Enter any café in Vienna and you’ll likely see a bentwood chair (often a little faded with the ravages of time and a million drops of spilled coffee).
The chair’s introduction in the 19th century influenced furniture design for decades to come, with Thonet at the centre of the revolution: the Bentwood and Beyond exhibition at the MAK museum explores the wide influence of the company and its products.
- Take a trip through history and discover the importance of Thonet to the Vienna modernist movement and other design developments
- Just under 240 exhibits, including the world-famous No. 14 chair
- Open Dec 18, 2019 – Sept 6, 2020
- Just need a normal museum entrance ticket* or sightseeing pass
- See also: Events in Vienna | MAK visitor and tickets info
Thonet and the chair
A headline that sounds like an unexciting children’s story. What chair? And what’s so great about it?
Ah, well, this is no ordinary wooden seat. This is the chair all little chairs want to be when they grow up. A chair of myth and legend. A chair that stamped its four-legged authority on a city, perhaps an empire, perhaps the world. Most importantly, a chair that epitomises Viennese coffee culture: the No. 14 chair, designed by Thonet.
(Gebrüder Thonet, Chair, Model N0. 14, Vienna, 1859 (Execution: 1890–1918)
© MAK/Georg Mayer)
Launched on an unsuspecting world in 1859 by the Thonet company, this iconic piece of furniture made use of a bentwood manufacturing technique developed by Michael Thonet himself – bending wood under pressure and steam, and then letting it harden again.
The No. 14 chair combined graceful wooden curves and robustness with fast, modern production processes to essentially bring about a revolution in furniture design and manufacture. Thonet sold tens of millions and the company still make and sell its modern iteration (known as no. 214).
The Bentwood and Beyond exhibition, expertly curated by Sebastian Hackenschmidt and Wolfgang Thillmann, looks at the role played by the Thonet company in various aspects of past and present furniture design, beginning with the early impact of their bentwood approaches.
Around 240 exhibits take you from the early 19th-century to today, with a series of (mainly) chairs that illustrate themed insights on art, design, culture and technology. Thonet’s influence runs like a thread through the various developments.
The exhibits sit on raised platforms that curve their way through the hall, themselves evoking bentwood images and a conveyer belt-like sense of industrialisation, thereby matching the exhibition perfectly.
Thonet products often accompany those of other designers (such as Hoffman) to illustrate the shared aesthetics and influences, as well as the differences. So simple and decorative wooden designs also sit alongside steel and plastic. It all certainly gives you a fresh appreciation of furniture design.
And even if you merely slip around the exhibits without looking for education and insight from the text (provided in German and English), various items stand out for their own beauty. I was much impressed by, for example, the spiral forms in a chair produced for the 1867 world fair in Paris or a beech sofa constructed to look like it was made of bamboo.
Dates and tickets
The Thonet exhibition runs from Wednesday, December 18th, 2019 to Sunday, September 6th, 2020.
A normal entrance ticket to the museum gets you into the exhibition. A standard ticket* currently costs €14 with concessions available and free admission for under 19s. The MAK is also covered by the Vienna Pass (see my review of this all-inclusive sightseeing pass).
How to get to the Thonet exhibition
See the main MAK article for tips, but it’s easy to reach given the central location with a subway and tram stop practically outside the museum’s front door.
Address: Stubenring 5, 1010 Vienna