Simplicity is often the key to creating an iconic design. And in the case of the Thonet chair, only six elements were required to make each chair.

Designer Michael Thonet, who created the No. 18 Vienna in 1876, spent years researching the best way to not only put these elements together but also the best way to bend timber, with the chair’s curved backrest providing its distinctive look and feel. Although the No. 18 Vienna is a later version of No.14, designed in 1859, it came with greater support, with the looped backrest extending in a continuous form to create greater support for the seat of this iconic chair. 

Given the strength, comfort and simplicity of the No.18 Vienna, it is regularly seen in cafes today, both in period and contemporary settings. This design would certainly have been appreciated by those wearing their Victorian garb, the women with their bustled dresses and men draping their coattails through the minimal backrest (the legs and backrest are made from a single piece of wood). And while the Viennese were enjoying sipping coffee from their Thonets, it didn’t take long before other European cities discovered these pleasures.

Made from laminated beech, with a woven cane seat, the No.18 Vienna took its name from the designer’s city, Vienna, and became a popular choice for cafes along the city’s Ringstrasse. And, as it intended, by 1930, this iconic chair, designed for the mass market, had sold in the vicinity of 50 million: hence it’s often referred to as the ‘consumer’ chair, and for many restauranteurs, the ‘bistro’ chair.

Thonet seemed to have thought of the comfort required for those extended café sojourns and ensuring that any liquid spilt by a waiter drained through the seat, either made from woven cane or palm. Thonet spent considerable time experimenting with laminated wood and glue before he stumbled across the idea of steaming timber within a metal brace to create the amount of curvature he was looking for. 

Nicholas Barratt, Commercial Sales and Marketing Manager for Thonet in Victoria, receives containers monthly, including the No.18 Vienna and the No.18 Vienna and the number 14 model. As with many designs that improve with time, the latter version of the Thonet, released in the late 1860s, features more bracing, with a springing system aligned to the legs of the seat that allow for more moveability. “If you look at the Thonet chair, it was an important step in mass production,” Nicholas says, who sees this chair as popular for both commercial and domestic settings, together with period and contemporary spaces.

And while there are reproductions, these Thonet chairs are clearly branded with ‘Thonet’. The No.18 Vienna’s relatively modest price makes them accessible to a broader audience and an affordable option for restauranteurs requiring multiple chairs for their customers. “It’s also extremely light, weighing only six kilograms, which allows it to be easily moved around,” Barratt says, who also appreciates this chair’s visual lightness. “It doesn’t take up much ‘visual space’,” he adds.

Designer Suzie Forge purchased 12 No.18 Vienna chairs in one hit. “They’re easy to move around and also extremely comfortable. Some of these chairs were brought down to my holiday house. They work well with my stained plywood walls and timber ceiling,” Suzie says. And while she started with 12, a few found their way into Suzie’s daughter’s house nearby. “They’re just so simple, but simplicity is often the best solution.” 

No18 Thonet Bentwood Stained Est Magazine

The Thonet No.18 chair | Image courtesy of Thonet

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