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In 1851 Thonet exhibited the Thonet 18 chair for the first world fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851 which took place in the Crystal Palace. The jury awarded a prize medal to the chairs but described them as “curious”. In 1852 Michael Thonet applied for and received a patent in the name of his sons for giving “wood various curves and forms by cutting and regluing.” The company became hugely successfully after developing a method to bend solid wood parts rather than veneered wood. The patent expired in 1869 which led to numerous bentwood companies quickly appearing, selling exact copies of the chairs and in some cases using the same model numbers assigned to the chairs.
The No.18 features a solid beechwood frame, and a caned seat as well as metal and wood fittings. All wooden parts of the chair have been stained. The chair features a striking “hairpin” design in its backrest. The chair was a so-called export chair of Gebrüder Thonet and was often sold for use in restaurants and cafés – especially in South America. The chair could be disassembled into its individual parts, 36 chairs fit into a sea chest, allowing the chairs to be sent on long journeys without any problem in large quantities.
The firm’s key design principle was to manufacture as many chair models from as few different parts as possible. These parts were then packed in boxes, for ease of shipping, and assembled by Thonet shops or distributors rather than consumers. The method of shipping meant that prices could be kept lower than that of furniture shipped fully assembled.
This chair was acquired as part of the Shekou Project, an international partnership between the V&A and China Merchant Shekou Holdings (CMSK) to open a new cultural platform called Design Society in Shekou. It was included in the inaugural exhibition, ‘Values of Design’, in the V&A Gallery at Design Society in a section exploring the critical issue of cost in design practice and looks at notions of originality in design when compared to cheaper copies.
Chair, steam-bent, solid beechwood frame, laminated beech and caned seat, all wooden parts are stained.
Height: 93.8 cm, Width: 41 cm, Depth: 45.7 cm
Object history note
This chair was included in ‘Values of Design’ at the V&A Gallery, Design Society in Shenzhen, China in 2017.
Thonet 18, steam bent beechwood chair with cane seating, designed by Gebruder Thonet, 1876.
Labels and date
Many classic furniture designs, such as bentwood chairs by Thonet, originally aimed to be low-cost. However, their prices have risen today in part due to their iconic status. In response, cheap alternatives have been made such as Ikea's Ölga, which mimics the form of a Thonet but is made from plastic. 
Interiors; Household objects; Shekou; Values of Design; Design Society
Furniture and Woodwork Collection