* 1796 Boppard
† 1871 Wien
Michael Thonet was the founder of Gebrüder Thonet (Thonet Bros.). Not only was he himself, as the inventor of bentwood furniture, a great innovator in furniture design and cabinet-making. The firm he founded was also one of the most advanced and innovative of design companies spanning both the 19th and the 20th centuries and played a paramount role in 20th-century developments in design. Born in Boppard in 1796, he was the son of a tanner. After serving a cabinet-making apprenticeship, Thonet established a furniture-making workshop in Boppard in 1819. Around 1830 he began to experiment with bentwood and launched the Boppard laminated wood chair. At a 1841 exhibition mounted by the Koblenz Art Association, Michael Thonet showed his first bentwood chairs. The Austrian Chancellor Prince Metternich, a native of Koblenz, arranged for Thonet to go to Vienna in 1843. There Thonet and his five sons worked from 1843 until 1846 for the parquet flooring firm of Carl Leistler, making both the parquet floors and the chairs for Palais Liechtenstein. By 1849 he was again in a position to establish a furniture-making workshop of his own, this time in Vienna. Since his bentwood process was being copied by other carpenters, he began to mark his seat furniture with a stamp impressed on the underside of the seat. The Thonet "Sessel Nr. 1" model was created for the Garden Palace of Prince Schwarzenberg in 1848. The "No. 1" chair was revolutionary in construction, not just because it was made of bentwood. All parts of it were prefab, which meant that they could be combined with elements of other models to make what is now known as modular furniture. Thonet's seminal invention by the mid-19th century laid the groundwork for type furniture and the plethora of models now available in industrial mass production. Thonet bentwood furniture was also very reasonably priced. From 1853 Michael Thonet's workshop was registered as "Gebrüder Thonet" (Thonet Bros.) since it had been handed over to his five sons. Thonet Bros. bentwood furniture was so successful that the firm continued to expand, adding more outlets and factories. The 1859 Thonet Bros. "Sessel Nr. 14" is beloved worldwide as the "Viennese Coffeehouse chair". By 1930, 50 million exemplars had been sold worldwide, making this Thonet piece the bestselling chair of all time and the epitome of the stylish mass consumer article. By the time he died in 1871, Thonet Bros. had branches in most big European cities as well as in Russia and the US. From 1900 leading designers created furniture for Thonet Bros. A French subsidiary, Thonet Frères, was founded in 1929, which took the bold step of making the tubular steel furniture designed by Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. Developments in modern furniture design are unthinkable without Thonet. This venerable institution has survived the upheavals of two world wars and several disbandments.