Collector of Thonet masterpieces

Interview with Jiří Uhlíř
Exposed by Adam ŠTĚCH
Jiří Uhlíř is one of Czechia’s pre-eminent experts on Thonet furniture. Since the 1980s, Jiří has been one of the most active collectors of historical Thonet furniture and has authored key publications on the phenomenon of bentwood furniture. We met Jiří in his flat in the town of Újezd u Brna and chatted around his dining table while seated on some of his collectibles.
How did your adventure with Thonet begin?
It was completely by chance. Under socialism we weren’t able to travel abroad, and because I had three Greyhounds and a Pointer, it was difficult to find a place to holiday even in our country. So we bought a holiday cottage in the south of Moravia, the last house in the village of Jevišovka, beyond which there was only razor wire and Austria. And I needed furniture for the cottage.
Did you want to escape across the border? Seeing as it was so near…
The local secret police were suspicious, as were people helping the border patrol. But that was not my intention. The cottage I wanted was there, it was cheap, and it was easy to buy. I had a round table in the courtyard and needed four chairs for it, and I remembered seeing some that would do the job … though I knew nothing about them at the time. I was working at the Faculty of Education at the time as a labourer in the boiler room. We could talk for hours about my cadre profile[ii] and why I was assigned to work there…
What did you study?
I was only allowed to finish my high school exams. Our headmaster did not recommend me for university studies because my family’s background was thought to be less than ideal. So I had to use my hands to make a living.
Did you want to study further?
I did, but in the end it was good they didn’t let me study. I wanted to study law, but then I wondered why I should have a Juris Doctor degree when I’d end up in the boiler room anyway. And it was in the boiler room that I saw my first chairs. They were the popular model 14, the most common ones, but I noticed that each was a little different – in the diameter of the backrest arch, the thickness of the rods, the shape of the seat. When I turned them over, I realised they had a manufacturer’s label. And so while my pack of Greyhounds slowly aged, I started collecting chairs. I needed something more than a shovel and coal, a hobby, something more than just earning money. And so I got into my new hobby and in time became more curious about my collection: what each piece was, why it was that way, who had made it.
Jiří Uhlíř is one of the most eminent experts on the history of Thonet’s manufacturing work and on bentwood furniture as a whole.
How easy was it to find these things in those days?
Very easy. When my friend and Thonet expert Peter Ellenberg came to visit, he asked how I was able to manage collecting furniture when I worked in a boiler room, as it’s an expensive hobby. So I had to explain to Peter the differences between West Germany and socialist Czechoslovakia. He bought his pieces at high prices and had them restored, while I searched through a few abandoned city homes, going from cellar to attic, literally collecting pieces of furniture. Some were really prized pieces! And the stories that went with them …
A former ‘wreck’ of Thonet rocking chair no. 1 after extensive renovation. Manufactured shortly after 1870.

Read the full interview with Jiří Uhlíř in the publication +−160 years

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