Canespotting: Einstein, Lautrec, Stalin, Picasso, & Bentwood

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Einstein & bentwood chair 1923

We love hearing the story behind the chair.  In our disposable society, somehow people manage to retain sentimental attachments to chairs and get nostalgic warm fuzzies telling the provenance of their chair.  Of course some people toss $2000 chairs to the curb because the weave is broken, so it balances out.

Speaking of chair stories, my aunt Gladys paid $5 for a bentwood child’s chair for  my niece Ellie.  It won’t be the easiest chair to repair so Ellie will probably get it when she has kids (she is 3).  As we were putting it in the car we turned it over (it is stamped THONET AUSTRIA) and then we did some research.  That $5 investment was basically worth it, because the chairs we saw online range from $250-$1200.

Thonet is credited with developing the bentwood process (similar to shipbuilding where steamed wood is bent and braced with a similarly shaped steel component til dry) but others out there are Le Corbusier, Mundus, and Kohn.  Once on  Antiques Roadshow an elegant bentwood bench (similar to the one below) with a large cane seat by J & J Kohn was featured.

Graceful bentwood bench

We happen to have a few J & J Kohn chairs in the studio at present, and it is always fun to see a tag and know the maker.

Moulin Rouge by Toulouse Lautrec

I call these chairs “cafe chairs” because of their popularity in Parisian Cafes.  I call them other things that I can’t write on this blog because they are so difficult to weave. Each chair took me 10 days to weave. They have to be disassembled to access the holes underneath and then the holes are recessed 1/4-1/2 inch into the frame so tie offs are infuriating.

recessed holes, tiny cane, and lots of holes make weaving super difficult

But I can’t help but be drawn in by the history of these chairs.  They are stamped and have abundant paper tags denoting that they are from the Kohn Bros. in Austria.  So here’s the chair story:   In the mid 1800’s, a German guy called Gebruder Thonet, created this mass production process of steamed wooden pieces that could be assembled into chairs.  He was “the official furniture designer to the throne of Austria, ” and therefore opened his first factory there.

working with water and these delicate tags are also difficult

Steaming and bending wood was already popular with Windsor chairs but those chairs had to be worked with and cut to size after the steaming process.  Thonet’s bentwood process allowed the components to be used almost immediately after and was essentially an early Ikea!  Thonet had factories in Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, & France.   He produced millions of these chairs by the end of the century, his patent expired and many copies were made.

Manufacturers began to fine tune the process,

early Ikea…40 million of these chairs were made a year!

like our Austrian duo J & J Kohn.  They began manufacturing and packaging these easy to ship and assemble chairs. Why they used cane, I have no idea…I can’t imagine how they’d mass produce something with a seat that takes a pro 10 days to weave.  Certainly, there was a machine for it…and how I would have loved to get my hands on that this last month I worked on these two dang chairs!

In the 1920’s Kohn merged with Mundus, and eventually with Thonet and they are still going strong.  Interestingly, Marcel Breuer’s cantilevered chair is a direct descendant of the bentwood chair and is equally as infuriating to weave!

Do yourself a favor if you are nerdy enough to still be reading, google bentwood chairs, click on images, and you will see some crazy a** chairs. They were so ubiquitous that you can find images of folks from Picasso to Stalin.

Pablo Picasso Madrid, 1957
Stalin in a bentwood chair

This dude has a reeeally cool blog if you happen to be a chair nerd:

That is where I found this image of Einstein

And the image of Picasso

Wikipedia gave me a bit of info:,

And this person elaborated on the story of Thonet:

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