Norbert Ruf

How does a design become an icon?

Creative Director Norbert Ruf on timeless classics

In one sentence: how would you define an icon?

Ruf: An icon stands for something, it’s an embodiment of certain values, ideas, a specific outlook on life – a piece of furniture that captures and represents an epoch, a movement or the attitude of a specific time period, a piece that identifies with its time and represents it. There is also an element of timelessness that runs through these designs, which means that they still look contemporary even after being on the market for years. Some examples include our furniture classics from the Bauhaus period: S 32, S 43 and also the bentwood chairs 214 and 209.

Thonet, bentwood chair 214, Nr. 14The coffee house chair is considered the most successful mass-produced product in the world to date
Cantilever chairMart Stam experimented with gas pipes

Thonet is regarded as the oldest furniture manufacturer in the world. Most of its bentwood designs have been a part of the portfolio for over 150 years. And the tubular steel models from the Bauhaus era have also been many people’s absolute favourite pieces for close to 100 years. These pieces were revolutionary when they were developed and are still extremely popular to this day. Why is that?

Ruf: These designs have managed to become something more than just furniture: they have become a part of our culture. You often hear people say things like: “I grew up with Thonet furniture” or “My parents had tubular steel cantilever chairs at the dining table”. This continuity makes these furniture pieces feel almost like members of the family that are passed down through generations. Thonet furniture was and remains a part of the daily lives of people all across the globe. This is due to our high quality standards, but also because our pieces are intelligently constructed and can therefore be easily repaired. We even have our own repair service centre in our manufacturing facility where customers can have their 10 or 20-year-old furniture completely restored or, for example, simply have the canework replaced. This gives furniture from previous generations a second or even a third life and people can gather around them for many years to come, which is why they are so enthusiastic about the quality of craftsmanship.

When it comes to a design becoming an icon, what is more important: form or function?

Ruf: In the past, it was often new technologies that were discovered at a certain time that made new forms and functions possible. For example, Michael Thonet’s discovery of how to use steam to bend wood or how Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer began using tubular steel in their furniture designs. In both cases, this new technique or new use of material led to a previously unknown form created directly from this new technology, and with it new manufacturing processes, such as serial production. In the case of the “chair without back legs”, the cantilever chair by Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer, an entirely new type of chair with a new level of comfort was created, with a completely new function and aesthetic.

Thonet, S 5000 Retreat
Update for sofa S 5000

At Thonet, the classics are “kept alive”, as you say. What exactly does that mean and what does it entail?

Ruf: One of the great things about our classics is their structural significance. Their very substance is timeless but they can be brought up to date with a new look, for example through the use of new colours or finishes, without losing any of their authenticity, aesthetics or functionality. We also recognise that what people need from our products is always changing. So, we are constantly asking ourselves the question: do these new requirements justify manufacturing an entirely new product or could we expand the potential applications of one of our existing products? We call this “ethical design”. A good example of this is the S 5000 sofa range from 2006: in order to adapt to the new need for privacy and retreat in open spaces, such as open-plan offices, hotel lobbies or also in open living spaces such as lofts, we developed panel elements that customers themselves can attach to the existing S 5000 sofas. This development allowed the product to optimally meet this new need. And so the S 5000 evolved into the S 5000 Retreat range.

Thonet designs are frequently copied. Does that annoy you or make you a little bit proud?

Ruf: It is, of course, annoying. And we have always been successful in taking legal action against companies that just copy our products. At the same time, of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

209, Le CorbusierLe Corbusier on the favourite chair of architects - bentwood chair 209
Freischwinger S 32 / S 64

Which design icon is your favourite everyday object?

Ruf: With Thonet, that is not an easy question. I’m torn between the bentwood chair 209, which Le Corbusier remarked “possesses nobility”, and the S 32 cantilever chair, in which Marcel Breuer elegantly wove Thonet’s history together with Bauhaus modernism. Beyond those, I’m also always particularly excited about the design we are currently working on. 

Today, when you work with designers to develop a new product, are you always thinking about creating another iconic piece? What else is important to you when it comes to the development of new products? 

Ruf: I would assume that none of the products we know today as icons or classics were actually created with that intention. Many of them were not even successful in their time and were only appreciated much later – as is often the case with art. But of course you can work with the intention of creating something good. We see the DNA of our company in all of our products, whether it’s in the fine detail of the design, the materials we use, or the perfect craftsmanship. It is all the more gratifying then when time shows that a design successfully captured a mood and that the product has become iconic. This seems to be the case with the 118 wooden chair by Sebastian Herkner: a design with direct ties to the existing designs in the Thonet portfolio that has established itself on the market as a young classic and that has been expanded over time with the launch of new versions. In other words, a fresh product family that already has the potential to establish itself as a new Thonet icon.

Wooden chair 118 by Sebastian Herkner in combination with table 1140 by Werner Aisslinger


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