Thonet chairs, with their attractive bentwood curves and open backs, have featured heavily on film sets since at least the 1930s. 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 (left) or The Killing of Sister George, 1968 (middle). Cover Girl, a 1944 musical, takes this idea to an almost comical extreme (right).
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 or foreground. Unoccupied Thonet chairs sometimes seem to be treated as characters in a scene, or placeholders for a character who’s missing or will soon appear. See, for example, The Fallen Idol, 1948, or The Sense of an Ending, 2017. In some cases the action is filmed through a Thonet chair.
This scene, from Foyle’s War 7:3 Sunflower, 2013, contains six Thonet No. 14 chairs, two in the far background.
Foyle sits in the left foreground. Another Thonet No. 14 stands symmetrically in the right foreground, with Foyle’s signature hat on the seat.
In a scene from Raw Deal, 1948, an empty Thonet No. 18 in the foreground bears mute witness to the double cross.
The stuffed bear in the background stands in for the classic noir shadow of the killer. Or is the bear looming over the killer’s shadow, and maybe the killer himself?
A common image in film noir is a background of Thonet chairs turned upside down on café tables (to make cleaning the floor easier).
A late set in Whistle Stop, 1946, combines the upside-down Thonet chairs with filming through the chairs’ legs. Irma La Douce, 1963, shows upside-down Thonet chairs in several shots in the Chez Moustache set.
It’s clear that modern directors and set decorators are well aware of the history of Thonet chairs in earlier films. Thonet chairs appear in modern films and TV episodes, and sometimes as set decorations paying homage to earlier films. About half of the entries in Thonet Chairs in Movies are dated 1960 or later.
Thonet made a bewildering array of chairs. There are more than 40 pages of chairs in the 1904 Thonet catalogue (republished by Dover and still available). Many models are made of only a few parts, held together by screws, and are to some extent modular, with interchangeable parts. For example, two models might differ only in that one has a circular seat and another a trapezoidal seat. Thonet marketed many variations, and set designers could have built their own variants.
The 1904 catalog also contains chairs for children, churches and offices, a line of fake bamboo furniture, doll furniture and much more.
The Thonet No. 18 is the most common model I’ve seen in movies, but No. 16 (new), No. 14 (the classic Vienna café chair), No. 45 ½ (or 45) and many others also appear. (See Thonet Chair Models)
Coat stands (Kleiderstocks) such as the No. 4, No. 12, and the Café Daum coatstand, show up in many films.
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 than160 movies and TV episodes, from 1932 to 2017, from many of cinema’s best directors. I’ve added a few sightings in other media.
Thonet Chairs in Movies | Thonet Chairs in Art | Thonet Chair Models
“Bent wood | The Thonet 14 on film” by Karen Krizanovich in Civilian
Contact Stephen Hart
Copyright 2018, Stephen Hart