If you can tell a design classic by how often it is copied, then the Cafe Daum hatstand surely has the credentials. From its illustrious beginnings in 19th century Viennese cafe society, versions of it can now be found on Amazon for about 20 quid, which is actually rather sad. It is perhaps the definitive coatstand and yet most people probably have no idea that it is worthy of the name, thinking of it rather as a wobbly old thing found in student digs and rental flats.
The real thing will cost you nearer £200 and, in its original form, and was created by Michael Thonet whose bentwood chairs are another sought-after design classic. It was Thonet who pioneered the technique of bending wood into curved shapes using steam.
Born in Prussia in 1796, Thonet would later turn down the chance of secure work in Vienna because he believed so passionately in being free to experiment and develop new techniques.
Patrick Taylor, a former architect who writes about design (patricktaylor.com), says: “The furniture of the time was usually made from flat pieces of wood with numerous joints disguised by elaborate carvings but Thonet rejected these traditional methods and looked for simpler means of production.
“Eventually he discovered the solution: a solid piece of steamed wood and a metal strap could be bent together in a certain way without cracking the wood and, after being dried out, the wood held its shape.
“A strong chair could thus be made with less pieces and less joints, with screws replacing glued connections.”
In 1849, Thonet moved to Vienna, where he set up Gebruder Thonet as the family furniture business. The coat stand was one of his first commissions along with a large order for the bentwood chairs. That chair was number 4. Six years later he had arrived at No 14, which is still being manufactured today and is one of the world’s most successful commercial products. Indeed, some 15 million were sold between 1860 and 1930.
But it is the coatstand which concerns us here. Made for the Cafe Daum, hence its name, the cafe was one of the many smoke-filled salons frequented by Viennese High Society. There were around 500 cafes in Vienna at the time, each with its own characteristics and clientele. The Daum was regarded as the most famous according to an article in The New York Times in 1897:
“There famous politicians, military aristocrats, statesmen and courtiers, some of the best known names in latter-day Austrian history, were to be met. The history of the Daum Cafe was, in fact, the history of Austria itself from 1848 down to the present decade.”
Coat stands were popular as well as practical. In private homes they were often placed in the window as a sign that the owners were people who took care of their possessions and outward appearances.
Available from www.scp.co.uk for £170
First published in The Independent