TON – Czech revolutionary bentwood furniture maker

The Czech furniture brand TON is synonymous for its manually bent wood furniture, created with the help of a technology that has been in continuous use for more than 160 years. The company, widely considered to be the founders of modern furniture trade, became known worldwide for its iconic bentwood chair No. 14, which remains popular to this day.

Michael Thonet | Source:  TON design

The history of the TON furniture maker dates back to the year 1861, when the German inventor and entrepreneur Michael Thonet established a furniture factory in the small Moravian town of Bystřice pod Hostýnem.

Drawn by the town’s surrounding beech forests, cheap workforce but also logistically convenient location, Thonet built a factory there together with his sons. Today, TON is the oldest surviving factory of its kind in the world.

Adam Štěch, an architectural historian and journalist, who wrote a book marking the company’s 160th anniversary, says TON’s history reflects that of the 20th century, with all the changing political systems and wars:

“Michael Thonet founded this company really at the beginning of the modern age. 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.”

Revolutionary furniture-making technology

Photo: Gebrüder Thonet/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

The founder of the company, Michael Thonet, was born in the German town of Boppard in 1796. He trained as a cabinetmaker and by 1819 he established his own workshop.

Later, in response to changing trends, Thonet began experimenting with bending wood slats into curved and graceful forms using a hot air steam. He discovered that he could bend steamed beech wood without breakage by using a steel band as reinforcement during the bending process.

Photo: Gebrüder Thonet/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

The revolutionary technology enabled him to create furniture that was fashionable, lightweight and durable, marking a complete departure from the heavy and oversized Victorian pieces.

But most importantly, the innovative bending technique allowed for the industrial production of a chair, marking a shift from the costly production of low-volume, luxurious pieces to affordable mass production.

Source: TON design

Thonet’s first successful bentwood design was the iconic Boppard layerwood chair from 1836. Five years later, he presented it at an exhibition in Koblenz.

The elegant Beidermeier chair caught the eye of the Austrian prince and diplomat Klemens von Metternich, who encouraged Thonet to relocate to Vienna.

By 1853, Thonet had a thriving furniture business, which he transferred to his sons and renamed Gebrüder Thonet or the Thonet Brothers.

Thonet factory in Bystřice pod Hostýnem in 1890 | Source: Gebrüder Thonet/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

First factories in Czech lands

Three years later, they opened their first factory in the Czech lands in the town of Koryčany, some 60 kilometres southwest of Bystřice pod Hostýnem, where they established a second factory, which today serves as TON’s headquarters.

Michael Thonet and sons | Photo: TON design

“The TON company, or Thonet, respectively, had the first really mass production of furniture designs. In the archives, there are 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.

“Already in the 19th century, Thonet supplied furniture for the most prestigious buildings and sites in the world, including Yale University in the United States or theatres in Buenos Aires and Paris.

“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. I would say Michael Thonet basically founded the modern furniture trade.”

Photo: TON design

Thonet also exhibited their products at World Fairs. In 1851, the Vienna bentwood chairs won the bronze medal at the Great Exhibition in London, which marked his first international breakthrough. At the next World’s Fair in Paris in 1855, he was awarded the silver medal as he continued to improve his production methods.

Photo: Gebrüder Thonet/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Bistro Chair No. 14 – most famous chair of all time

Chair No. 14 | Photo: Henry Townsend,  Wikimedia Commons,  FAL 1.3

Tonet’s most famous design is undoubtedly “Chair No. 14”, also known as the “Konsumsthul”. Designed by Michael Thonet himself, it was introduced in 1859, becoming the world’s first mass-produced item of furniture.

The chair, which embodies all the qualities of bentwood furniture, was only made of 18 components: six pieces of steam-bent wood, ten screws and two bolts. It could be disassembled so save space during transportation, clearing the way for Thonet to become a truly global brand.

The design was a response to a requirement for cafe-style chairs. The seat was often made of woven cane or palm, because the holes in the seat would let spilt liquid drain off the chair. To this day, some 50 million of these iconic chairs, known as “tonetky” in Czech, have been produced.

Vienna Café,  24–28 New Oxford Street,  London in 1897 | Photo: Adolphe Augustus Boucher,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Adam Štěch again:

“It’s such an icon of design history. I think designers of the modern era, like Bauhaus and the tubular steel furniture designers basically did what Michael Thonet did already more than 100 years before them. They just used new materials.

“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 that people don’t realize that this chair is so ingenious, so ground-breaking or a masterpiece of design.

Photo: TON design

“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.”

Throughout its long history, the factory in Bystřice pod Hostýnem factory has been through many ownership structures and name changes.

The current name, TON, originates from 1953, after it was nationalised by the communists and stands for Továrny na ohýbaný nábytek, which means “Factories for bentwood furniture.”

While the quality of production suffered during the communist era, Adam Štěch says the company still managed to produce some memorable designs.

Photo: TON design

“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.”

Searching for new seating furniture designs

TON factory | Photo: TON design,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

Nowadays, TON continues to produce its classical models, including the iconic chair No. 14, but it also cooperates with contemporary designers on creating new seating furniture designs.

In 2010, the company introduced the Merano dining chair, created by the Italian designer Alexander Gufler. The chair, made of plywood shells with a solid wood frame, was awarded the domestic Good Design and Red Dot design and to date, over 170,000 pieces have already been produced.

However, TON’s production is not limited to chairs only. The company also produces other pieces of furniture, including armchairs, barstools, benches and tables, exporting its products all over the world.

TON factory | Photo: Jana Zemková,  Czech Radio
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