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From Bentwood to Bauhaus

Inspired by some knockout vintage furniture recently polished up by our restoration team, we’re taking you back to the turn of the Century on a journey from the invention of Bentwood to the iconic Bauhaus movement.

We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous Thonet Bentwood dining chair. But if you take a moment to trace it’s beginnings back to Viennese cabinetmaker Michael Thonet in the mid-19th Century, you’ll find this man’s entrepreneurial spirit (demonstrated in the charming Flower Tables) and never-before-seen steam-bent wood influenced an entire generation of designers, as well as the beginnings of the much-mused Bauhaus movement.

By Millie Thwaites

The first signs of Bentwood can be traced back to Viennese cabinetmaker Michael Thonet in the mid-19th Century.

Made from beech, Thonet’s steam-bent wood pieces were revolutionary, but producing these pieces was no easy feat. In order to source the best beech possible, he set up temporary factories in beech forests across Austria where he’d mill and steam the laminated timber battens on site and craft them into graciously curved furniture. Once he’d used all the beech from the surrounding trees, he’d pack up and find another forest. Thonet quite literally chased beech trees across Europe – from Poland to the Czech Republic – in the pursuit of his steam-bent wood furniture.

He eventually landed in Vienna, the epicentre of culture at this time. Music, fashion and design thrived – it was an age of refinement, and Thonet and his creations were part of the beating heart of this city and everything that it offered.

His use of never-before-seen steam-bent wood influenced an entire generation of designers, as well as the beginnings of the much-mused Bauhaus movement.

Fast-forward to the early 20th Century; Thonet’s curved timber furniture had well and truly captured the imagination of progressive thinkers and designers of the highest calibre. Think Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier (who used the No 209 chair widely in his projects) and Otto Wagner, among others.

What’s more, designers and manufacturers such as J & J Kohn began to emulate Thonet’s work; there was an undeniable and growing demand for his oeuvre.

In order to source the best beech possible, Thonet set up temporary factories in beech forests across Austria where he’d mill and steam the laminated timber battens on site and craft them into graciously curved furniture.

Josef Hoffmann – a famous Austrian architect and founding member of both the Vienna Secession and the Vienna Workshop (Wiener Werkstätte) movements – took the concept of Bentwood and ran with it. The term ‘form follows function’ is often linked with the beginnings of Bauhaus, but it can be traced all the way back to the Secessionist movement where Hoffman embraced it wholeheartedly.

His Fledermaus pieces – made famous after he used them in the Cabaret Fledermaus in Austria in 1907 – incorporate Thonet’s steam-bent wood as well as the pioneering ‘form follows function’ approach (check out his exceptional Fledermaus-era settee!).

Hoffman’s creations drew on characteristics from Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts and, like Bauhaus, helped pave the way for future movements such as International Style and Modernism. His aesthetic beautifully represented the philosophical shifts that defined art and design at the turn of the century.

Fast-forward to the early 20th Century; Thonet’s curved timber furniture had well and truly captured the imagination of progressive thinkers and designers of the highest calibre.

And it didn’t stop there, the post-war period brought with it an even stronger desire for a new way of thinking and living – not to mention new materials – and so the first stirrings of Bauhaus ensued.

Established by Walter Gropius in 1919, it’s considered one of the most influential schools of design, thanks to both its approach and way of teaching. It’s here that the idea of form following function really prospered; the aim was to provide well-designed products for all, not just the well-off. It sought to break down the boundaries between artist and craftsman, creating practical objects with the soul of artworks.

Reduced forms, simplicity and functionality reigned supreme at the school, and it was Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam who were among the first to hero one of the defining materials of the movement. They were heavily inspired by Thonet’s work (Stam later designed the S34 Cantilever Chair for Thonet), but as with any new era of design, they sought their own vehicle for expression that moved with the times. Cue: tubular metal.

The post-war period brought with it a strong desire for a new way of thinking - not to mention new materials - and so the first stirrings of Bauhaus ensued. Pictured is Marcel Breuer's Wassily Chair: one of the most famous Bauhaus pieces. Image courtesy of Knoll via Dezeen.

Breuer’s Wassily Chair (anecdotally nicknamed in honour of friend and fellow Bauhaus member Wassily Kandinsky after he praised an early prototype of the chair) is one of the most famous pieces to emerge from the movement. It perfectly encapsulates the idea of form following function; the entire structure is made from a skeletal steel-bent frame and strips of leather which interlock to form a perfectly-considered and constructed chair. In his brilliance, Breuer made a seemingly simple frame and sling concept appear artistic, complex and utterly stunning, albeit pared-back and utilitarian.

This sentiment continued and lies at the heart of every Bauhaus piece, from the Brno Chair by Mies van der Rohe to the MT8 Lamp by William Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker. Colour was embraced and beauty was plentiful, but function in design and production was at its very core. The fact that Bauhaus is still as revered today as it was over 100 years ago is testament to its genuine motivations; to create and share good quality design.

Established by Walter Gropius in 1919, Bauhaus is considered one of the most influential schools of design, thanks to both its approach and its way of teaching. Image via Dezeen.
Reduced forms, simplicity and functionality reigned supreme at the school. Pictured is the iconic MT8 Lamp by William Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker.

Design movements are driven by social, economic and cultural shifts as designers seek new ways to interpret their reality and forge new paths. The threads that link these movements are like little windows into eras gone by, and we have the likes of Michael Thonet, Josef Hoffmann and Marcel Breuer – and their significant, lasting creations – to thank for that.

It could simply be said that the winding road from Bentwood to Bauhaus is built on the sole evolution of steam-bent wood to tubular steel.

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