the story of an innovator, a community and bentwood
there is only one TON. we all have this chair that we idolize, dream of owning and hope to pass on to be cherished by our next generation. we admire their timelessness, their timeless style and the careful craftsmanship of its curved woods. but this – 160 years of a place where wood is constantly bending – is only part of the famous brand. heritage goes hand in hand with innovation. icons like the 18 chair and novelties like the split + bloom series are side by side. the old and the new mix, bringing together the tried and tested elements and adapting them to modernity. many pieces make a whole but there is only one TON.
designboom walks through TON’s house in bystřice pod hostýnem – the origin of every piece of furniture, from its wood to the factory and to the workers.
all images courtesy of TON
with the venue celebrating 160 years, TON’s long history can be perfectly compared to their chairs – full of twists but seamless. it started with an innovator, a place and a product; michael thonet built the folded furniture factory in bystřice pod hostýnem, now the czech republic, in 1861. surviving both world wars, communist-era nationalization and many name changes along the way, TON – an abbreviation of továrna ohýbaného notábytku translating to a folded furniture factory – has since then manually curved furniture in the same workshop. Michael Thonet compartmentalized each section of the modern chair, with skilled workers in a single task. combined with unique technologies, the new system revolutionized the industry.
‘it was like Henry Ford’s Model A in the chair industry,‘ explains alexander gufler, artistic director at TON, in an interview with designboom.
‘a lot has changed in the last 160 years but the factory, the people and the chairs have been constant,‘continues their artistic director.
bystřice pod hostýnem has become the center of the company. michael thonet has created an ecosystem. he understood the need to take care of employees; he built houses for them and their families, schools to educate them, and he even brought the railroad to the city. and, likewise, TON has become the center of the community. this meaning is still felt to this day. there is a personal bond throughout the company, even with fathers and sons working as a team in the factory. TON is the local culture.
There is a reason for the creation of TON – come out of the factory in bystřice pod hostýnem and you will immediately be surrounded by beech forests. the forest is the source of material for their manufacture, and everything at the brand loves wood. although best known for it – look at chairs 002, 18 or 30 to name a few – TON are wood experts rather than just wood benders. they manufacture with ply, solid and bent wood.
From day one in 1861, this place has been making products that were never possible before, and TON continues that mission. their chairs, tables and furnishing accessories have always been handcrafted to last for generations. while the bending of wood has remained unchanged, other techniques and technologies – and even the product line – have been updated to suit the modern age. their portfolio is shifting from chairs to seating topologies that offer greater range of use. however, whether it is an icon or a novelty, every piece of their furniture is guided by a mission of timelessness in style, quality and durability.
‘we are in the middle of a process,‘begins alexander. ‘as is typical of TON, we use the coronavirus crisis to reinvent. In the past we have focused heavily on chairs and a few tables, for example, but now we are in the process of transitioning to more seating topologies. it’s instead of creating one chair after another, which then eats away at each other. our product portfolio is getting cleaner and cleaner.‘
It is this locality of materials, the care of the community’s artisans and the style of the designs that ensure that TON’s products can be passed down for generations. their objects create strong personal bonds with the owners. the brand even plans to set up a repair service, where customers can bring in old or heavily used TONs and repair them, from the cane weaving to the folded wood frame. the concept aims to increase longevity even more, which means that your parents ‘or grandparents’ precious chair can be invigorated.
‘longevity plays a role in creating an emotional bond between our products and our customers. we want users to keep them for as long as possible. TON is the opposite of a quick approach to furniture. our customers receive something special that they can pass on for generations,Alexander notes.
TON could produce and repair their iconic designs forever, it seems, such is the demand for them. but heritage always goes hand in hand with innovation. the challenge is how to present something new with such a long and famous history. their response is to look to contemporary designers to reinterpret their unique techniques and traditions. it can be a long process to understand their history, material characteristics and general culture. it’s an evolution, and 2021 brings this exciting change.
‘it’s a long process hand in hand,Alexander comments. ‘designers must be prepared to take the trip with us. some were creatives that we wanted to work with for years, but we couldn’t; others were completely new to us but instantly a perfect fit. we like to have a personal relationship with everyone: employees, collaborators and customers. our designers are part of our history, not a marketing tool.‘
‘a lot has changed in the last 160 years but the factory, the craftsmanship of the people and the chairs have been constant,‘repeats Alexander Gufler, artistic director at TON. it is this specific culture, emanating from their home in bystřice pod hostýnem, that makes the brand so special. their factory is right next to the forest they came from, which means products – whether it is an icon or a novelty of 2021 – really come from one place. it is a rarity these days; that’s why there is only ONE TON.