The Classic Paris Bistro Chair

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Temple & Webster

Let’s start by clearing up the name of this famous chair. It can be called a Bentwood chair (as the wood has literally been bent to create the curved backrest); or the Thonet chair, after the man who perfected the production of these restaurant chairs. But it is more commonly recognized as the Paris bistro chair or café chair because that is where it is most famously seen – at sidewalk cafes in Paris, and across Europe.

What is the Paris Bistro Restaurant Chair

The Bistro Chair is one of the most popular restaurant chairs used in eating establishments. It meets many of the requirements of a restaurant:

  • Comfortable
  • Lightweight
  • Budget-friendly
  • Compact
  • Elegant
  • Sturdy and durable

Paris bistro chairs are usually made using ash, beech wood, or other soft woods. The wood is heated with steam and manipulated into the shape that is wanted. The original Bentwood has two tubular pieces of wood bent up from the seat, curved across the back, and running down to the seat again. This forms two elegant arches, one within the other. The chairs have a plain wooden seat and wooden legs that can be strengthened by connecting them with a footrest. Today you can find several variations on the original design including bar stools with the classic Thonet back.

The Michael Thonet Chair

The classic bistro chair is also called a Thonet chair after the German-Austrian designer Michael Thonet who perfected the production method. Although these café chairs were being produced decades before Thonet came on the scene, he is credited with making the chair popular. Thonet perfected the process of making the wood supple enough to manipulate into an elegant curve across the top of the backrest. And his process made it possible for the chair to be mass-produced.

Michael Thonet was born in 1796 and was a cabinet maker by profession. His special method for bending wood used steam to heat a combination of glued wooden slates that could be manipulated when hot, then left to cool so that their shape was preserved. He would use light, strong wood. After being glued together they could be curved easily using hot steam.

The original chairs were made using glue but by 1856 the method had been refined and the simple design could be assembled with just a few nuts and bolts and six pieces of wood. The chairs were even sold in pieces for the consumer to assemble at home.

Thanks to his work with hot steam and the right combination of wood, many new chair designs were now possible. His first model of the chair which would come to be known as the Paris bistro café was called the Vienna or Qitay Chair. But the version that became so popular was simply called Thonet #14.

Paris Bistro Chairs

The chair that is synonymous with Paris cafés has its roots in the original Thonet chair but for extra comfort, color, and style they are now made with a wider back, wider seat, and a backrest and seat of woven synthetic rattan (or rilsan). They can also have armrests. The most popular colors for synthetic rattan are woven white and red, white and brown, or white and black. The materials are resistant to the elements making them suitable for outdoor seating. When the wide boulevards of Paris were built and bistros and brasseries started to appear, the chairs appeared as well. The main producers were Maison Gatti and Maison Drucker. They are still producing these restaurant chairs today.

Famous Paris Bistro Chairs

Joseph Stalin, Albert Einstein, and Pablo Picasso famously owned Bentwood or Bistro chairs. The chairs were immortalized in the painting by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec of the Moulin Rouge. You would have also seen Bistro chairs in films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Toy Story 4, and Citizen Kane. The possessed little girl in Poltergeist piled up the family’s Thonet chairs in a corner, Rita Hayworth was filmed through the curves of a Bentwood chair, and the chairs were seen in The Lighthouse Jazz Club in La La Land. But of course, the most famous film that featured the elegant yet common Paris bistro chairs was Cabaret.

To date, more than 80 million Bentwood chairs have been made but no two chairs are identical because of the different sets of timber used. Although a hundred years have passed since the humble Thonet chair first appeared in restaurants, it remains inexpensive, beautiful, and aesthetic. This is one restaurant chair that has stood the test of time.