Bentwood chairs were a 19th-century furniture success story: made of steam-bent parts, they were mass-produced, durable, lightweight, versatile, and popular throughout the world.

They were invented by Austrian cabinet maker Michael Thonet following a series of attempts at bending wood in the 1830s and 40s. By 1853, the company ‘Gebruder Thonet’ [Thonet Brothers] was established, named after Michael’s five sons. The manufacturing process involved taking beechwood logs, which were cut and planed into long thin rods; the rods were steamed or soaked in hot water, bent into iron moulds, then allowed to dry; bent pieces were sanded and finished, then assembled.

 

Bentwood furniture

'Austrian Furniture', as illustrated in: David Jones & Co., Art furnishers, upholsterers & decorators [trade catalogue], Sydney, c1895. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Numerous designs were soon being manufactured and huge bentwood sales led to a number of other companies entering the market, first in Central Europe then later in North America. By 1894, Sydney-based department store Anthony Hordern & Sons had added steam bending capability to its furniture manufacturing plant. The success of the bentwood business model relied on low cost production at high volume. Low cost was achieved to some extent by designs that used minimal parts which were often interchangeable between chairs.

Although some bentwood manufacturing occurred in Australia, most bentwood furniture was still imported and sold as ‘Viennese’ or ‘Austrian’ furniture. Imports were typically packed as parts and only assembled on arrival: a kind of ‘knock down’ or flat pack furniture that predated IKEA by many decades.

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View these fully digitised catalogues (which include bentwood furniture) on Internet Archive.

David Jones catalogue, c1895
David Jones & Co, [catalogue], Sydney, c1895. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums [FTC 658.871 DAV]
Furnishing guide
Cover illustration of the catalogue: B. Bebarfald & Co Ltd., Furnishing guide: 4th edition, Sydney, c1904 Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. [FTC 749.20491 BEB/04]

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Ruby Hardinge, Special Photograph number 441, 7 December 1921, Central Police Station, Sydney. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums.

Bentwood chair (after the no 14 design by Michael Thonet), Josef Hofmann, Bielitz Austria, 1900–14. Justice & Police Museum Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo (c) Jamie North.

John Dawson, Special Photograph number 481, 23 August 1921. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums. 

Mugshot of Greta Massey, 26 January 1923, Central Police Station, Sydney. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums.

In Australia, bentwood chairs were widely used in government and commercial buildings, offices and homes, courts and police stations. Bentwood chairs appear in many mugshot photographs from the 1920s ‘Specials’ collection in the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive. The photos, which are notable for the surprisingly informal poses of the suspects, were mostly taken at Sydney’s Central Police Station and the chairs were part of the police station’s office furniture. A number of surviving chairs and the photo archive are held by the Justice and Police Museum.

 

Maria, Wyatt, Dangar mugshot

Mugshot of Thomas Maria, Arthur Wyatt, and Patrick Dangar (alias Brosnan), Central Police Station, ca. 1920. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums

By the 1920s, there was rationalisation in the bentwood industry in Central Europe as several of the largest companies like Thonet, J & J Kohn, and Mundus amalgamated. By 1938 Thonet had moved operations to the USA and the company continues to produce bentwood chairs to this day.

Further reading:
Ekaterini Kyriazidou and Martin Pesendorfer, ‘Viennese chairs: a case study for modern industrialisation’, The Journal of Economic History, vol 59, no 1, March 1999, pp.143-166.
Derek E Ostergard, ed., Bent wood and metal furniture: 1850-1946, The University of Washington press, New York, 1987.
Christopher Wilk, Thonet Bentwood & other furniture: the 1904 illustrated catalogue, Dover, New York, 1980.
Virginia Wright, A quintessential global product: Bentwood furniture in Canada and Australia 1860 to 1945 [thesis], University of Technology Sydney, 2017.
 

Bentwood chairs

Bentwood chairs, early 20th century. All chairs made by Jacob and Josef Kohn, Vienna, except second from left, Josef Hofmann, Bielitz Austria. Justice & Police Museum Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo (c) Jamie North.