rescued Thonet No. 18 chair

black-painted vintage Thonet No. 18 chair

My friend Jeff and I spent a good chunk of last Saturday fixing up a chair—a vintage Thonet No. 18 bentwood café chair, beat-up but salvageable. This chair I had actually gotten for free from William Temple a few months ago (long story, mostly irrelevant, possibly karmic: lent Jeff some money to buy some furniture for resale, got a store discount, ended up with a free Thonet chair, not this antique peacock-patterned one we'd seen weeks earlier). The lines of the classic Thonet design were lovely, even if the feet were all chewed up, the frame splattered with yellow-and-red paint, and a chunk gouged out of the back.

vintage Thonet No. 18 chair with paint splatters and gouges

Free Thonet is always a good deal, even when needing work, since the design and engineering of the No. 18 chair have stood the test of time since 1876. Plus, the original finish was so far gone, I felt only a touch of guilt painting over it rather than restoring the wood. (Yes, the yellow-and-red paint splatters were cool in a bohemian-artist way, but the chair legs looked like a pack of dogs had been gnawing on them.)

Thonet chair leg, original condition

vintage Thonet No. 18 chair, front view

Years ago, I had spray-painted glossy black a large chunky bamboo-framed mirror picked up at a discount store, which became one of my favorite pieces, now hanging in my entryway and still looking suave. I envisioned the same finish for this Thonet chair, juxtaposed against the round white-Formica-topped mid-century dining table Jeff refinished for me last summer.* Since I already have a lot of brown furniture—teak wood as well as the chocolate mohair velvet sofa—the touch of black would provide contrast. These café chairs also take up little space compared to the average dining chair, both physically and visually.

vintage Thonet No. 18 chair, back view

vintage Thonet No. 18 chair

Jeff lightly hand sanded the bentwood edges, patched up a couple of gouges with Bondo, replaced a missing screw, dripped glue into a wood fray on the seat rim, taped over the Czechoslovakia mark on the underside (which I wanted preserved), and then carefully sprayed the chair in layers, the wood so dry it drank up two whole cans ($12) of Krylon high-gloss paint with built-in primer. (All I did was watch and direct.) The next day, he brought the chair over to my place, where it sits in honor, waiting for a companion. This chair design is so classic, minimal, and beautiful, it's like living with a work of art—which is how furniture should be. Plus, now the chewed up feet aren't even noticeable.

While high-gloss black paint does showcase surface imperfections, it simultaneously adds chic to a room. Somebody famous in the design world (okay, Jan Showers) once said, "Every room needs a touch of black," something I've long adhered to intuitively. Black adds sophistication, mystery, and glamor—especially rich-looking when paired with wood and used with restraint. (Too much black and the place ends up looking like a bachelor pad.)

vintage black Thonet No. 18 cafe chair

And so I only have one dining chair so far, but it's a start. Better to have one chair I love than four—or forty!—I hate.

*It pays to befriend a furniture refinisher. Do check out Jeff's shop space (A6) at Hawthorne Vintage if you're in town and seeking mid-century modern design. He's a big blond Swedish type who enjoys rescuing sad MCM cast-offs, sanding out all the dings and water marks and making everything fresh again.

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