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Famous 19th-Century Furniture and Textile Designers: Michael Thonet and William Morris

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19th-century furniture and textile designers and makers, Michael Thonet (left) and Morris

19th-century furniture and textile designers and makers, Michael Thonet (left) and Morris

Of all the furniture and textile designers of the 19th century, two names stand out. Michael Thonet (1796–1871), furniture designer and maker known for the invention of bentwood furniture, and William Morris (1834–1896), English textile designer and poet associated with the British Arts and Craft Movement, were pioneers in the industrialisation of furniture and textile manufacturing.

Michael Thonet: Bentwood Furniture Designer and Maker

Bentwood furniture maker Michael Thonet was a pioneer in designing shaped wood furniture through a steaming process that softened wood enough to bend it into stylish forms and shapes.

The impact of the Industrial Revolution and the brand new manifestations of a mechanized era was the strongest forces in the development of 20th-century art and furniture designs, with the introduction of machinery and the production of machine-made products.

This ushered in a brand new era of 'contemporary' furniture designers and designs.

The Industrial Revolution brought in a deviation from the production of handmade furniture products which were mostly made by homeowners themselves for their own use, to the mass production of machine-manufactured furniture products and systems fashioned in factories, for local and international distribution.

The furniture which we see today is created by the climates that nourished the growth of 19th and 20th-century architecture.

Thonet Bentwood Chairs

Of Belgian descent, Michael Thonet was the furniture designer known to creatively use the systems of mass production.

The history of contemporary furniture design and production will be incomplete without mention of this great furniture designer whose name has thus been associated with the growth of modern furniture since the 19th century.

Born in Germany in 1796, Thonet was the inventor of chairs bent into continuous structural shapes.

Michael Thonet's bentwood furniture design features wood bent into stylish shapes using boiling liquids or steam.

Michael Thonet's bentwood furniture design features wood bent into stylish shapes using boiling liquids or steam.

Bentwood Furniture Production

The process of production was called 'bentwood furniture production', and it involved a process whereby beech wood was softened under high pressure of steam (or boiling liquids) and then bent into beautiful streamlined chairs.

They became described as Bentwood objects because of their curved shapes and patterns. In the furniture industry, this method is often used in the production of rocking chairs, side tables, stools, cafe chairs, and other types of light furniture pieces.

Thonet also developed systems that involved stacking layers of wood veneer, bending them with steam, and then shaping them in heated moulds to form exotic chair designs which are still very relevant in today's furniture styles.

And now in the 21st century, all bent wood and plywood furniture are manufactured based on the same production techniques employed by the 19th-century furniture manufacturers.

Components of Thonet’s Machine Produced Chairs

These chairs were fixed together with simple metal screws and were distributed un-assembled. This technique of self-assembly has become very popular and particularly of efficient importance today.

In the 1920s, they commenced the production of mass furniture using steel tubes and manufactured designs created by other furniture designers of repute like Le Corbusier (see also, Le Corbusier inspired modern chairs), Breuer and Van de Rohe.

Michael Thonet passed on in 1871, but his legacy still lives on. After his death, the family continued to design and produce his style of furniture, and today, his organization still manufactures a vast range of furniture items made of steel, aluminum, bentwood, plastic, and plywood.

William Morris: Pioneer of 19th-Century Arts and Crafts Movement

Early reformers led by William Morris, a 19th-century textile designer, opposed machine-made furniture that produced inferior products, lacking details of finely crafted art.

William Morris is unarguably the most celebrated designer of the 19th century. Linked with the British Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris was a major backer to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production and a revolutionary force in Victorian-Era Britain.

Morris founded the Arts and Crafts Movement, a movement that challenged the typical tastes of the people of Victorian Britain and designed some of the most recognisable textile patterns of the 19th century.

Aside from being a textile designer, he was also a furniture maker, a craftsman, writer and a socialist who radically changed the fashions and philosophies of the 19th century.

Morris Fabrics and Textiles

Morris designed sumptuous patterns for his textile creations. He was famous for his hand-printed chintz materials which became one of his most recognizable achievements. They featured motifs borrowed from nature, like trees, flowers, fruits, leaves, birds, streams, and rivers.

He began the first production of fabrics for mass retailing in 1875. His creations include silk and wool yarn fabrics, embroidered textiles, a woven tapestry made of wool, and cotton warp floor coverings like hand-tufted rug textiles. He also produced printed cotton which was a generally affordable material at the time.

His fabrics were (and still are) used for drapery, furniture upholstery, wall decor and ceiling coverings.

Embroidered textile was a significant source of revenue for his business. His customers had a high demand for his embroidery textile which they mainly used for wall-hangings, cushion covers, curtains, fire screens, portieres, day and evening bags, women’s gloves, tea cosies, book covers, photograph frames, and tablecloths.

William Morris Wallpapers

William Morris, best known for wallpaper and textile designs started designing wallpapers in 1860. His first wallpaper design was 'Trellis' and was produced in 1862 while the second, which went on sale in 1864, was named Daisy. It was a simple design featuring unsophisticatedly sketched meadow flowers block-printed on paper in distemper colours of mineral-based dyes.

He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and its methods of production and during his career created over 50 designs of wallpaper majorly with naturalistic themes.

Famous William Morris Furniture

After graduating from Exeter College, Oxford, with a speciality in architecture, Morris soon veered towards interior design encompassing furniture, textiles, wallpaper and art.

At this time in history, furniture was machine-made ornate Victorian Style pieces but their quality was poor because they were mass produced. William Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood wanted to see a return to hand-craftsmanship and honest design.

He was motivated by the desire to provide affordable 'art for all' and driven by his never-ending enthusiasm, the output of the company was prolific.

His furniture designs were plain and simple and usually made from white or red oak. Tables and chairs were made with slats with straight legs supported by stretchers. Upholstered furniture was made with dark leather coverings.

The Morris chair was a revolutionary version of the earlier reclining chair with moderately high armrests and notches to adjust the degree of slant desired.

They were made with heavy solid wood sections and constructed with simple assembly and honesty of concept, making his chair designs symbols of arts.

His first table design, a round top with medieval features, was created for his home, The Red House, in 1856.

Famous William Morris chair design

Famous William Morris chair design

Other Famous Reformers

Out of all the members of the design reformation group, Phillip Webb stood out as an astounding furniture designer and architect. It was he who designed William Morris's famous country home, the 'Red House.' The home boasted tastefully created interiors and beautifully crafted furniture, decorated ornamentally by William Morris himself and the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The design of Red House freed architecture from its rigid styles and the pomposities of pseudo-romanticism and enabled Phillip Webb to design tasteful stylistic building features.

The mid-19th century brought about a design reformation in England. The group of the early reformers who included architects, furniture designers, artists and others who ranked as creative individuals of repute were led by William Morris. Their ideal went beyond the upright values of the art and crafts movement.

Other famous reformers of the time include architects Richard Redgrave, Henry Cole, Phillip Webb, and Owen Jones.

Their grievances were based on the fact that mass-produced furniture, which flooded the market due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution, was of inferior quality, thus making nonsense of the production of finely crafted bespoke furniture.

They wanted new design values that demonstrated “honest to God” craftsmanship with better use of good quality materials. Unfortunately, the group's collective voice made no impact due to the lack of any clearly defined alternative or viable approach to the visual aspects of machine-manufactured furniture designs.

And if their quest for honest craftsmanship hadn't led them back to the Middle Ages, William Morris and his coterie's importance in contemporary furniture design development would have gone unquestioned.


  • Biography of William Morris
  • The Life and Works of William Morris

© 2018 artsofthetimes


artsofthetimes (author) on April 05, 2018:

Thank you Louise.

True. Not many are searching for history of furniture and textiles but I’ve found these topics helpful to students of the history of art and design.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 05, 2018:

That was very interesting to read. I don't think people really think about history of furniture and textiles.