Bent Is Beautiful : ‘Before You Sit on a Bentwood Chair You Should Fine-Tune It Like a Stradivarius’

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In the early 1960s Yoram Kahana and Peggy Halper both took motion-picture courses at UCLA. In 1961 both became hooked on 19th-Century bentwood furniture as result of an exhibition at a UCLA art gallery. They married in 1962, made documentary films together, and now run Shooting Star, an international photography agency.

The Kahanas’ collection of bentwood, begun in 1961, has grown like an un-macheted jungle. It fills their home in the Hollywood Hills. It has invaded their office. Bentwood cradles and highchairs await any children that their two daughters (now 19 and 14) may have. “In fact, our grandchildren will be well provided from the cradle almost to the grave,” Yoram Kahana says. “We have bentwood invalid chairs. The only thing not made in bentwood was coffins.”

Bentwood chairs are the kind that the lion tamer likes to use for fending off a lion, because they are both strong and light. They are also the kind of chairs you often find yourself sitting on during excruciating junior high school plays: hard-seated, curly-backed, bandy-legged. They are easily taken apart, and there is an art to reassembling them with screws. “Before you sit on a bentwood chair,” Peggy Kahana says, “you should fine-tune it like a Stradivarius.”


The 1962 UCLA exhibition that turned the couple on to bentwood contained several exhibits lent by film director Billy Wilder. The catalogue had an introduction by designer Henry Dreyfuss. “What struck me most at that time,” Yoram Kahana says, “is that, aesthetically, bentwood looks like three-dimensional calligraphy. Calligraphy always fascinated me. The very logical construction of the furniture also appealed to me--the strength and the lightness. Le Corbusier said that with regard to the elegance of the conception, the purity of the execution and the efficiency of the furniture’s use, nothing better has ever been made.”

Bentwood furniture was invented by Michael Thonet (1796-1871). Born in Germany, Thonet started as a parquet-maker and carpenter. He experimented with bending wood. At first he did what others did at the time: He laminated veneers. Then he had the bright idea of cutting rods and bending them to any shapes he wanted by steaming them and pressing them in iron molds. Beech was the wood that best withstood stretching and compression, so Thonet moved to where the beech forests were--in Moravia (a part of present-day Czechoslovakia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Thonet’s motto was “Bend or break.” To test chairs and other pieces of furniture, he would throw them out of a second-story window, into the factory yard. If they bounced, fine; if they broke, they were not added to the firm’s repertoire.

“Thonet did to furniture making what Henry Ford did to automobile making,” Yoram Kahana says. “Because he was bending wood in standard iron forms, the idea of interchangeability came into furniture making. Everything was put together with screws, not glue, so if you broke a chair leg, you went to the hardware store and said, ‘I want another 31B,’ and they would sell it to you.”

The collapsibility of bentwood furniture also made it easy to export. “You can go anywhere in the world and expect to find bentwood,” Yoram Kahana says. “Something strange happened which I can’t explain. Each country would have a certain item in abundance, which you don’t find in any other country. In Spain I saw bentwood beds everywhere. I saw one in the Philippines, but the owner told me she had bought it in Spain. In Hungary we found dozens of nesting tables.”

Pieces of bentwood furniture by Thonet, and by imitators such as the brothers Kohn, now fetch high prices. A handsome Thonet cheval glass (a mirror so named because it resembles a horse’s collar) is offered in New York for $12,500. But the Kahanas like a good bargain. In Alexandria they bought a chair that had belonged to the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. “It was an absurd bargaining session,” Yoram Kahana says. “The man who owned it said: ‘A German tourist came and offered me $250. What would you offer?’ I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Twenty-five dollars.’ We finally settled on $40.”