The most famous testimonial is Pablo Picasso, chest bared in his studio, surrounded by paintings, sculptures, sketches, with a Schaukelstuhl rocking chair displayed like a work of art.
But there is also the little girl on the same chair, rocking with innocent, curious eyes, or the brash turn-of-the-century woman posed on the rocker for a vintage nude. Postcards from the past, scenes of (more or less) ordinary everyday life, that narrate a story – that of the biggest success of the industrial era in furnishings – that has become part of the family life of millions. A few numbers will suffice to understand just how unique the Thonet phenomenon really is: 980 models in the catalogue in 1911; 50 million units already produced of the N.14 chair by 1930. The company founded in 1853 in Vienna by Michael Thonet, who had found a way to shift from the technique of glued lamellar wood to that of steam-curved rods for the mass production of wooden furnishings, already had a number of independent production plants in different nations at the end of World War II, developing a system of assembly that made it possible to send the items in parts for assembly, optimizing distribution costs. Adolf Loos remarked, in 1895: “When I was in America I understood that the Thonet chair is the most modern of all.” The seat he designed for the Café Museum is still an icon for contemporary designers. Especially for those the company has hired to give life and content to its new historical phase, obviously in a spirit of continuity with the tradition. The challenge, which today has the name of Gebrüder Thonet Vienna but speaks Italian and has its headquarters in Turin, starts thanks to Franco Moschini, the owner of Poltrona Frau since 1962. His great love of the historic Viennese brand prompted him to acquire it in 2003, then managing it together with Gruppo Poltrona Frau, where he is the president. The turnaround came in 2013 when the ownership of the group changed; Moschini decided to make his passion into a personal challenge, focusing on the renewal of a company with 160 years of history. To guide the operation, he called in Riccardo Pigati, previously the CEO of Gufram. “First of all,” Pigati says, who now has the same role with Gebrüder Thonet Vienna “we wanted to take the products back to the high quality of manufacture that made them famous. The choice was to move the production from Eastern Europe to Italy, relying on suppliers from Friuli who had already done curved wood for Thonet in the past, and are some of the few remaining experts in this type of workmanship.” The technique used by the brand to make chairs – but also tables, desks and different types of furnishings – has remained substantially the same since 1853, and the process, though industrial in nature, still does not permit large production runs. “Once the quality and the commercial network in Europe had been restored,” the CEO says, “we focused on product. First we worked on the historical legacy, with reissues of models that had gone out of production, like the splendid collection by Otto Wagner. Then we started in a new direction: 10 original products by internationally acclaimed designers with different backgrounds, sharing a sensitivity for materials and in particular for wood, capable of coming to terms with Thonet technology and the Thonet tradition, through a fresh approach of contemporary experimentation.” Designed by Nigel Coates, the Lehnstuhl lounge chair is perhaps the piece that most emblematically expresses the spirit of the new collection presented in April in Milan. The stylemes of the brand are masterfully interpreted: the beechwood structure turns in dramatic curves with a variable section, forming the seat, back and armrests with ample proportions that accentuate the sense of being wrapped in the seat. Nigel Coates: “My objective was to create something new that at the same time would seem like a classic. I have tried to balance a fluid sign with fluid use. The three parts of the chair have extended dimensions, but they combine in an essential way. The result is a seat that encourages you to relax.” Regarding the approach to the tradition of a company “that actually defined the basis of a discipline, in the mid-1800s,” Paolo Lucidi and Luca Pevere, creators of the Brezel chair, say “We were contacted, and we asked Gebrüder Thonet Vienna to let us visit the company, to understand more about the technical options. We were doubly fascinated: first by the atmosphere of the place – the steam chambers, the physical force applied to bend the wood, the pallets of molds, etc. – and then by seeing that very little has changed since the 1800s in the field of curved wood. Our desire was to design timeless objects, but with character. Brezel is a chair that fits well in the collection, though it has some details that make it decidedly contemporary: the armrests extend forward with respect to the seat, the back is low, the seat is padded in place of the classic wood frame, etc. We have removed any decorative touches, conserving what is needed to make the seat solid. But the thing we are most proud of is that we have managed to innovate, taking the steam curving technology to its limits with very complex pieces.” The Swedish group Front has a more ironic approach, and in the Coat Rack Bench they play with Thonet archetypes, combining the well-known coat rack with the Vienna straw chair. The result is an innovative furnishing object that nonchalantly takes its place in any space of the home. The designers explain: “In a project for a brand like Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, with such a strong background, the designer cannot help but take history as a reference point. The choice can be to faithfully stick with tradition, or to go in another direction, developing one’s own viewpoint and design proposal.” Their ability to interpret the classic stylemes of Thonet, updating them for contemporary tastes, can also be seen in the Arch tables, which in the dining and coffee versions combine the lightness of curved beech with the sturdiness of solid wood. With the project by Nicola Gallizia, the brand demonstrates its desire to expand its catalogue towards new product typologies, with the goal of asserting its innate potential for work in the contract sector (Thonet pieces have always been used to furnish theaters, restaurants, cruise ships). Hold On is a series of upholstered pieces in which solid ash forms a visible structure with rigorous lines, thanks to a particularly complex production process. “Working with Gebrüder Thonet Vienna is a dream come true,” Gallizia says. “It means taking part in a myth whose past includes figures like Adolf Loos, the master of a modernity so archetypal that it always seems timely. In my projects I always try to respond to precise functions, cleaning up the form and using techniques and materials imported from other avant-garde productive and formal situations. Hold On cites the curved lines, the wood and metal of the Thonet tradition, reinterpreting the sections and radii. This was the first time I have had a chance to come to grips with such a ‘heavy’ but actually very ‘light’ tradition.” The 2014 collection also features pieces designed by Gordon Guillaumier, Francesco Mansueto, Charlie Styrbjörn Nilsson, and other designers will soon be getting involved. Riccardo Pigati’s idea is to continue to expand the range with original project and reissues of historic pieces no longer in the catalogue, like the 03 02 table and the 03 01 chairs designed by Vico Magistretti in 2003. And there’s more. “Still in continuity with the thinking of Michael Thonet, who was an early ecologist concerned with replanting the trees felled in Austria and Eastern Europe to make the furniture,” he concludes, “we have made an extensive environmental commitment. We have already obtained FSC certification, meaning that the wood we use comes from properly managed forests; this will be followed by an ecolabel to certify the entire life cycle of products. We want our products to be appreciated both for their quality and for their green content. This is why we have a medal with the Wiener GTV Design trademark, and our goal is to insert a hidden chip inside the wooden structure.” History is renewed and looks to the future, with a focus on innovation that would surely have been shared by Michael Thonet.