The principle mark of genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers. (Arthur Koestler)
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The Bohemia room showcases a small armchair, one of the most perfect bentwood design creations: the Jacob & Josef Kohn model n. 715 designed by the creative genius of Gustav Siegel.
This model’s role in the history of Thonet style goes far beyond its beauty. The revolution of the creative style in bentwood furniture takes place over the 19th and 20th centuries and can only be understood through comparison.
The comparison should be done between the armchair n. 712 (known as B9 in the Thonet catalogues after 1920) and this one, both produced by Jacob & Josef Kohn.
A fundamental step. And now we’re going to explain the reason.
A structural revolution
Both the armchairs are designed at the end of the 1800s. The n. 712 can be already found on the 1900 poster/catalogue. The n. 715 is presented at the end of 1899 in Vienna and later at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and it is widely recognized as the first modern model.
There is one major difference between the two armchairs: the two front legs.
Working the quadrangular base section allows Gustav Siegel to use a single bentwood element to structure front leg, armrests, and backrest. At the point of contact, the two surfaces are parallel and they are not modified to facilitate the assembly.
In model n. 712, probably another creation by Gustav Siegel, the front legs are simply inserted under the seat. In this case it is not possible to make the legs run near the seat because it would have been necessary the reshaping of the seat frame in order to create the place for the round post.
A deserved success
The result is excellent for both armchairs but the model n.715 has superior, lasting stability compared to traditional 1800s armchairs. In the long run, the weakest point of those armchairs was exactly the bond between the front leg and the seat.
The armchair n.715 has an immediate great success and is awarded the Gold Medal during the Paris Expo of 1900. No coincidence if we find it in Jacob & Josef Kohn advertisements in the Ver Sacrum issues of 1901 and 1902 as well as in Gustav Siegel’s Paris setup reproductions in Das Interieur, in 1901.
The armchair is included in the catalogue for the first time in the supplement of 1902 together with the respective setee and table (also the latter showcased in Paris). The chair from the same set will appear in the catalogues only after 1904.
The production grows and obtains a patent
The original model presented in Paris and promoted has the brass leg caps and the back and upholstered seat. Soon, however, it is possible to buy the same armchair with leather or straw upholstery, and with aluminium or wood-only feet.
This model also appears in Turin in 1902. We can find it in an office for men furnished by Jacob & Josef Kohn in the Austrian pavilion of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts. The same model is in the Bohemia hall of the Milan International Exhibition in 1906.
All versions of the model 715 are reported in 1902 as “registered models” (Gesetzlich geschützt). The fork representing the two back legs is influenced by model n. 712 (with a round and not a square section in this case).
The single bentwood element forming the front legs, the armrests and the backrest is an absolute innovation. A solution that will appear in many successful models based on many famous architects’ design and produced by Kohn itself and also by Thonet.
For-men-only office armchairs
The models n. 712 and n. 715 are recommended as office armchairs. The “700” series was intended to furnish a place that was perceived as typically mannish in the early 20th century.
The studio, the office are places where the new successful modern man is shown. A man devoted to business, projects, family or company accounts.
It is no coincidence that Otto Wagner is portrayed by Theodor Kempf-Hartenkampf while seating at his desk, obviously on a bentwood chair. Similarly, it is not surprising that the Emperor himself is often depicted at his study desk where he used to spend the first hours of the morning.
The 700 series armchairs are actually designed for people who already wear “modern” clothes. After all, at that time women’s dresses were too bulky to allow comfortable use of this kind of furniture.
Space is restricted and closed on three sides by a bentwood piece that forms front legs and back. It’s almost impossible to use them with ease.
Gustav Siegel is a misunderstood genius
Gustav Siegel’s work in the world of steam-bent wood achieves a widely recognized perfection thanks to model n. 715. And yet, this designer deserves more importance than this. Just think that in the Austrian designers and artists’ search engines he is not even mentioned.
Only a few authors such as Karl Mang and Werner Schweiger – as the magazine The Studio did in 1908 – highlighted the relevance of Siegel, underlining the fundamental contribution of his work to bentwood furniture development.
As you can imagine, my thought is exactly this. The armchair n. 715 also determined the birth of the already mentioned revolutionary armchair which in my opinion represents one of the most exciting creations of this great misunderstood genius.
In these days our n. 715 will be restored and covered with vintage fabric. I look forward to seeing it and as soon as I get it, I’ll share it with you.
And you, have you ever had the good fortune to sit on one of these objects? We’ll look forward to your comments.