chair for the Bellevue restaurant by Arne Jacobsen 1934

one of the chairs designed by Arne Jacobsen for the Bellevue Restaurant and now in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

Kinesiske stole og dampbøjede stole / Chinese chairs and steambent chairs

 

Designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1934, this chair was used in the restaurant at Bellevue - part of a large complex of buildings, including a theatre by Jacobsen completed in 1937, set just back from the beach at Klampenborg, 10 or 11 kilometres north of Copenhagen. 

Jacobsen used the chair again in the town hall at Søllerød - a major building 9 kilometres north-west of Klamenborg that he designed with Flemming Lassen. Work there started in 1939 and was completed in 1942.

Made by Fritz Hansen, the chair is interesting because it is one of the first commercial furniture designs by Jacobsen that was put into production and is important because it appears, in terms of its style, transitional - reminiscent in some ways of standard chairs for dining rooms from the early 20th century but at the same time novel and modern in that it looks relatively simple, with no carved or inlaid decoration, but uses innovative and experimental forms of construction. Using new materials or established materials but in a new way marks chair design in Denmark in the second half of the 20th century.

 

 

Bellevue Restaurant. The main dining room has not survived with the space now divided up by cross walls

 

The Bellevue Chair has a frame in wood but rather than having either a simple plain seat in wood or an upholstered seat of some kind - as in traditional dining chairs of the period - the seat is formed by a single piece of thick leather that is stretched across and over wood bars or rails on each side that are set between the front and the back legs. The leather is fixed with closely spaced nails along the bottom edge of the side rails but is not fixed across the front or the back.

Red Chair designed in 1927 by Kaare Klint (1888-1954) and made by Rud Rasmussen that has a more traditional arrangement of cross rails and has exposed nail heads fixing the leather upholstery

chair designed in 1931 by Rigmor Andersen (1903-1995) who was taught by Klint with leather-covered upholstery over separate frames droped into the chair seat and back

both chairs were photographed in the new display of chairs at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

Leather was used for covering the padded seats of more expensive chairs, particularly for library chairs or formal dining chairs, and in some contemporary examples the upholsterer set the nails in a continuous line along the bottom of the front face of the frame of the seat as a decorative feature - but this chair by Jacobsen, with the seat suspended, has more in common with camping chairs or folding safari chairs from this period although those were normally covered with canvas rather than leather.

By not having a padded or covered seat one stage of work that had to be undertaken by a skilled and specialised craftsman was avoided. Upholstery was a separate and usually the last stage of production, when the chair was either covered over the wooden frame made by the cabinetmaker, as in an upholstered arm chair, or padding and covering for a seat, and possibly for a padded panel for a back rest, were made with separate frames that were then dropped into the open frame of the seat of the chair made by the cabinetmaker.

One advantage of upholstery over a separate wooden frame for a seat for dining chairs was that when it was in place it reinforced and strengthened the framework of the chair which meant that the chair itself could have a lighter structure that you could see but there could also be plates or short struts across the corners under or inside the seat cushion that can not be seen but reinforce or strengthen the finished chair.

Some features of the Bellevue chair are unusual simply because they had to compensate for that omission of a seat frame. So the pair of cross rails at the front are certainly distinctive. Many chairs, if they have a strong seat frame and relatively strong legs, omit cross rails at the front completely but here, in the Bellevue Chair, the upper rail provides the strength that would have been provided by a seat frame but because the front legs and rails are relatively thin and are round in cross section, that restricted or limited the thickness and therefore the strength of the cross rail, so a second rail was added to stop the front of the chair distorting or twisting to left and right as a person sitting in the chair moves. 

The upper cross rail had to be set low enough so that for someone sitting on the seat - even if the leather sags down - they do not feel the rail in the back of their leg - somewhere just above the knee - and the lower rail had to be high enough so that if someone tucks their feet back under the seat - particularly when they shift their weight forward to stand up - then again they should not feel that their legs are against that rail.

The tops of the front legs are proud of the seat, so that the mortice for the side rail is not at the very top so with a possibility that the wood could split, and the top of the legs are also carefully rounded as some people will rest their hands here and push down as they stand up.

details of the Bellevue chair - note the square section of the back leg for the stronger housing of the side and back rails and then the transition to a round cross section above the seat

 

The side rails of the seat are relatively robust - the width is limited by the width of the front and back legs into which they are housed but they have to be thick enough to take the line of nails along the underside without splitting. Their height is determined in part for how they look - for aesthetic reasons - so the chair, when seen from the side, has to actually look as if it is supporting the weight of the person.

These side rails are relatively strong but the side frame of the chair is given additional strength and rigidity by having cross rails towards the bottom that run back from the front leg to the back leg just above the floor. With heavier chair frames - where the side pieces could be thicker and the mortices and tenons holding them in place more robust - these rails can be omitted but here they are necessary to stop the front and back legs splaying apart when someone sits down and stops the sides of the chair distorting as someone leans back. The strength of a mortice and tenon join comes in part from the  sharp cutting of the shoulders of the tenon and these are obviously more difficult to cut precisely when the mortice is set into a rounded timber.

The leather of the seat runs across just in front of the seat back and is not fixed along the back edge.

The back legs are in a single piece from the floor to the underside of the back rest and these timbers, in profile, are curved, partly to make them appear more elegant when seen from the side but also for simple practical reasons … a straight vertical back is actually slightly unstable because the chair can tip backwards more easily as someone sits down or if they lean back in the chair. The back leg splaying out forms a sort of buttress and does change the tipping point for the chair. The lower parts of these back legs, below the seat, are square in section for additional strength and to take a strong cross bar that is set down, out of sight, below the seat and this piece not only makes the back part of the frame stronger, so a lower rail across the back towards the floor can be left out, but the back rail also has to be strong enough to take the long mortice for the bottom of a simple central splat that forms the back rest of the chair.

This splat - a thin plank of wood - is gently curved in profile and runs up to a top rail that is too thin to be described as a head rest. Again it is round in section and is set across the splat like the top cross bar of a letter T. Was Jacobsen suggesting that this top rail could actually be used like a handle for the lifting and moving the chairs across the restaurant?

Above the seat the wood of the back pieces are rounded in section and they are housed into the underside of the cross bar just in from each end. Again, as with the front legs, if the side pieces and the cross bar met at a corner, rather than with an overlap, it would have made the joining of the pieces of timber a potential weak point in the chair frame and this was, after all, a commercial chair for use in a restaurant where it would be subject to heavier use than in a home.

In fact the whole design can be seen as an interesting exercise in balancing the ergonomics of the design with experimenting with construction details so there is, at each stage, a sort of careful trade off between the appearance and the strength of the chair. A sort of reductionism within practical constraints: thinning down parts of the frame makes it more elegant and stylish but it is not taken so far that it makes the chair weak or unsteady and, particularly in a public restaurant, the last thing a young designer needs is people ending up on the floor where chairs have collapsed.

 
 

designed by: Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971)

manufactured by Fritz Hansen Eftf

height: 82.5cm
width: 50.5cm
depth: 54.5cm
height of seat: 42.5cm

Designmuseum Danmark catalogue

 

additional notes:

The Theatre and the adjoining restaurant at Bellevue were designed by Arne Jacobsen and were completed in 1937. They are set just back from the beach on the west side of the coast road that runs north out of Copenhagen. 

 

the Bellevue theatre from the beach with the restaurant to the left and beyond the apartments of Bellavista

 

Klampenborg is at the edge of an ancient forest that had become an important public park by the 19th century and the park and Bakken, an amusement park in the forest, were served by a suburban railway that terminated here at Klampenborg. With the building of the railway Klampenborg developed into a prosperous suburb.

The park and the beach here, with changing rooms that were also designed by Jacobsen, were a popular destination for people from the city and through the 1930s there were also launches or boats that brought people here for a day out to swim or go to the amusement park or go to the theatre. 

Immediately south of the theatre is Bellavista, apartment buildings also by Jacobsen and also dating from the 1930s, and south of the apartment buildings houses again by Jacobsen.

High stools for the bar in the restaurant - with butterfly shaped back rests - and seating in the theatre - with curved wooden backs forming undulating lines across the auditorium - were even less conventional than the dining chairs.

the buildings in Klampenborg by Arne Jacobsen