Bentwood Rocking Chairs

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Bentwood Rocking Chairs

ROCK ON: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VINTAGE BENTWOOD ROCKING CHAIRS

If you’re pursuing gravitas for a modernist interior, few pieces will live up to the task quite like a bentwood rocking chair. An elite league of rocking chairs featuring treads fashioned from bent plywood or bamboo bands, bentwood rocking chairs lend sculptural appeal to any room they’re placed in. It’s no surprise, then, that a bentwood rocker was among Pablo Picasso’s most beloved (and painted!) studio possessions. The bentwood rocking chair masterfully treads the line between antique and modernist-feeling, resulting in a piece that seems to transcend placement in time.

The bentwood rocking chair has been interpreted by many designers over the years, starting with Michael Thonet, who invented Bentwood technology in the early 19th century. In the mid 20th century, the pool grew to include some of designs’ most avant-garde talents, including Gae Aulenti, Nana Dietzel, and Franco Albini. Each designer’s radically different take on the bentwood rocker has resulted in a chair that effectively suits a different style, from bohemian to modernist.

It’s worth noting that, like any sculpture worth its salt, bentwood rocking chairs require a bit of a space commitment. Bentwood rockers don’t take well to being rammed between a wall and a coffee table. Instead, look for open areas where the chair can be viewed freely from an-almost 360-degree radius. The prolific rockers are just as striking viewed from the back as the front, meaning they’re excellent options for open concept living spaces.

What is Bentwood?

Bentwood, also known as “steam bending” is the process of exposing wood to steam in order to make it pliable. In order for the wood to maintain the desired curvature when cooled, the wood must be bent while hot. The process is used far beyond the realm of furniture, and it’s employed for creating everything from canoes to violins.

Michael Thoet, a Vienna-based cabinet maker, first introduced steam bending in the 1830s. A purely experimental endeavor, the process allowed him to create the world’s first lightweight wood furniture by bending beechwood into curvaceous shapes. Thonet applied his discoveries to a number of chairs, including the iconic Chair no. 14, a curvy-backed bistro or cafe chair that has since been emulated the world over. Soon after, Thonet fashioned his curving beechwood fragments into curvy rocking treads rather than chair backs, resulting in the Rocking chair, model 1. Sensationally sinuous, the Thonet bentwood rocking chair features elaborate curli-cue treads that could almost be described as angler-like. The first chair was outfitted with a refined tufted leather seat and back to offset the ornate treads, though later versions would come equipped with caned seats and backs.

In the 20th century, bentwood technology was applied to woods other than beechwood. Finnish designer, Alvar Aalto, for instance, used steam bending to manipulate birch for his iconic Paimio Scroll Chair 41. Although not a rocking chair, bent wood was used to achieve the structured lean that rocking chairs are celebrated for. Also in the 20th century, steam bending was applied to bamboo. Steam-bent bamboo set off another craze, especially as bohemianism came into vogue in the 1960s and 70s. Primary among the designers who cued up bent bamboo rocking chairs was Italian designer Franco Albini. His bentwood bamboo rocking chairs feature tear-shaped rocker treads that also function as the chairs’ arms. The overall effect could be summed up as bohemian goes bourgeois.

How do You Decorate with Bentwood Rocking Chairs?

How you decorate with bentwood rocking chairs depends heavily on the style of chair that you choose. With its Victorian undertones, Thonet bentwood rocking chairs are perhaps most easily integrated into rooms with vintage appeal. Playing opposite grainy oil portraits and vividly-colored Turkish or Persian rugs, Thonet bentwood rockers feel marvelously rich and storied. There’s also a case to be made for Bentwood rocking chairs in a lodge-like setting. Whether placed on a covered porch or sequestered to a quiet bedroom corner, a Thonet bentwood rocker cozied up with a fur flokati can be just the thing to enhance a cabin-like setting, while avoiding full-on kitsch decorating.

Bamboo bentwood rocking chairs, designed by the likes of Franco Albini and Danish designer Nanna Ditzel don’t require quite as much deftness when being integrated into a room. Bamboo is an easy material to sync with Mid-Century Modern and bohemian designs, as well as colorfully contemporary ones. Despite the fact that their slatted designs and illusion of transparency might encourage you to layer a bamboo rocker into a maximalist space, consider giving this chair some breathing room just like you would any other rocker. Especially in a minimalist space, a bamboo rocker will effectively read like a sculpture. Save pairings with showy wallpapers and fabrics for more tightly structured bamboo or cane seats like the peacock chair.