deckchair by Kaare Klint 1933

chair photographed at Designmuseum Danmark when it was part of a major exhibition on Kaare Klint

 

 

This is not exactly a recliner - you don't lie back in a horizontal or almost-horizontal position - but by having the foot rest raised level with the seat you are 'sitting with your feet up' to use a slightly old-fashioned English phrase that is more than a straight description of how someone is sitting but implies just a bit of pampering or self indulgence.

The chair looks as if it would be most appropriate for the deck of an ocean liner but when it was first shown at the Cabinetmakers' Guild Furniture Exhibition in 1933 it was described as suitable for a garden terrace.

It is a clear example of Klint's interest in ergonomics - with a careful focus on dimensions and angles so that, for instance, the angle of the back rest, although fixed, was comfortable and the head rest was at the right height for someone of an average size and the arm rest not only has to be in the right relationship to the seat, in terms of height, but the right length so that the hands are naturally close to the ends so, with palms down and fingers over the ends, the weight of the body can be raised slightly and transferred forward to stand up. It seems odd to bother to describe that movement … we change our centre of gravity automatically without analysing what we are doing as we stand up from a chair … but if the designer gets it wrong then we feel uncomfortable or awkward without  perhaps understanding exactly why.

However, the chair also illustrates well two other aspects found in the design of modern Danish furniture but rarely discussed as much as either the craftsmanship or the aesthetics of a piece.

First the chair is ingenious. This is clever and deliberately complicated design. The foot rest is supported on a relatively thin and light prop and when raised it doesn't just support the feet but forms a continuous curved line that runs from the ground at the back to the front edge. So the foot rest has a practical function but also contributes to the clear aesthetics of the design.

But when the prop is tucked back, the foot rest hinges down and the chair can be used more conventionally with the feet down flat on the floor.  So ... beautiful and practical.

The back is slightly concave and almost the same curve is picked up for the strut that forms the front leg and the support of the arm rest. The seat has a frame which also acts as the front and back rails of the chair and the seat extends back beyond the line of the back rest and the bottom cross piece of the back rest is raised so that neither sticks into you. Then the whole chair actually folds up so each of the pieces, if not actually fitting snugly together, has to at least be the right length to work with the hinge points or the chair would only half fold or, worse, might fold in on itself with someone sitting in it. So every line and every angle has to work when the chair is open and when it is folded. That's the ingenuity. To design the chair was, in effect a very complex mechanical puzzle and was about the resolution of engineering problems even if the workmanship is that of a cabinetmaker.

And the second aspect that was and still is important in Danish furniture making, though rarely discussed, is what can be described as the engineering of fixings and joins. So here in this chair, the success of the piece depends on the finely-made brass hinges and pivots that hold the chair together. Not only do they have to be strong enough to take a lot of weight - not just dead weight but in some parts weight acting on a lever - but these must have been designed with some form of locking nut … not that the parts are locked in place, as the sections have to open and close, but they have to lock onto themselves so that over time they do not work loose.

The simple form of this is to have two nuts on a bolt so that one is held against the piece and a second bolt is added and then the two bolts turned in opposite directions to lock them into place against each other but leave a constant and hopefully unchanging space between the inner nut and the head of the bolt on the other side of the piece being held. But these brass fittings are much much more sophisticated than that.

What you see in the deckchair is not the use of ordinary bolts and fixings but pieces that were almost-certainly made specifically for these chair and they are carefully recessed, so they are flush with the surface of the timber, and even the positions of screw heads were determined to hold the fitting in place without splitting the wood.

The Devil - as always - is in the detail.

 
 

designed by Kaare Klint  (1888-1954)
made by the cabinetmaker Rud. Rasmussen
exhibited at the Cabinetmakers' Guild in 1933

teak or oak with rattan seat and back rest
brass fittings, quilted and covered cushion and head rest

height: 91cm
width: 58cm
depth: 150cm

Lattice Chair by Hans Wegner 1942

chair photographed at the exhibition on the work of Hans Wegner at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014

 

This chair is a variation on the form of the Red Chair by Klint but lighter with turned legs - round rather than square in cross section - and a lighter shallower upholstered seat but as a whole, and given the quality of the craftsmanship and the exotic wood used, it must have been aimed at a fairly wealthy middle-class market.

With a narrow curved top rail to the chair, there are nine vertically set spindles across the back intersecting with two narrow, curved laths to form a grid or lattice with a small rectangular block at each intersection. Note the top of the front legs were cut out of a block - rather than being turned - and that form shoulders for the housing of the front and side rails of the seat. The leather of the upholstered seat is taken over the rails in the traditional way.

 

designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
made by the cabinetmakers Johannes Hansen
made in Cuban mahogany

Made in Cuban mahogany by Johannes Hansen, the Lattice Chair was shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1942 in a rather formal room setting with a round dining table, a version of the dining chair with arms, a small sideboard on a stand and a large cabinet over shallow draws, also set on a stand, and presumably designed for storing china, glass and table linen.

With patterned wallpaper and a framed landscape above the sideboard, this appears to represent a good and fairly traditional middle-class dining room.

Along with the dining room furniture there was a sitting-room area with a sofa and an arm chair, both upholstered in striped material and both on square wood legs with stretchers so again not particularly adventurous although the way the furniture was arranged was much much less pretentious and ornate than the furniture might suggest and looks forward to less formal interiors in the 1950s and into the 1960s … so the large window had a Venetian blind without curtains with a low trough across the window filled with house plants* and above the three-seat sofa were three prints in simple well proportioned frames in lightwood hung in a tightly-spaced line in a way seen in some arrangements by Kaare Klint. 

In his review of the furniture at the cabinetmakers’ exhibition FC Lund wrote in Arkitekten

… this time, Wegner has turned away from 'flipper style' furniture and is now working with more restrained form expressions. The fact that the suite has been executed in Cuban mahogany makes it just one more example of the endless succession of 'red' furniture, but the artistic concept raises it above the mere banal. It is expensive but exquisite…

One of the chairs was purchased by the design museum so this was the first chair by Wegner to be in a public collection.

note:

The house plants in the room setting were quite a period piece … most with ornate leaf shapes with what looks like a variegated Begonia, a Philodendron and the ubiquitous Monstera - known in England as a Swiss Cheese Plant - and popular through the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Ladderback Chair by Ole Wanscher 1946

Ladderback Chair from 1946 by Ole Wanscher in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

This is a strange hybrid design that proves just how difficult it can be to place a chair into a rational typography but it is also a very good example of how a new design can use some earlier features but combine those forms or technical details of construction with new ideas to create what should be seen as a transitional form.

At the front and seat, this chair follows fairly closely the accepted form of the Chippendale type with a straight front to the front rail of the seat in plan but with a pronounced hollow. The seat itself is not upholstered although the museum catalogue suggests that when they acquired the chair it had a loose cushion although there is no indication if that is original or was added later for more comfort. The seat itself is plywood set down into a rebate in the frame of the seat.

The front rail and side rails of the seat are housed into the top of the front legs but this is given emphasis by forming a block that projects slightly forward of the rails and by being deeper than the rails and undercut where the leg below the block is turned. The outer corner of this block is rounded and the foot of the front legs are turned to form curious bulb-shaped feet - a ball shape would have a sharper shoulder.

There are straight stretchers running back from the front to the back legs, with a conventional section - thinner than they are deep with rounded top and bottom - but there is no cross rail and no stretcher between the back legs that are both common in a heavier or more robust Chippendale type chair.

 

 

Chippendale stole / Chippendale chairs

 

Chippendale type chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark that dates from about 1770 and must have been the inspiration for the design by Ole Wanscher

But it is the back of the chair that differs most from the conventional form. The back legs are taken up to support the back rest and are curved to taper out from the seat - both at the bottom and at the top - but rather than being square in cross section are round and terminate with a rounded top more common on chairs by Hans Wegner. The back rest is a ladder with four slats but with an extravagant wave shape that is pierced in the centre with a long gash this is certainly neither a Shaker style chair nor a country chair. The arms of the chair are equally extravagant with a pronounced upward sweep from the back, where they are housed into the uprights of the back rest, to the rounded front that forms a hand rest if the hands are turned palm down and thumbs in before standing up. They are supported by tapered uprights set in from the end of the arm rest and set into the top of the seat half way along the side rail and are bent in a double curve that anticipates the arm supports of the later Y or Wishbone Chair by Hans Wegner.

 

designed by Ole Wanscher (1903-1985)
made in mahogany by Fritz Hansen Eftf

 

Dining Chair by Ole Wanscher 1943

An example by Ole Wanscher of a traditional or conservative design for a chair appropriate for a formal dining room.

Made by the cabinetmakers A J Iversen who produced a number of variations on the design and in other exotic woods including rosewood and walnut.

With sharp shoulders to the joins of the frame and using a fine grained wood the design is strong enough to omit the stretchers but otherwise this is another variation on the Chippendale / Red Chair type.

Note the fine bead that is taken around the edge of the elements of the back rest - including the cross pieces of the double X. The back uprights are reduced in thickness above the seat with a small elegant shoulder on the inner side and the leather of the seat has a sharp sewn edge ... all high-quality work from an exemplary cabinetmaker.

A version of the chair from 1942 in mahogany with the same double X pattern across the back has a rather lighter and simpler and conventional frame to the back, rather than the cross piece, but has stretchers.


Ole Wanscher was 18 months younger than Arne Jacobsen but his furniture represents a different and more conventional or traditional aspect of Danish mid-century design and his work shows just how difficult it is to use general terms such as modern with any sense of a precise definition. Much of Wanscher's furniture, particularly dining chairs, are conservative and perhaps best described as revival or possibly even as neo-classical survival having much more in common with chairs of about 1800 than with work by Jacobsen.

But that moves into an area of making subjective judgements about a design to try and decide if something captures a general style of a period - so follows a contemporary trend - or is truly innovative - taking a form or technique or material in a new direction that influences others and sets what will be popular next - or is unique - with a design that owes little to precedent but with few other designers following.

In terms of being transitional, it is difficult to see Wanscher himself producing the Colonial Chair of 1949 without intermediate steps and here, with the Ladderback Chair, Wanscher was establishing a relatively new type for modern chairs … a wide low easy chair in wood that was not upholstered.

 

tripartite Shell Chair by Hans Wegner 1949

the Tripartite Chair now in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

note: 

because I had spent some time looking at the chair, a member of the staff, who was trained in conservation, asked me if I would like them to remove the sheep skin to look at the screw fixings of the seat and back rest - these are very important and very valuable pieces of furniture and should not be touched by the visitor 

 

More often than not, when someone describes a chair as unique then it is either hyperbole or they are writing for an advert or a sponsored post ……

…. but the tripartite shell chair - designed by Hans Wegner and shown to the public at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1949 - really is unique because just one chair was made by the cabinetmaker Johannes Hansen and after the exhibition it was not sold but taken by Wegner to use in his own home - the design was never put into production.

Wegner had previously designed furniture with shaped and curved laminated wood for Fritz Hansen - Chair FH1936 and a bench or sofa version FH1937 and the tripartite chair was not the only chair in plywood in the 1949 exhibition because Børge Mogensen, Wegner's colleague and friend, also showed a shell chair.

Although the form of the tripartite chair seems simple - a wooden frame with three separate pieces of laminated wood that are shaped and curved for a seat, back rest and head rest - it is difficult to describe the shape of the chair and almost impossible to describe the frame that supports that seat, back rest and head rest.

This is a very wide chair and, in terms of the sitting position, quite low so, in some ways, it's an early version of the Halyard Chair from 1950 and, like the Halyard, the Tripartite Chair has a generous width for twisting and sitting at an angle.

The seat, back rest and head rest of Wegner's tripartite chair are formed from relatively thick pieces of laminated wood that were shaped to form extended or flattened ovals and all three parts are curved but only across the width so only in a single plane.

The head rest is the simplest and smallest part with the shape of an extended oval, padded and covered with leather and fixed directly across the upper parts of the two side frames.

The largest of the three laminated parts support the back of the person in the chair and is shaped almost like the dish shape of a large military shield.

The seat is wide with hand holds cut out on each side - either to help when you want to move the chair or possibly as grips to help when standing up. 

Neither the back nor the seat are fixed directly onto the side frames but are supported on small inverted cones so that the two main laminated parts are set parallel to the side frames but hover just above them. Large screws are counter-sunk into the front face of the plywood and go through the cone and down into the frame - for Wegner a slightly crude fixing showing the design was, to some extent, experimental and a first stage … the seat and back are normally covered with a sheep skin that adds to the comfort but also hides those screws.

 
 

Viewed from the side the frame is almost like medieval window tracery and each side is made from two pieces of steamed and bent beech. The basic shape is rather like a lower-case letter h but with the upright leaning back and within that h a separate piece of beech bent like a lower-case n … within the h but not touching at all points. The inner part takes a tighter curve and the outer part swings wider before the two parts come back together at the lower ends … for the legs.

Wegner returned to this form of  frame - that divides and then comes back together - in the Skalstol or two-part Shell Chair from 1963.

At the top of each side frame are lugs, almost like serifs - to keep up the analogy with type face letters - that are an integral parts of the frame, cut from the same piece of wood, and they form the supports for the head rest. What is amazing is that below the top, the long pieces of wood are split up the middle and the back half, cut shorter, is bent down and out to form the outer part of the back leg and the longer part is curved up and runs under the seat and then is bent down to form the outer part of the front leg.

If viewed from above, the two side frames are not set parallel but are set to angle inwards towards the back and they are linked by cross bars at the front and back that are shaped so in profile they narrow towards the centre … like the cross bars Wegner used for Chair FH1936 in 1948 and for the Shell Chair he designed in 1963.

 

If you compare the Wegner chair from 1948 (top) and the chair by Børge Mogensen from 1949 (below) with the sketch drawn by Wegner for the Tripartite Chair you can see strong similarities. All three chairs explore ideas about how to resolve problems with the construction - so how to fit the curved laminated parts to the frame. In all three chairs, the curves of the laminated parts sit on a solid, pyramid form of legs - a tapered and truncated pyramid - to give a strong base and a visually stable base. Being stable and looking stable are not always the same thing. For Wegner, in the design for the Tripartite Chair, there is a game between strong diagonal lines and curves.

In 1948, Wegner, in the chair for Fritz Hansen, had used a form of tab, shaped like a spoke shave, cut from the same piece of wood as the cross rail, to support the seat and to fix it to the frame. That same detail is shown on the sketch for the Tripartite Chair with those tabs appearing to be fixed through slots in the seat, back and head rest but, at the work bench, that must have been impossible to reconcile with the process of bending the beech: cutting such an elaborate profile from a single length of timber and then steaming it and bending it around a former must have made the timber split. The solution was to use the cone-shaped spacers and fix the seat and back rest to the frame with screws down from the top, through the spacer and into the frame.

 
 

If the Tripartite Shell Chair has a problem, in terms of comfort … I have not sat in the chair so it has to be an assumption … it would seem to be in the relationship of the angles at which the three parts are fixed. The seat is sloped down to be lower at the back - although hardly more than on many chairs - but the middle section supporting the spine of the sitter is at approximately 45 degrees to the ground so anyone in the chair is certainly laid back more than in most chairs, though not as far as in a recliner, but then the head rest is almost vertical … so it would seem that you sit back in the chair but with your head upright looking forward so potentially with your chin forced downwards towards your chest … and that is not a natural or a comfortable sitting position but might be one that would be easier if the head rest pivoted to adjust the angle.

In fact, a design by Wegner for a metal-framed version of the tripartite chair - the sketch is published by Christian Holmsted Olesen on page 169 of his book Wegner - just one good chair - had one interesting detail shown on the sketch that suggests that Wegner appreciated that there was a problem with the version with a bent-wood frame but one that could be resolved in metal because the sketch of the metal-framed version has a head rest that appears to be pivoted along its central horizontal axis so that its angle would adjust if the sitter tipped their head to look forward or laid back in the chair looking slightly upwards.

Perhaps the conclusion has to be that the tripartite chair was seen as a prototype - a chair to try out ideas that were modified in later and more-easily reproduced designs so the chair was showing off the skills of Wegner and Hansen but, like provocative or outrageous runway designs by a fashion house, with features and new techniques that were to reappear in more user-friendly or maker-friendly forms.

 

Generally, reviews by journalists and critics of the furniture shown by Hans Wegner and Johannes Hansen at the cabinetmakers' exhibition in 1949 seem to have been favourable:

Borge Glahn in Arkitekten wrote in a general comment that:

"The use of materials was clear and lucid, the fervour of the makers was evident in the craftsmanship, and the idea underlying the composition was clear and consistent."

And then added, writing specifically about the shell chair:

"There was a very large easy chair which differed markedly from the rest of the furniture as regards materials and construction. It was not quite convincing in the present version but it bore evidence of an unrestrained and almost Baroque delight in materials and forms and in the interplay between them."

Svend Erik Møller was rather more practical and wrote in Nyt Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri that:

"Their large easy chair should be made in a factory to make the price somewhat less prohibitive - it certainly has great potential."

It was an important point that Hakon Stephensen writing in Politiken also took up when he pointed out that:

"It takes a skilled craftsman to make a chair like this, and perhaps the amount of work that has gone into it is getting dangerously close to the acceptable limit for a single piece of furniture. It must be remembered, however, that the exhibition pieces are models, just like the dresses made by the great Parisian fashion houses. They are an indication of the type of designs which will eventually be reproduced in less complicated versions ….. "