Thonet chairs, with their attractive curves and open backs, have featured heavily on movie sets since at least the 30s. By the beginning of film noir, in the 1940s, Thonet chairs had been mass produced for some 50 years. They cast beautiful, recognizable shadows, a feature seen in many noir films. See, for example, Fury (1936) or The Killing of Sister George (1968). Cover Girl (1944), takes this idea to an almost comical extreme.
Often the chairs are only partly visible, just part of the set, no more important than a rug. But in other scenes, it’s clear that the director and set decorator are calling attention to the Thonet chairs, in the background, foreground and even between the lens and the actors. In some cases, Thonet chairs appear to take the place of a character in the set, for example in Foyle’s War 7:3 “Sunflower” (2013), or Raw Deal (1948), where the chair might be a witness to a double cross.
A common image in film noir is a background of Thonet chairs turned upside down on cafe tables, denoting the closing-down or after-hours aspect of the scene or even the beginning of the end of the plot. A late scene in Citizen Kane (1941) exemplifies this trope.
It’s clear that modern directors and set decorators are well aware of the history of Thonet chairs in movies. Thonet chairs appear in stage sets within movies and TV episodes, and as decorations signalling that the director knows his or her film history.
Thonet made a bewildering array of chairs—more than 40 pages of chairs in the 1904 catalogue (republished by Dover and still available). Many models are made of few parts, held together by screws, and are modular, so some have interchangeable parts.
Thonet No. 18 is the most common I’ve seen in movies, but No. 16, No. 14 (the classic Vienna cafe chair), No. 45 and many others also appear. Here are models 18 (left), 16 (middle), and 14 (right):
Thonet chairs also appear in paintings, magazine covers and, of course, in historical photos. Because genuine Thonet chairs are still available, as well as nearly identical models made by other companies, you can still see them in commerical use.
These illustrated lists are not intended to be comprehensive, but I have documented Thonet chairs in more than125 movies and TV episodes, from 1932 to 2016, from many of cinema’s best directors. I’ve added a few sightings in other media.
Thonet Chairs in Movies | Thonet Chairs in Art
“Bent wood | The Thonet 14 on film” by Karen Krizanovich in Civilian
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