A Thonet chair is immediately recognisable. Its bentwood structure has reigned supremely in our homes, in coffee shops and in theatres around the globe since 1819. Thonet’s classic No 14 chair is probably the most copied in the world, while French architect Le Corbusier adored Thonet’s No 209 chair: ‘Never was there an object as elegant, as well conceived, as precise in its execution, and practical in its usage.’ He also designed a Thonet piece himself.
The German luxury brand, which is still family run, has done a remarkable job adjusting to quickly changing tastes and trends, while retaining the DNA of its products. ‘We don't do chichi items and this is probably what has kept us in business. Functionality and longevity have been our top priorities,’ says Philipp Thonet who is responsible for international sales. ‘But most importantly we don't insult anyone visually,’ he adds with a smile.
The company continues to collaborate with the most marvellous architects and designers of the time including most recently Stefan Diez, James Irvine and Naoto Fukasawa; Thonet regularly snatches the most prestigious design awards from before its competitors' eyes.
The reliability of German products is legendary, and a Thonet piece can easily reach more than 100 years of age. But the qualities that stand out about Thonet and other icons of German design are impeccably good taste and a dedication to innovation.
Meissen has been the world's most sought-after porcelain since 1710, Montblanc's pens changed writing culture forever and Glashütte, which has been making watches since 1845, seems to get better with time. For those with a sweet tooth Niederegger has been making the world's finest marzipan since 1806, sticking to its original recipe of Mediterranean almonds roasted on an open fire, avoiding artificial flavours and using a minimum amount of sugar.
Robbe & Berking is the world's largest manufacturer of silverware and has been family-run for five generations; clients range from royal families to the Kremlin. ‘There is no secret to our success,’ says Oliver Berking who currently heads the company. ‘We just try a little bit harder than everybody else and we have been doing so since 1874. We are timelessness and don't follow trends, we can't allow that to happen.’
Because Robbe & Berking silver is collected and passed on from generation to generation, the designs are minimalist: ‘We have to be ambitious enough to find forms that stand the test of time,’ explains Berking.
German style is traditionally unobtrusive, which is part of the charm and subsequent success of many brands: the excess energy is focused on workmanship. At Robbe & Berking each piece is tended to with particular care. ‘On a fork we polish the teeth and between the teeth. We also sharpen the teeth like a pencil so they are perfect,’ says Berking.
Shirtmaker Van Laack, established in 1881, is no different. The brand's tailors take the luxury of 100 minutes to produce a single shirt (shirts from some other quality manufacturers are produced in around half this time). ‘The spaces between the needle punctures are smaller, the collars are individually shaped and some seams are hand stitched,’ explains Van Laack's marketing manager Florian Ehrich. It is not surprising that theirs can last a lifetime if looked after correctly.
And finally there is Rimowa. Few brands marry tradition with contemporary spirit in the way that Rimowa does. The range of lightweight luggage is a star among the stars. Cameron Diaz, Deep Purple and the German national soccer team all favour the brand’s sophisticated designs and exceptional technology. The Salsa Delux series was famed for its ingenious compartment structure which ensures everything stays in place even when the trolley is not fully packed. In 2009 the company introduced the Salsa Air series, its lightest luggage ever. ‘It's particularly popular with the younger crowd. We offer it in a myriad of colours and it’s a great introduction to our products,’ explains Dieter Morszeck, grandson of the company’s founder.
Rimowa's next coup will be a guitar case designed in conjunction with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page – and everybody knows his fingers are magic.