Michael Thonet's process of production dictated his furniture design. Other designers and producers of his time were using flat wood, with many joints, often ornately hiding the joints through carving and veneers. Thonet focused his work on bending wood. Around the early 1840s, Thonet's process was limited. At this time the only wood bending was used in ship construction. This involved the application of heat and water while the piece was secured in a jig. This process was rarely used in furniture as the wood could not be bent substantially. Thonet began by using thin wood veneers, which are more flexible than solid pieces. He would glue several of these together and place the piece in a jig to dry. This allowed a great level of flexibility in design, but was labour intensive, requiring great care while jigging. Thonet was also limited to bending the wood along only one plane. He experimented further by cutting the ‘already set’ veneers in another direction, and bending them again, as well as varying the dimensions of the veneers used to try for the maximum in bendablity. Still, costs were too high, and the process too complex for mass production. By the mid 1840's Thonet started twisting his laminated pieces, allowing them to be bent in multiple directions. The wood then is rasped to give a round or oval cross section. Once forms were made, this process lead to the first mass production by Thonet.
Thonet's experiments continued however, both out of a innovating spirit andd enquiring mind, but as well as with a new economic reason. Thonet's works began to be exported to the Americas, and it was found that the glues used in the veneer process were dissolving in hot, wet tropical climates. After a long period of experimentation, Thonet discovered the solution. A metal strap was secured on one side and both ends of a solid piece of wood. Then both the metal frame and wood were bent as one piece, in a single operation. The metal strap would stretch marginally, thereby forcing all the fibers of the wood to compress and not crack. This solution further stream-lined the process, reduced costs, production time, and opened a new market, all in one move.
Not only did Thonet innovate in his ‘bentwood’, but also his assembly process. Through the use of ‘bentwoods’, Thonet eliminated many of the joints in traditional furniture. This gave greater strength to the piece using less material, as well as reducing the amount of fasteners needed. Furthermore, Thonet's furniture jigs created pieces so accurately time and time again, that his pieces were interchangeable.
The impact of Thonet was extraordinary and far reaching. Thonet affected the business of furniture, the avant-garde art establishment, and the design process of many products, from his own day to the present. Thonet developed the mass production techniques of ‘bentwood’ furniture, but was not the only one to employ them. Soon after his original patents expired, plenty of imitators emerged. In the 1890's over 50 ‘bentwood furniture’ makers were in business, however none were able to challenge Thonet's dominance of innovation. As far as production numbers, his #14 bistro chair remains one of the most produced chairs in history, still being produced today by Gebr der Thonet.
With figures like this, his business impact was an amazing success. Artistically he also impacted significantly ; from the art nouveau appearance of his rocking chairs, to the modernist simplicity of the #14 bistro chair, he was far ahead of his time.
Despite the resemblance to later artistic movements, Thonet allowed his process and market to drive his design, but that is not to say that these later movements did not draw upon his work. Auguste Renoir sketched out a Thonet rocking chair in 1883. Toulouse Lautrec, an art nouveau era artist, used Thonet furniture in the background of many of his works. Pablo Picasso had a Thonet in his studio. Finally, the Swiss modernist architect Le Corbusier used Thonet furniture extensively in his early buildings, stating how thoroughly they represented the modernist concepts of economy, durability and humbleness. In every era to follow,
Thonet's work has remained a work of art, yet is also accepted by the mainstream public.