Bistro Thonet Exhibit

The Thonet Chair

Ernest Hemingway with friends at a café in Pamplona, Spain (1925), Source: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Ernest Hemingway with friends at a café
in Pamplona, Spain (1925)

Source: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Michael Thonet, a German cabinetmaker, designed the No. 14 chair at a time when both design aesthetics and the role of the bistro were evolving.

Thonet’s No. 14 chair was the ideal solution due to its simple, light, and functional design that enabled bistro-goers to enjoy a more private experience.
Previously bistros served as a space for the public to gather and featured long tables and benches to accommodate these needs, but in the 19th century, cities became more bustling and crowded and the bistro became a retreat – a space to people watch, read the newspaper, or catch up with friends.
Still from Charlie Chaplin’s, A Night Out (1915)
Still from Charlie Chaplin’s "A Night Out" (1915)
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge (1892-95), Source: Art Institute of Chicago
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge (1892-95)

Source: Art Institute of Chicago

What made Thonet’s design revolutionary was his newly discovered wood-bending technique, which required steaming solid wood pieces for many hours and reinforcing the curved shape with cast iron molds. 

Thonet’s technique reduced the No.14’s parts to six pieces of wood, ten screws and two bolts, standardizing its shape and decreasing time and cost of production.

Thonet No.8, Source: Thonet GmbH
Thonet No.8

Source: Thonet GmbH

"Never was a better and more elegant design and a more precisely crafted and practical item created."

-Le Corbusier, 1925
A man balancing on a Thonet chair, c. 1900
A man balancing on a Thonet chair (c. 1900)

"An excellent application of a happy thought…"

-juror, the London Exhibition of 1862
36 dismantled chairs, Source: Thonet GmbH
36 dismantled chairs

Source: Thonet GmbH

Simple assemblage allowed the chair to be shipped
as individual parts, making the No. 14 chair the first flat-pack chair in history.

With ease of shipment, 50 million No.14 chairs were sold to bistros around the world between 1890 and 1930 alone.

Originally designed in 1859, the No.14 has remained an icon of bistro seating, with popular iterations including the No.16 and No.18.
Pablo Picasso, Photograph by Arnold Newman (1956), Source: Arnold Newman, represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Pablo Picasso
Photograph by Arnold Newman (1956)

Source: Arnold Newman, represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Elaine de Kooning, Self-Portrait (1946), Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Elaine de Kooning,Self-Portrait (1946)

Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Martha Rosler, Red Stripe Kitchen (1967-72), Source: Martha Rosler, represented by Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, New York
Martha Rosler, Red Stripe Kitchen (1967-72)

Source: Martha Rosler, represented by Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, New York

The famed bentwood chairs have belonged to some of the most celebrated artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Elaine de Kooning.
To this day, Thonet’s No. 14 chair remains the iconic bistro chair. Its innovative and utilitarian design is a timeless feature of bistros across the world.
It has been the protagonist of a few legends, such as surviving a 57-metre fall from the Eiffel Tower during the World Exhibition in 1889, and the precursor to bent tubular steel chairs by Mies van de Rohe and Marcel Breuer as well as later bentwood designs, by Alvar Aalto and Charles and Ray Eames.
View of MoMA’s exhibition, Thonet Furniture (August 11 – October 4, 1953), Photograph by Alexandre Georges, Source: The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
View of MoMA’s exhibition, Thonet Furniture(August 11 – October 4, 1953)
Photograph by Alexandre Georges

Source: The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York