Bentwood Chair

Bentwood Chair

Bentwood chairs were first made in the early 1850s by the Austrian Michael Thonet. Manufacture of these chairs soon spread to other countries. They were incredibly popular over the next century as they were cheap and easy to import. These chairs and other similar furniture were compact, exported in pieces and assembled when they reached their destination.

The Bentwood became so popular that between 1856 and 1873, 82 patents relating to the wood bending process were recorded.

Thonet’s simplest design was the 1859 chair ‘Nr. 14,’ which was comprised of six pieces of wood held together by four bolts and two screws. It was known as the ‘chair of chairs,’ and is still produced today. Pattern books were also available allowing pieces to be mixed and matched. For example a customer could choose to have a solid wooden seat or a woven rattan seat.

Austrian Bentwood chairs were being advertised in the Oamaru Mail regularly in the 1890s. Cabinet makers found that as well as retailing their own manufactured items, it was profitable to also import cheap and easy to assemble furniture, thus expanding their range.

This chair would have been imported in the early 1900s by a local furniture retailer, assembled and sold locally. The surface of the chair is original, with the back hoop having been varnished later on. The frame itself is from a stock pattern, allowing importers to mix and match. There is an unusual Nouveau-style pattern on the seat. On the underside of the seat can be seen mathematical workings in pencil, something that was not uncommon. The chair has a hoop back and, unusually, two U-shaped hoops under the seat. The timber is European beech. This style of chair represents high end dining room furniture. They were not expensive but were considered to be upmarket.

Bentwood chairs are still very common today, with many Thonet’s imported for both commercial and private use. Although we don’t know exactly who used to own this chair or its detailed history, we have retained it in our collection as an example of a very common chair through the Victorian era and beyond.

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Morgan Bennet