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 2014Museum Grassi,

Catalogue:„Sitzen, Liegen, Schaukeln – Möbel von Thonet“Ed. Grassi Museum für Angewandte Kunst224 pagesKerber Verlag, April 201444

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