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Inside Thonet: craftsmanship meets industrial production


imm cologne | Thonet - craftsmanship meets industrial production

Up to 147 individual work steps are necessary until a chair is ready. Photo: Thonet

On entering Thonet’s production halls in the German town of Frankenberg (Hesse), your senses are immediately aware of the traditional production methods used here to manufacture tables, chairs and armchairs. All around, there’s hissing and clouds of steam accompanied by the pounding of hammers, while the scent of wood and metal hangs in the air. Real work is being done here. Although it has long since adopted modern manufacturing technologies to complement traditional practices, craftwork is still vital to the company, which has now been established for over 200 years.

One reason for this is the human experience needed to bend classic pieces like the coffee house chair 214. “I have to feel the wood as I bend it,” says Armin Ludwig, who has moulded thousands of bentwood chairs into their unmistakable form in the 34 years he has worked in Frankenberg.

imm cologne | Thonet - craftsmanship meets industrial production

The bending of solid wood requires a lot of sensitivity. Photo: Philipp Thonet

Michael Thonet laid the foundation for modern furniture with his invention to shape wood by means of steam and muscle power. In the 1830s he first experimented with veneer strips cooked in glue until he finally succeeded in developing "furniture made of solid bent wood". In the meantime, one speaks of bentwood when massively bent wood is used in furniture production.

The process demands a great deal of care in addition to well-practised and synchronous actions. It takes a lot of finesse to bend solid beech or ash wood, which is first put in a steam boiler for a few hours to make it pliable before being clamped in a special bending mould and dried. Teamwork is vital here: in some cases, four people need to work together at the same time, for example to bend the backrests for the bentwood armchair 209.

Steel and wood have characteristics of their own

imm cologne | Thonet - craftsmanship meets industrial production

Before the tubular steel chair is finished, the sparks must fly. Photo: Thonet

Manufacturing the company’s tubular steel furniture also demands a deep understanding of materials and production processes. That’s because a specially alloyed spring steel tube is needed to provide the required dimensional accuracy and material strength, especially in the case of icons like the cantilever chair S 64, designed by Marcel Breuer during the Bauhaus era. After all, the flexing effect is intended to last for a long period of time and its elasticity should not be lost with age. Once they have been cut to length, the tubes are deburred and smoothed. Next comes the bending process, which is generally performed by a CNC-controlled or semi-automatic machine. Afterwards, the shaped tube is inspected and, where necessary, aligned by hand, smoothed again and polished. For environmental reasons, surface finishing is carried out by specially certified companies before the items of furniture are returned to Thonet’s own production halls. Here, they are upholstered and fitted with various trimmings made of wood, leather, mesh or wickerwork.

The business sense of keeping supply chains short

imm cologne | Thonet - craftsmanship meets industrial production

At the imm cologne 2019, 65 years after its first participation, Thonet presented an exciting stand concept for its 200th anniversary. Photo: Thonet

And it’s not just in production where traditional values matter at Thonet. Worldwide events such as the current coronavirus pandemic highlight the fact that systems like the globalised economy are liable to break down when the movement of goods is restricted. At times like these, attention increasingly turns to deglobalisation and glocalisation trends, and calls for “mindful globalisation” are amplified. According to Thonet, short supply chains and relationships with suppliers based on mutual trust have been the business’ standard practices for 200 years.

For example, it sources its tubular steel from the Black Forest, its beech timber from local forests and the leather for its upholstery from southern Germany and Italy. The only component that comes from further afield is the traditional Viennese-style wickerwork – the mats are woven from the skin of the Indonesian rattan palm.

Thonet also maintains strong relationships outside of its supply chain. Its connection with imm cologne is a lasting bond, too. After all, the long-established company has been a regular presence at Cologne’s Interior Business Event since 1954.