While the bentwood chair may seem sleek and modern, its design is actually centuries old. As its name suggests, the bentwood chair is made using a unique woodbending technique that makes it sturdy yet stylish, with a simple beauty that’s timelessly elegant. So what’s the history behind this classic chair?
A new take on an established design
Although furniture containing bent wood had been in existence for hundreds of years, these pieces were made by individual craftsmen and weren’t easy to replicate. All this changed in the 1830s, when German cabinet maker Michael Thonet perfected the woodbending production process, making the chair much easier to mass produce.
The improved woodbending process
Thonet used beechwood that was light and strong and less likely to split, and then applied hot steam to the timber to make its fibres pliable. Once the wood was in this state, he was then able to bend the rod more easily and accurately. With the wood now bent, it was left to “cure”, after which the resin would harden into the new shape. Compared to before, this new process was far more economical in terms of material used, time taken to produce the chair and the costs involved. Thanks to his pioneering design process, the chairs also became known as “Thonet” chairs.
Growing an empire
By 1861, Thonet had built his first bentwood chair factory. The most popular chair was named “No 14”, also known as the Vienna or Qitay chair. It was elegant and minimal in design – and far ahead of its time in terms of classical modernism, a style that had yet to catch on in the design and art world.
In 1867, Thonet won a gold medal for his design at the World Exhibition in Paris, and with this exposure, demand for the chairs quickly began to grow. Before long, the most fashionable cafes in Europe all featured bentwood chairs for their patrons to sit on.
Woodbending gains popularity worldwide
Thonet’s manufacturing process was soon replicated elsewhere, and the chair began being produced all over the world. By the end of the 19th century, bentwood chairs had established their popularity in Europe as simple and functional chairs that were affordable but at the same time, long lasting. Today, the chairs come in a variety of styles – but all of them still use the tried and tested woodbending method that Thonet perfected all those years ago.
At Woodbender, we’re the only manufacturer in South Africa to use this age-old woodbending technique. This ensures that our chairs preserve the integrity of the wood, are kind on the environment, and last for generations. Learn more about our story.