Blog post

The Chair Men

Gebrüder Thonet and the Number 14 Chair

Europeana Foundation

Vienna's cafe culture is legendary - coffee, kipferl, and kuchen are important ingredients. And another important part of the recipe are the cafes themselves and their furniture - in particular the Number 14 Thonet chair.

The firm of Thonet are synonymous with the furniture for Viennese cafes, as well as homes and establishments around the world. Their 'Number 14' chair was the world's first mass-produced furniture.

Born in Germany, Michael Thonet was a pioneer of furniture design, and the industrialisation of furniture manufacture.

Through the 1830s and 1840s, he developed new techniques which allowed wood to be bent into curves and organic shapes. This process, known as bentwood, involves wetting wood (either by soaking or by steaming) so it can be bent into shape, hardening into curved shapes and patterns.

The techniques pioneered by Thonet enabled him to design elegant and lightweight furniture. Crucially, his innovative bending of wood in this way allowed for chairs to be produced industrially for the first time.

In 1849, together with his sons, he founded a company. Gebrüder Thonet, over the years, established factories across Germany and central Europe - at their peak, the firm had upto seven factories.

Their big breakthrough came in 1859 with chair number 14 - the chair that is today an icon of design history associated with Vienna coffee houses. More than 50 million have been produced.

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The chair was an international success. Its industrial production meant that it could be exported: its modular design allowed for it to be assembled and disassembled in different factories and locations.

Sales offices were established in foreign countries, with a worldwide distribution system for the marketing of Thonet furniture, as evidenced by the advertisements below. Their furniture, mass-produced at affordable prices, became a global success.

RELATED: Read more reports about Thonet from historical newspapers

Today, Thonet develop both wooden and steel furniture - and are still producing the number 14 chair which brought the firm's early fame and fortune.

By Adrian Murphy, Europeana Foundation

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Did you or your family work in for Gebrüder Thonet or other furniture manufacturers? Share your story and help us tell the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present.

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Feature image: Wien Kaffeehaus, Austrian National Library, Public Domain