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Michael Thonet’s determination to bend wood efficiently and consistently produced the classic Thonet side chair. We couldn’t possibly believe that the form of Thonet’s chairs follows primarily from their function. We unavoidably perceive that material considerations and the formal language derived from the investigation of the material led to his particular and very individual forms. It is true that forms of this general character were in the air at the time Thonet worked. Look at the work of Gaudi and the great halls of the 1851 exposition, particularly the Crystal Palace, and we see forms that were the direct result of the current mass production ideas. Embodied in the discovery of new types of ductile iron. Below the surface of Michael Thonet’s forms we find the invention of a new production method; one that allowed him be bend wood almost at will. He demonstrated a true understanding of the nature of the material: that it would crack and break under extreme tension. His method broke the rules that craftsmen had lived and worked with for centuries. His need to push a process further and his facility with the materials and process led to the creation of new forms, which seem right unconsciously and universally right! By solving the structural problem he succeeded in creating formal solutions that had been attempted for centuries without success. Thonet didn’t create the most efficient bent wood chair but he made a form that seduced us.

Thonet Chair, 1848 – Michael Thonet (1976 – 1871)

When wood is bent the outside of the curve goes into tension, the inside is compressed. Since all the fibers are the same length, and wood doesn’t stretch very well, the outer layers crack and eventually break. Thonet’s solution was to attach the wood he wished to bend to a piece of flexible steel, and bend both the steel and the wood. The steel held the wood and acted as the tension member, putting the wood in its entirety into compression. He made the wood think it was only being compressed, and therefore it wouldn’t break.

Design is a Performing Art
Bruce Hannah 1997© | Illustrations by Bruce Hannah