August 2019

Please Be Seated

Words: Caroline Clements Images: Benjamin Lichtenstein

If there is one thing you can’t live without, it’s a chair. Imagine life without the chair at your desk, the seats on the bus, and the stools at the bar of your local watering hole. Life just wouldn’t be the same. And there’s one man who knows that better than most.

A trained furniture maker by trade, Nicholas Barratt, is not only the head of sales in Melbourne at European chair makers, Thonet, but is also the owner of a large cactus garden, a greyhound named Tahini, and influenced heavily by the design style of a protestant religious sect called the Shakers.

In Italy on holiday a couple of years ago, Barratt stumbled into a humble little restaurant to refuel after a long day traipsing the streets of Florence. Resting back in to the comfort of his chair he noticed it’s familiar design – a classic and original Thonet design – the chair was a simple No.18 bentwood chair made of beech wood and ply, and considered the ‘signature’ Thonet chair. Seen in cafes and restaurants around the world, this timeless classic is one of the most successful chair designs ever made.

With a European Beech frame and plywood seat, this simplicity of the Thonet No.18 encapsulates the elegance of bentwood furniture. The process of bending wood is one that had been mastered over centuries, but one that is particularly familiar to the Thonet trademark. This procedure involves soaking the wood before putting it into a pressure chamber and then steaming it. “The process of bending wood in the factory is an archaic one and cannot be replicated simply. Using three men to bend the timber around the forms, the actual movement is ballet-like,” says Barratt. Pronounced Ton-net, Thonet is originally a family owned furniture brand from Vienna Austria that began in the 1800s. The original company has since disbanded but the Thonet brand is still true to its heritage for fine furniture, specialising in tables and chairs.

It is a version of one of these original Thonet chairs that Barratt will be launching at Saturday InDesign in Sydney later in the month. “We are unveiling a couple of new chairs from our reissue edition there, one of which has taken me over a year to develop. Another of these is a new rocking chair that I created from an existing chair. It will be a limited edition and come in some bright colours.” Also on display will be the new colour range for Thonet’s Planar chair and new models from Max designs recent appearance at Salon Internazionale del Mobile Milan.

As is the case for those whose profession is a labour of love, Barratt himself has too been seated in the furniture industry for some years. As a young chap trying to make a penny, Barratt was regularly found at Sydney markets peddling handmade goods constructed from recycled timber, before opening his own shop in Annandale. Influenced by the religious sect the Shakers, developed from the Quakers, one of the main attributes of the Shakers was to build. This belief has since generated a unique culture and way of life that has enriched cultural history and inspired many modern fields. After then completing his studies at the Sturt School for Wood in Mittagong, Barratt began selling his own designs to the likes of Orson & Blake. These included storage units, tables, and sculptural pieces. All this before moving down south and eventually started working at Thonet headquarters in Fitzroy three years ago.

In this time Barratt has garnered a rather impressive chair collection of his own. “I started collecting chairs around 15 years ago. One of the first chairs purchased was an American Ladderback circa 1820.” Over the years his collection has evolved into an eclectic range of chairs with my main focus being on Mid Century designs from a mix of both international and local collections such as Arne Jacobsen, Harry Bertoia, Charles & Ray Eames, Grant Featherston, Douglas Snelling and Clement Meadmore, amongst a number of other treasures. With around 85 chairs and stool in total, Barratt’s chair collection spans decades of radical innovation in furniture design.

His top five favourites chairs are broken down into categories:

Plywood – Jacobsen Ant Chair (original 3 leg early 50’s) & McClay Kone chair
Steel – Bertoia Bird chair and foot stool
Fibreglass – Eames Rocker
Upholstered – Featherston 1953 television series

And while he spends most of his time on the sofa, it is his Danish rocker that is his favourite chair to sit in.”My motto however is ‘chairs are for viewing not sitting’. I really do consider them as sculptural pieces.”

While the basic technique of making furniture from bent materials has not changed significantly since the 19th century, “the reason that a brand like Thonet is so popular is that it is a trusted brand that make simple and graceful designs at a reasonable price,” Barratt states. “We are by no means making luxury items here, our main clientele is the hospitality industry.” With that in mind, I look below and inspect my current seating arrangement. They can be found at restaurants such as Culter & Co and Ladro in Melbourne, and Rockpool and the Ivy in Sydney. So next time you’re perched at your local café you might consider where you’re resting your rear, could just be one from the Thonet range.

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