and developed his own method of laminating and gluing wood together. His technique allowed him to create chairs that were seen as revolutionary in their design and construction.
Michael Thonet's big break
Just like today, having an influential person on board as a brand ambassador can be the boost a fledgling design brand. Thonet’s big break came after an encounter at an 1841 exhibition with one of the most influential men in Europe – Prince Klemens von Metternich, Chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Prime Minister to Emperor Franz Josef.
Legend has it that after admiring his elegantly curved designs Metternich invited Thonet to Vienna telling him he'd never make it if he stayed in his native Germany.
Thonet took the advice, and soon relocated to the Hapsburg Capital and was awarded a much-sought-after patent for his bentwood process, plus a commission to furnish the Liechtenstein Palace.
It was another 7 years before the the family were in a financial position to start their own workshop. In 1853, the company Gebrüder Thonet (“Brothers Thonet”) was founded by Michael Thonet and his five sons.
Just a few years after their Gebrüder Thonet was founded, the family achieved a significant technological breakthrough.
The company had begun to export all over the world and in more humid climates, the glue that had bonded their designs together was losing its adhesive qualities. Some of the original designs were literally falling apart at the seams.
After numerous experiments the family had an industrial breakthrough – they discovered how to bend long rounded-off pieces of beech wood using a steam oven and iron bending moulds.
The mechanical steaming method was ingenious but simple.
By attaching a metal strip along its length, solid wood could be bent in a similar way to laminate. The innovation allowed the company to manufacture elegant yet practical designs on a large scale.
Bentwood chairs and mass-manufacture
Gebrüder Thonet was one of the first companies in the world to create well-designed objects for a mass-market. Their production techniques, and widespread fame encouraged the most important Viennese architects to design new products for them including Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos.
Chair No. 14 is probably the most well known and most widely distributed piece of furniture made by Gebrüder Thonet. Simple, versatile and ever contemporary, it is considered the first true example of industrial design and the piece that marked the company’s transition from a series production to mass production.
The structure is formed from carefully steam bent solid beech wood. But it isn’t just the production technique that makes this design so revolutionary. No. 14 was designed to be able to disassemble into a few components.
This made it easy for export as the prefabricated individual pieces, once built, could then be taken apart again, packaged and sent in pieces to their destination. The final construction took place where the furniture was needed.
The global positioning of Gebrüder Thonet was also unrivalled – in 1865 the company had 22 single-brand company stores throughout the world.
By 1912, the Gebrüder Thonet catalogue boasted 980 different models and the company was producing 1.8 million pieces of furniture per year.
New beginnings and the company today
The onset of WWI changed everything. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, raw materials were in short supply and the majority of the company's workforce was conscripted.
By the end of WWII, the original business had fragmented. Independent production plants had been set up in different countries and been developed into separate businesses.
The Austrian arm of the business was rebuilt after the war by descendants of Michael Thonet, including his great-grandson Fritz Jakob Thonet as well as Fritz Jakob’s children Evamarie Thonet and Richard Thonet.
In 1976, the company changed its name to Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, its current incarnation.
Gebrüder Thonet Vienna GmbH prides itself on its tradition of working with the most important designers of each era.
Most recently, the company has released products designed by Sweden’s Front Design and Italian-Danish studio, GamFratesi.
Always truly original, the company has stayed true to their roots of producing and manufacturing high-quality design that excites and attracts a loyal following.
Their collection represents a showcase the evolution of European design history.