What comes to mind for most people when they think of a coffee house chair? It’s likely dark, thin pieces of wood and light canework. This attractive contrast is precisely what makes Thonet’s classic 214 chair so recognisable and iconic. The chair is also available with a moulded plywood or upholstered seat, as well as in light or coloured stains, but it is this combination of dark wood and a natural colour that is the epitome of a coffee house chair. While the beech trees that Thonet uses to make the bentwood pieces are sourced from sustainable forests in Europe, the material for the seat has a much longer journey. The seat covering is made of canework, which is produced from the Calamus rotang or rattan palm. This tropical creeper grows in the rainforests of South-East Asia and produces long shoots that climb trees like lianas. Incidentally, Thonet founder Michael Thonet was also using canework in his early designs all those years ago. His Boppard chairs made of glued layers of wood, which he produced from the late 1830s onwards, included models with a rattan seat, as well as upholstered pieces. Once Thonet began producing his bentwood chairs on an industrial scale in the 1850s, he relied largely on canework. Also known as “Viennese canework”, this type of covering was less expensive than leather or upholstery and also easier to replace if it became damaged.
The raw materials for the canework were and still are imported from South-East Asia, primarily from Indonesia. Precisely when rattan first came to Europe is not clear – either in the late 16th or early 17th century. That was the time that Europeans first began colonizing South-East Asia. What we do know, though, is that the octagonal weaving technique, which Thonet continues to use to this day, has its roots in Asia. In England, the popularity of rattan took off in the middle of the 17th century. Rattan chairs were so fashionable that at times they replaced upholstered furniture altogether. In Germany, the first pieces of furniture with canework appeared around the year 1700. And when Michael Thonet opened his first workshop in Boppard, Germany in 1819, woven seats were back in vogue. Of course, it made sense that he would also use this material, which was so typical of the Biedermeier period. After all, canework offers two characteristics that are essential for a seat: stability and elasticity. It’s a natural material that is robust, but it also gives a bit, providing comfort without a cushion. Canework is also sustainable – especially important nowadays – because the rattan palm is dependent on biodiversity. It can only thrive in symbiosis with its neighbouring trees, which means that the use of rattan contributes to preserving the rainforest. Rattan palm trees also grow back quickly after they are harvested, absorbing more CO2 than trees.
To create fibres for weaving, the outer shell of the harvested rattan shoots is peeled and cut into strips. These strips are then glued together to create one long continuous fibre. Traditionally, each Thonet chair and armchair was woven by hand. Holes were drilled into the seat frame, through which the fibres were then pulled. Today, Thonet uses industrially woven canework mats which are hammered into a groove running round the entire seat frame and then secured with wood glue. Before they are used for weaving, the mats are soaked in water for a short time to make them flexible. After they dry, the rattan contracts again, giving the seat the desired tension. Thonet completes the seat with a ring made from the inner core of the rattan, known as the splint. The splint is glued onto the canework in the groove, creating a seal. Since the splint and the canework are made of exactly the same raw material, they create an aesthetically uniform look. This technique also saves resources, since it uses multiple parts of the plant.
One reason that we still find canework visually appealing today is surely its decorative, cut-out pattern, which lends the furniture an element of transparency. In addition, rattan – like every natural material – has irregularities in its colour and texture, making it vibrant and lively. Its subtle shimmering honey tone exudes a welcome warmth in people’s homes. And if, despite its inherent stability, the canework happens to break, Thonet offers a repair service, allowing the chairs with their appealing contrast of dark wood and light woven seats to be passed on to the next generation.
Canework is a renewable and durable material that has been used for centuries in furniture making. To give it extra stability in locations where it will see a lot of use, such as restaurants, cafés and other busy places, Thonet has developed a discreet layer of support: a white polyester mesh fixed underneath the canework. The patented, almost invisible synthetic mesh is stretched under the seat to provide extra support. This measure also makes sense from a sustainability perspective, significantly prolonging the life of heavily used woven furniture. The synthetic mesh comes as standard with the canework seats for the tubular steel models S 32 and S 64 as well as with all the bentwood classics.