Celebrating the ‘tonetka’ – 160 years of bentwood furniture design in Moravia

For older generations of Czechs – and European designers of virtually any age – “bentwood furniture” and Bystřice pod Hostýnem are synonymous. For it was in that tiny Moravian town that hundreds of thousands one of the world’s most iconic pieces of furniture, known simply as “Chair No. 14”, literally took shape. In essence, modern furniture what born at what is today the TON factory – which has operated without interruption since 1861.

The German inventor and entrepreneur Michael Thonet was drawn to Bystřice pod Hostýnem – or Bistritz am Hostein, as he likely first knew it – thanks to the surrounding abundant beech forests. Together with his sons, Thonet built a factory there, which, at the ripe old age of 160, lays claim to being the oldest surviving factory of its kind in the world.

Adam Štěch, a journalist, educator and author specialising in world design and architecture, especially of the 20th century, was commissioned by TON to write a book ahead of the 160th anniversary of bentwood furniture design and production in Bystřice pod Hostýnem.

Adam Štěch | Photo: TON Chairs

“Michael Tonet founded this company really at the beginning of the modern age, and for me it was really nice to finally understand, to get to know this exciting history, which is very much connected to my country.

“During my maybe 15 years of research of design, I was always more interested in architecture and design from Italy, or from France, or from the USA, and did quite a lot of travelling and so on.

“This [book project] was an opportunity to really go back to the roots of my country and my culture. It’s quite funny that it happened basically during the pandemic, because I did this book through the whole year of 2020.

“I had time to go to Bystrice, to look through the company archive, to visit many people who were involved with the TON company, not just designers or directors but also collectors and other researchers who knew so much more than me about the history of TON – because it’s so complex.

“But this history is very dramatic and completely illustrates the history of the 20th century itself, with all the changing political systems and wars.

“The company went through all the regimes, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the First Republic of Czechoslovakia – the democratic republic – the Second World War, through Communism and back again to democracy after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.”

While chronological in structure, Štěch said in an online discussion organised by the Czech Centre London, the resulting book, entitled “+- 160 Let / Years” (written in Czech and English) is rather a lushly illustrated collage than a detailed historical probe. He decided to focus on “little stories” and some lesser-known chapters of in the history of the Thonet (and later TON) furniture factory.

“I decided to create a chronological narrative, because it is the most basic and understandable, but I didn’t want to tell very long stories, have really long texts about how the company evolved or developed.

“I rather choose little stories, which are let’s say ‘in between’ those big changes. And these little stories, from many kinds of perspectives, illustrate the history of TON and the history of modern furniture itself.”

The “big history” aspect of the story begins in the German town of Boppard, in the forested Rhine Gorge, in the year 1796, with the birth of Michael Thonet. There, he trained as a cabinetmaker and by 1819 established his own workshop.

Later, in response to changing trends, Thonet began to work with bentwood – which, as the name would suggest, is wood that is bent into shape, after being softened through steaming.

The process is more complicated than it may sound – requiring just the right amount of sustained pressure, for just the right amount of time, in order to hold fast and strong. Thonet would prove to be a master of the technique.

His most significant early bentwood design was the iconic Boppard chair, which he presented at an exhibition in Koblenz in 1841. The design caught the eye of the Austrian prince, statesman and diplomat Klemens von Metternich, who encouraged Thonet to relocate to Vienna.

By 1853, he had a thriving furniture business, which he transferred to his sons and renamed Gebrüder Thonet (“The Thonet Brothers”). Three years later, they opened their first factory in the Czech lands – in the town of Koryčany, some 60 kilometres southwest of where they would open their second, in Bystřice pod Hostýnem.

Photo: Jana Zemková,  Český rozhlas

He chose the Moravian towns for the nearby abundant supply of beech wood. Trunks and large branches of the beech trees were machine-tooled into rods, steamed, and bent by hand. That process enabled a revolutionary shift from the costly production of low-volume, expensive, luxurious pieces to affordable mass production. Adam Štěch, author of “+- 160 Let / Years” again:

“The TON company, or Thonet, respectively, had the first really mass production of furniture designs. And in the archives, there amazing photos and illustrations of old factories, not just in Bystřice – that was just one factory of ten, maybe fifteen other huge factories spread throughout central Europe.

“But there were also showrooms, amazing projects, which already in 1895 this company produced and exported hundreds of thousands of chairs worldwide. It is quite amazing to see that there was such a company that was so modern and influential, which had an impact, basically, on how we sit in general today…”

Photo: TON Chairs

Already in the 19th century, they supplied furniture for the most prestigious buildings and sites in the world, like Yale University in the USA, or huge theatres in Buenos Aires, and Brazil, and Paris – everywhere.

“They also exhibited their products at World Fairs, which always got new medals and so on. So, the whole business model was kind of from scratch, and I think, my feeling is, that Michal Tonet founded the modern furniture trade, basically.”

That transition to mass production heralded the beginnings of modern design and industrialisation in furniture production. The most famous chair made by the company, is simply called “Chair No. 14”. Also known as the “bistro chair”, it was designed by Michael Thonet himself and introduced in 1859, becoming the world’s first mass-produced item of furniture.

“It’s such an icon of design history. I have here the big Atlas of Furniture Design, which was just published by the Vitra Design Museum, and there are four chairs on the cover of this huge book. And one of the chairs is actually Chair No. 14.

“So, it defined design history – furniture history. And I think designers of the modern era, like Bauhaus and the tubular steel furniture designers – they basically did what Michael Thonet did already more than 100 years before them. They just used new materials.”

Photo: TON Chairs

In all likelihood, you have yourself sat on a “Chair No. 14” – or an imitation of the all-time classic embodiment of bentwood furniture. Ten of millions have been produced over the decades and can be found all over the world.

“You can see them in cafés still, these classics, not just No. 14 but also the other models from that era, and they are in the homes of people, but I think they are already… so normal, it’s such an archetype of furniture, that people don’t know that this chair is so ingenious, so ground-breaking or a masterpiece of design.

“People just have it – in Czech, they call it the ‘tonetka’, the slang for Tonet chairs. We had some in my home when I grew up, some TON chairs. They were still produced during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and also my parent’s generation bought them.

“There was a quite big interest of collectors, mostly in the ‘80s and the ‘90s to collect the really vintage, old ones. Now, I think the interest of collectors has moved a bit, more to Modernism and other things.”

Chair No. 14 | Photo: TON Chairs

While “Chair No. 14” is the best known, Adam Štěch says that his favourite ‘tonetka’ is actually Chair No. 30, which was created at the turn of the 20th century. He appreciates its “organic quality” and incorporation of some of the author’s most-beloved design elements – it’s bent, curved, and round all at once.

Throughout its 160-year history, the Bystřice pod Hostýnem factory has been through many ownership structures and name changes. The current name, TON, originates from 1953, after its nationalisation after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia.

The quality of production suffered during that era, Adam Štěch says, but, as he illustrates in the book, “+- 160 Let / Years”, some wonderful Czech designs arose.

“Production shifted completely along with the whole political system in Czechoslovakia at that time. Of course, everything was nationalized, and Tonet was renamed Továrny na ohýbaný Nábytek – or TON, which means ‘Factories for bentwood furniture’.

TON factory | Photo: Jana Zemková,  Czech Radio

“They produced the classic models and also started to produce new ones. I think the quality of the production was worse at that time. But for example in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some very interesting Czech architects collaborated with TON, and created some amazing designs, which I think are still pretty timeless.

“Some of them were produced, some exhibited worldwide, also in the Western world. A lot of these chairs Czechs still have at home. Unfortunately, a huge number of designs were never realized, that we have just on paper.”

“Actually, now we are preparing a little show in Prague at our gallery [Okolo], together with TON, about these hand-drawn sketches and technical drawings of furniture that TON still has in its archives. And they are amazing designs.”