Wednesday, May 16, 2007


About 14 years ago I stopped by the 26th Street Flea Market in NYC and I came upon a beautiful set of chairs. Actually there were about a hundred of them. After talking to the seller I discovered that the chairs were Thonet and were from the waiting room of a mental instutution from the 60's. I bought 6 chairs - 3 yellow and 3 orange. Now how was I going to get them home?

I went home and got 4 large shopping bags, a screwdriver and went back to pick up my new chairs. I sat on the sidewalk and took them all apart and managed to make them all fit in the four shopping bags. I thought it was genius that they could be condensed like that for easy transport.

So here I am today in my new home in Maui - they had to come with me - and I finally decided it was time to recover the chairs - details at the end of this post. I wanted something graphic, tropical, but subtle. I covered the seats and backs in a natural linen which used to be curtains about 15 years ago. The seats were printed by taking 6 different leaves from the yard and painting each one with gold silkscreen ink. I then turned the leaves over and pressed the ink onto the seat. I got the exact look I wanted - subtle. They have a certain natural and worn in look. The legs and back braces were also stripped of the brown paint that was on them and were stained which now shows all the beautiful layers of veneer used to achieve the bent form.

After taking the vinyl covers off the chairs I noticed that the inside craftsmanship is just as beautiful as the outside. The bent-wood is clean and smooth and the way the padding is glued on is amazing. It has been glued on so that it does not wrap around the edge of the wood and is still in tact after 40 plus years. In fact it has not even dried out or crummbled in anyway.

Once the back brace is removed, the back cushion separates into 2 pieces.
Detail of how padding is attached.

Upon seeing this, I decided to to a bit more research on Michael Thonet and the history of bent-wood.

Michael Thonet was born on 2.7.1796 as son of a tanner in Boppard. He completed an apprenticeship as cabinet maker and, at the age of 23, established his own business as joiner and cabinet maker in Boppard. Thonet began to produce furniture parts such as curved chair backs from layered and veneered wood, until he finally brought entire chairs in bent-wood forms onto the market. The Thonet company was established in 1819 to produce his own designs, using the then new bentwood process, which he developed. Bentwood is a term used to describe furniture made by steaming wood, bending it, and letting it harden into curved shapes. In 1856 he patented his invention for bent-wood furnture in England, France and Belgium. Within a short period of time it became a major furniture manufacturer with a global distribution network.

The 1859 chair No. 14 - better known as Kaffeehausstuhl No. 14, coffee shop chair no. 14 - is still called the "chair of chairs" with some 30 million produced up until 1930. It yielded a gold medal for Thonet's enterprise at the 1867 Paris World's Fair. The bent-wood furniture could be taken apart and was very suitable for export because of the low transport costs. To this day, Thonet is still manufacturing furniture.

One can hardly imagine the work of Charles and Ray Eames or Alvar Aalto without this technology and many other furniture manufacturers and designers have used the process since the expiry of the patent in 1889.

Eames lounge chair.
Image source and courtesy of
Used with permission.

Plywood tends to splinter when bent into acute angles. To solve this problem, the Eameses and their colleagues cut slits and holes into these experimental chair shells. Chair Shell Experiments, designed 1941-45,
molded plywood, metal, and rubber.
Courtesy of Vitra Design Museum

Aalto Stool
The basic Aalto stool is 3-legged. Because of this, even large numbers of them can be stacked and stored in very little space.
Designer: Alvar Aalto
Designed: 1933

Bar stool
Alvar Aalto Museum collection / loaned by the City of Jyväskylä
Designer: Alvar Aalto
Designed: 1934
Photo Courtesy of

Chaise longue
Alvar Aalto Museum collection / loaned by Oy Artek Ab
Designer: Alvar Aalto
Designed: 1936
Photo Courtesy of

In the 1930's a major expansion took place with the addition of tubular steel furniture from famous Bauhaus associated designers such as Mart Stam, Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe.

Mart Stam
Chaise Cantilever S33
Chrome & Leather
Designed 1926
Photo Courtsey

Mies van der Rohe's MR Lounge Chair was first created in 1929.
Tubular stainless steel frame with leather seat cushion.
Photo Courtsey

The Wassily Chair, also known as the Model B3 chair, was designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925-26. This chair was revolutionary in the use of the materials (bent steel tubes and leather) and methods of manufacturing. It is said that the handlebar of Breuer's 'Adler' bicycle inspired him to use steel tubing to build the chair, and it proved to be an appropriate material because it was available in quantity.
Photo Courtesy of

Details of the re-cover:

The 6 different leaf patterns are clockwise from back: Taro, Fern, Ulu (breadfruit), Maille-Scented Fern, Papaya (cut off), Monstera.
Detail of Papaya Leaf.
Stripped and sanded legs.
Freshly stained legs and back braces.
Leg deatil with layers of veneer.
Attaching the piping on the back cushions.
Close the piping by tucking one end into the otherand folding back top layer 1/4".
Piping detail.

Make sure to leave on any original tags if possible.

Staple on a bottom cover to hide raw edges of fabric and wood. I like to use materials like felt, vinyl, ultra suede or even an inexpensive plastic table cloth because the edges of these materials does not fray or unravel and provides a clean finish on the bottom. I used the black vinyl from my 1950's daybed cushions that I am in the middle of recovering as well. There is nothing wrong with the vinyl so why not reuse it? I never throw anything away that I might be able to use again. Vinyl works well for the under sides, but here in Hawaii not so much for a cushion.

I also put new gliders on the legs . I did this for 2 reasons.
1. It heeps the wood on the legs from wearing down.
2. It helps keep from scratching the floor.

I finished it all off with brass screws on the back brace. The only other option was silver and I felt that stood out too much. The brass at least matches the ink on the seats.

The final product.

A great collection of Thonet furniture can be found at 1st Dibs.

- Conn


Anonymous said...

wow cool! looks great.


becky said...

Dear Todd,

This blog rocks, and this entry was so much fun and informative! You have been inspiring me since the days of Todd Time on MTV.

I wanted to tell you I was so sorry to hear about the passing of your friend Charley Harper. I believe it is Charley who inspired my love of cardinals, as I grew up spending lots of time at the Cincinnati Nature Center and getting to know his work there. He will be missed by multitudes.

Thank you so much for the inspiration!


design*sponge said...


This is such a fantastic project- and the final project is lovely. Thanks for the inspiration.


midcenturyjo said...

Love a twist on a classic mid-century piece.

JHAYNE said...

what a fantastic way to revive both the chair and curtains. . .two 'olds' equal a lovely 'new'!

The Shopping Sherpa said...

Ohhh! Chair porn! Lovely!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I recently recovered my vintage thonet chairs too!

They weren't in as good condition as yours (someone covered them in a thick layer of black paint and velvet brocade - ick) but I liked the way their roughness takes the really modern shape of the chairs and adds an edge to it.

Another Shade of Grey said...

Only back in the day was there such great art in the waiting room of a mental institution. Lucky you. Great job refurbishing.

My local newspaper (town of 4000) has two mid century sofas in their waiting room. Every time I drive by and see them through the window I consider popping in and making an offer. I'm almost positive I could get them at a steal as I'm sure they've been there since the paper began.

The Crafty Weasel said...

WOW WOW WOW! That is absolutely brilliant!!!

What a fantastic way to recycle and re-use, what a eye for the change, what a skill and what a fabulous result!!

lizzie said...

Help! I have the same chairs and the holes are stripped on a couple of them, so the backs wobble (one even keeps falling off). I've tried using wood glue to keep the screws in place, but that doesn't work either. Is there any sort of putty/screw that will better anchor the chair backs?


decor8 said...

I found your blog via Becky over at Hatch (the blogger) and really like this chair DIY post. Great to find you!

Conn said...

Hello Elizabeth...
I have not forgotten to reply to your question. I did reply once and it never posted. Sorry.
I want to find out the name of the exact threaded piece you need to buy and I will get back to you as soon as i find the name for it.

Regards, Conn