This 19th.-century chair was once used as office furniture at the Australian Museum and is now registered in the museum's Material Archives collection, no. MA01190. It has initials 'AJN' hand-written on the manufacturer's paper label, indicating that a longtime occupier was the museum ornithologist Alfred John North who worked at the museum from 1886 to 1917.

Thonet chair

Gebruder Thonet bentwood chair model no. 7. At left, a circa-1888 version of the design, and at right, the museum's later version MA01190, with damaged replacement seat. (Lempertz Auctions, Cologne, 2017. Australian Museum, Sydney, 2020.)

Image: Virginia Wright
© Australian Museum

The chair has a brand-stamp 'Thonet' and a partial trademark paper label 'Thonet Wien'. The design is a version of model no. 7, first designed by Michael Thonet in 1856, and manufactured from 1857 onward by Gebruder Thonet of Vienna. This was during the Thonet family's first decade of bentwood furniture manufacturing. The second version was produced shortly after the original model, with a stretcher-ring connecting the legs for added strength, but with the seat-frame reduced in size to a simpler form. A third version retained the stetcher-ring and returned to the original 'double' seat-frame. A fourth version is identical to the museum's example but without side-braces, and had the same trademark paper label as the museum's example. That trademark was introduced in 1888. The museum's example appears to be a fifth version, with bentwood side-braces connecting seat and frame, and is probably early 1890s. By then, it was common for Austrian manufacturers to incorporate bentwood side-braces, which were first used by North American manufacturers.

None of these Thonet models are in surviving retail and/or wholesale Australian furniture catalogues from the 1870s to 1890s. In addition, the distinctive double-frame seat of the museum's example of Thonet no. 7 is not shown in any of the bentwood chairs illustrated in these catalogues. It is a rare model, not only in Australia but also in Europe. The museum owned a number of them, as the seat-frame can be glimpsed in a photo in the museum's collection that shows a group of employees in about 1912.

Bentwood chairs were used in every type of home, business, and institution throughout Australia. They were manufactured in Austria from the 1850s onward, in the United States of America from the early 1870s onward, and in Canada from the mid-1880s onward, and exported worldwide from those countries in very large quantities. At first, they were mainly of interest to connoisseurs, after being exhibited in London at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but an extensive range of bentwood furniture for all types of prospective Australian buyers was imported from the 1870s onward. In fact, bentwood and other manufactured chairs were the most common form of seating in Australia and New Zealand for almost a century. Most museums were furnished with imported chairs, while their tables, desks, and cabinetry were more likely to be locally made. The Australian Museum used other bentwood chairs in addition to Thonet. no. 7, with another model seen in a photo of a museum chemistry laboratory. The predominance of chairs manufactured in Austria, the United States of America, and Canada has been overlooked in histories of Australian furniture trade and consumption, which have focused on British and colonial furniture.

Australian Museum Archives AMS514/VA163/6

Charles Anderson in a museum chemistry laboratory ca. 1930. (Australian Museum Archives AMS514/VA163/6)

Image: Anthony Musgrave
© Australian Museum

Sydney department store Anthony Hordern & Sons stated in its 1894 catalogue that there was 'scarcely a home in New South Wales' where bentwood chairs did not 'occupy a conspicuous place among the household gods'. Another important retailer, Farmer and Company, advertised in the 1880s that their range of 'Austrian Chairs, Rockers, Sofas, Couches, Sofa Bedsteads, &c.' was the 'largest stock in Sydney'. Furthermore, it was 'the only firm in Sydney who issue an Illustrated Catalogue of Bentwood Furniture, which may be had on application, and which is invaluable to country residents who desire to see the various styles previous to ordering'. Thonet products in the Farmer's catalogue of 1887 included 'Child's Chairs, Arm Chairs, Folding Chairs, Rocking Chairs, Office Chairs, Piano Chairs, Shop Chairs, Library Chairs, Baby Chairs, Revolving Chairs, Couches, Lounges, Sofas, and Settees'. By 1891, the store was issuing four annual furniture catalogues, including one devoted to the 'great variety of design from the best maker in the world, Thonet'. The Australian Museum's ledger books show Farmer & Co. listed as a supplier of furniture in 1885, 1886, and 1890.

(National Library of Australia. Fairfax Corporation.

Museum taxidermists performing restoration on birds, New South Wales, ca. 1925. (National Library of Australia. Fairfax Corporation.

Image: Fairfax Corporation
© Fairfax Corporation

The museum's no. 7 originally had a split-cane seat woven in the Austrian pattern, which was replaced with a thick leather seat, stamped 'Pioneer'. This was made by the Pioneer Leather Belting Company, a tannery and leather business founded by John Charles Ludovici. He purchased the Balmain Tannery in 1858, but later moved to Longueville on Sydney's North Shore. J. C. Ludovici and Son won awards for their industrial leather belting at the annual Royal Agricultural Sociey Shows in Sydney, at the Adelaide Jubilee Exhibition of 1887, and at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

The only advertising for Pioneer leather seats appeared in The Bulletin in 1913, by which time J. C. Ludovici and Son was a very successful, publicly listed company. The leather chair seats, however, appear to have been a failed experiment, having insufficient strength when compared to the laminated-plywood seats made by North American and European manufacturers. The damaged Pioneer seat on the museum's chair might be the only surviving example of this locally-made product.

Further information about the global trade in bentwood furniture is available in Virginia Wright's 2017 thesis, 'A Quintessential Global Product: Bentwood Furniture in Canada and Australia 1860 to 1945', which is online for reading and downloading at University of Technology Sydney Library.