Thru’ September 14 Museum Grassi in Leipzig is presenting “Sit, Recline, Rock – Thonet Furniture”, highlighting developments that arose between 1945 and the present. Photo © Grassi Museum Leipzig
by Thomas Edelmann
May 4, 2014

Publications on Thonet fill entire shelves, and collections on the company’s history and products are part of any standard museum repertoire the world over. So are any new insights possible, given the field has been researched in such depth? Can a show on historical furniture really be inspiring? Particularly in an age of digitalization and an inflationary focus on the new, when people constantly seek new images and hardly notice original and analog objects? Has the present more to offer than what Alexander von Vegesack, Gerhard Bott or Karl Mang have already provided in their pioneering books and exhibitions on Thonet? The acid test is the show at Grassi Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Leipzig, which thru’ September 14 is presenting “Sit, Recline, Rock – Thonet Furniture”.

The famous meets the unknown

As the title intimates, the choice of exhibits excludes things, such as tables, bureaus, shelves, and other special items. If visitors are to get an emphatic impression, then a thematic restriction and limitation is presumably necessary.

To be clear from the outset, this is not one of those presentations where a current brand buys itself a place in a museum to achieve special fame by dint of the setting. However, Thonet did open its archive doors to the museum organizers, so that documents and furniture could in part be brought back into the public limelight. A different approach would hardly have been plausible, as, to quote designer Verner Panton: “Thonet chairs stand in palaces, villas and the small bar round the corner. They are probably the only chairs that really are world famous.” So does one encounter old familiars in the museum?

Curator Sabine Epple opted for a different approach. Some well-known items of industrial and design history are among the 130 exhibits, a few stem from the Grassi Museum’s own collection, historical pieces were contributed by Vitra Design Museum and collector Wolfgang Thillmann. However, the exhibition primarily presents Thonet loans, namely new developments that arose between 1945 and the present. While in other exhibitions the emphasis has been on clarifying historical developments, outlining the basic innovations of furniture production (while Thonet did not invent them, it did perfect them and achieve the international breakthrough), here we get an almost unfiltered panorama of the years 1945 to 2013. Epple focuses on the brand’s post-War West German design output. And there are definitely some real discoveries on show. Along well-knowns such as James Irvine, Konstantin Grcic, Stefan Diez or Piero Lissoni, in the show you can rediscover a generation of post-War designers who have long since been forgotten. For example Hanno von Gustedt, Edelhard (“Eddi”) Harlis or Eduard Levsen, to name but a few, created often remarkable designs that were typical of the day and boasted fine details. These are furniture items that have to date tended to lead an existence more on online auction platforms than in museums. And pioneering deeds such as Gerd Lange’s “Flex” stacking chair, which in the early 1970s combined beech wood with a polypropylene shell, is to be seen. As are the daring seating objects and furniture systems Verner Panton devised for Thonet that did not achieve enduring fame.

Glance round at those at table

In Leipzig they’ve all been brought together to form imaginary table groups, that are not chosen chronologically, but by materials and functions. In the first, darkened room, the chairs stand on the floor like illuminated table elements. Most of them have their backs turned to us. However pleasant the proximity of the exhibits, it is hard to analyze them in detail. It’s best to crouch down and not to look down on the chairs from above. For precisely a close visual take on the structural details makes an exhibition like this so invaluable. The one or other curious item of furniture that has found its way in here is dispensable, but the presentation succeeds in forging formal links and relationships between furniture of different epochs, for example between the “B 403” chair Ferdinand Kramer designed in 1927 with its saddle-like seat and Stefan Diez’s “404” model created 80 years later. The juxtaposition of Gerd Lange’s 1982 “Flex-Turn” office chair and James Irvine’s “Loop Chair” of 2001 is also stimulating. In the second exhibition hall, things get a little brighter. Here, the long-standing brand is highlighted by a focus on thematic groups ranging from garden furniture through upholstered furniture and recliners to rocking chairs and items for kids.

However, in this joyful chair phenomenology other linkages, such as the place the various items are used, conditions of the day, the business setting as well as production and marketing, tend to get lost. This holds especially true of the catalog, which features a mere two essays. Alongside the introductory contribution by the curator, who takes a chronological approach that she otherwise eschews in the show, and the contribution by collector Thillmann, who presents a technical side to the evolution of bentwood manufacturing, the book amounts to a 145-page thick furniture catalog. Like in a book that enables you to classify insects, almost every item of furniture Thonet has launched since 1945 is defined in a capsule description. For the Thonetologists among you there may be many key new sources here, but for the rest of humanity the hodgepodge of ganged, upholstered, rocker-based, stylistic chairs and club armchairs presented here with so little attention to appealing visuals is primarily one thing: opaque.

Wassily is not necessarily Wassily

The exhibition contains many an item awaiting discovery by the highly motivated and well-informed visitor. Because on view are not only the legendary “No. 14” chair of 1859 or spectacular objects such as the bentwood cradle or the bentwood bed-sofa, but also items that are world-famous today, but no longer associated with Thonet. They include, for example, Josef Hoffmann’s “Sitzmaschine” (now made by Wittmann), presented in Leipzig in the 1905 version by Jakob & Josef Kohn, or Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” club armchair, created in 1925. Initially turned out as a small series at the Bauhaus in Dessau, it went into production around 1927 at the Standard-Möbel company, before Thonet started handling the production in 1930. In 1960, Breuer awarded Diego Gavina the rights to the re-edition, who assigned them in 1968 to Knoll International. With each change in manufacturer, the construction and materials likewise changed. In 2003, the major Breuer show at Vitra Design Museum traced the history in detail and highlighted the fact that one “Wassily” is not necessarily the same as another “Wassily”. Leipzig also includes furniture by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand dating from 1929. Hang on – aren’t they part of the Cassina portfolio? Yes! But not until they were re-issued in the mid-1960s. Originally, the “B 306” recliner was manufactured under license by Heidi Weber and by Embru in Switzerland, and around 1930 it and the “B 302” swivel chair were both part of the line brought out by Thonet’s French arm, Thonet Frères in Paris. Hans Luckhardt’s adjustable “Siesta” chair (patented in 1936) is far more than just some oddball. Luckhardt spent decades tweaking smoothly adjustable recliners that were to offer professionals a welcome catnap at work. Physicians confirmed the efficacy of such naps, and thus factory and office staff were able to relax with a view to boosting their productivity.

On balance, the Leipzig Thonet exhibition is well worth a visit. As is a trip to the permanent exhibition, specifically to the “From Art Nouveau to the Present” section. What is, however, apparent is that the search continues for persuasive ways of displaying design that make use of contemporary means of presentation without being obtrusive. Even long-standing and important institutions like the Grassi Museum sadly do not possess the financial resources to present complex linkages in a convincing manner in our increasingly digital world. Thonet is inspiring, irrespective of whether the focus is on economic or cultural history, on marketing or design. To this extent, an exhibition that displayed less furniture and offered more precise highlights would perhaps have been more interesting. It’s a company and family saga that will never be told to the end.

“Sit, Recline, Rock – Thonet Furniture”
17 April thru 14 September 2014
Museum Grassi, Leipzig

„Sitzen, Liegen, Schaukeln – Möbel von Thonet“
Ed. Grassi Museum für Angewandte Kunst
224 pages
Kerber Verlag, April 2014
44 Euro

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Verner Panton for Thonet: Chair „270 F“, 1965/66. Photo © Constantin Meyer
Far more than just some oddball: Hans Luckhardt’s adjustable “Siesta” chair (patented in 1936). Photo © Constantin Meyer
More on online auction platforms than in museums: Rocking chair for the garden “ST 459“ von Hanno von Gustedt, 1958/59. Photo © Constantin Meyer
Pioneering deed: Gerd Lange’s “Flex” stacking chair, which in the early 1970s combined beech wood with a polypropylene shell. Photo © Constantin Meyer
Also an hidden chapter at Thonet: upholstered furniture like the “ST 683“ by Edelhard (“Eddi“) Harlis, 1956. Photo © Constantin Meyer
Since 2007 chair No. “404” is fulfilling the portfolio. Photo © Constantin Meyer
130 exhibits from the Grassi Museum, by Vitra Design Museum and from collector Wolfgang Thillmann are on show in Leipzig. Photo © Grassi Museum Leipzig