PK22 by Poul Kjærholm 1955

 

 

Danish furniture from the second half of the 20th century is generally and more immediately associated by most people with wood and, as a consequence, with cabinetmaking or at least with wood-working techniques of the highest quality but actually metal work and engineering were important in the evolution of Danish design and, even in wood, many designs, particularly designs that pushed boundaries, experimented with structure and with joining or joinery that is actually engineering but engineering in wood rather than metal.

The furniture designed by Poul Kjærholm displays the purest and most refined engineering in metal. 

Chair PK22 was the first chair that Poul Kjærholm designed specifically to be manufactured by E Kold Christensen. 

The structure is reduced to a minimum with each leg unit in a single strip of steel with just four bends and that includes forming minimal feet. The two leg pieces are linked by two square-ended but gently curved cross bars, set on edge, bolted across the top, held in place with black allen screws, and the seat is a simple rectangle with a gentle convex surface that runs back and down slightly to a back rest equally simple but with a gentle concave curve in  the vertical plane. 

The chair is covered either with leather or, providing an amazing contrast of textures, with woven cane.

The modern chair of comparable quality and similar form is the Barcelona Chair from 1929 by the German designer Mies van der Rohe but in comparison that chair appears to be heavy and solid. It fits within a cube of 75cms so it is an interesting design in terms of a clear concept and it was certainly ground breaking and is a stunning chair but it is actually a large and heavy chair … which explains, in part, why the Barcelona Chair is found in entrance lobbies in the office buildings of large companies.

The chair by Poul Kjærholm is lighter, more elegant, really less muscular, and has very different qualities and virtues: it was designed on a smaller and more domestic scale and has a more subtle relationship with the space it occupies.

PK22 in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

The PK22 is also a good example of that design maxim that one way of determining if a design is good or bad is by considering if it would be possible to add anything or take anything away without undermining the design. Of course there are other ways of determining good design … so is there an appropriate use of the materials and an obvious expression in the design of the qualities of those materials or, in terms of function, doing what it is meant to do and doing it well and the PK22 ticks those boxes as well … but here what is so striking is the reduction of the form to a perfect minimum.

The legs are made as a pair … a front leg and a back leg together … and the link between the two legs is the support of the seat. The front legs and back legs are at different angles because they reflect different forces … the difference between leaning back in a chair and not tipping it backwards but equally not tipping it forward as you transfer weight and stand up and a difference in height sets the angle of the seat which should not be horizontal. And all done in a single strip of steel and bent with a curve rather than a sharp and harsh angle. And those curves … could they be larger or smaller? Almost certainly not. How did Kjærholm determine the radius of those curves? A mathematical relationship or was it by eye so they looked absolutely right?

The angle of the back is determined by the angle of the fixed relationship of the seat and the back rest and both are curved enough but no more than enough to form the start of a hollow for the body of the person sitting down. 

Cross bars link the two leg units and are fixed with two bolts … one bolt would allow the parts to twist or pivot against each other and three would be excessive … so again right. The bars are curved down but not as a device or for decoration or for effect but because if they were straight then you might feel them through the seat.

Surely, this is the essential chair? Not essential, as in must have although it is that as well, but essential as in reduced in the most precise and cerebral way to the essence of a chair.

 

 

 

designed by Poul Kjærholm (1929-1980)
made initially by E Kold Christensen
and now made by Fritz Hansen

matte chrome-plated steel
rattan or cane and also versions covered with leather or with canvas

height: 71 cm
width: 63 cm
depth: 67 cm
height of seat: 35 cm

 

PK 9 / EKC 9 by Poul Kjærholm 1961

PK9 in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 

 

designed by Poul Kjærholm (1929-1980)
made by E Kold Christensen
and then from 1982 made by Fritz Hansen Eftf

matte chrome-plated steel
shell - polyester / leather

height: 74 cm
width: 56 cm
depth: 60 cm
height of seat: 41 cm

Poul Kjærholm was in his early 30s when he designed this chair but it is remarkably self-assured … there is clarity in the concept  and a simplicity in the shape so that even today, nearly sixty years later, the chair seems to be free of conventions or styles and free of forms from the past.

This was not a matter of just stripping away decoration or just simplifying shapes and nor was it just a rationalisation to explore what is essential for a chair but, in the design of the PK9, Kjærholm re-assessed the relationship between function and the support and structure of a chair and combined that with a highly-developed awareness of shape and space. 

His self confidence was more than justified: Kjærholm graduated in 1952 and from 1955 taught furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Through the 1950s he produced a number of experimental and innovative designs - a chair with one leg, a shell chair like an open clam - with two curved pieces of aluminium bolted together - a wire chair shaped like a great swoosh and these were followed by a series of chairs and tables that went into production - including the low easy chair PK22, a side chair PK 1 and a glass and steel table PK61. In 1958 he was awarded the Lunning Prize - then the most prestigious award for design in Scandinavia - and in 1960 he designed Denmark's pavilion for the Triennial in Milan.

The first winner of the Lunning Prize, at its inception in 1951, was Hans Wegner* and it was perhaps only Wegner who had as clear a view of the final form of a design - seen from all angles in three dimensions - from the first stage of the design process.

But, much more than Wegner, Kjærholm controlled how his furniture would sit in a larger space … so he considered carefully how the lines; the shapes or silhouette and the planes of a design not only define their own volume but are also defined and affected by the wider space.

From 1947 Wegner had taught at the School of Arts, Crafts and Design and after working in partnership with Ejvind Kold Christensen on several designs he introduced him to Poul Kjærholm who, at that point, was still one of Wegner’s students. 

Kold, a few years older than Wegner, was the son of a cabinetmaker and had been apprenticed to learn upholstery but became a travelling furniture salesman and it was only after the War, when he met Wegner and began to work closely with him, that he became a catalyst for work with first Wegner and then Kjærholm. Kold was a businessman who understood and appreciated the importance of using the best materials and the importance of retaining the standards of skilled craftsmanship,even in metal work and engineering, but recognised the commercial potential to be gained from rationalising designs so that they could be produced in larger quantities for sale to a wider range of customers. He is credited with the idea of designing furniture so that it could be delivered in parts and then assembled to reduce the cost of shipping. Kold was important because he established a network of manufacturers to make the furniture but also marketed the work of Wegner and then Kjærholm oversees.

Kjærholm had also trained as a cabinetmaker before studying under Wegner so quality of workmanship was a fundamental part of his work. In an interview that was published in 1963, Kjærholm was asked if his furniture was designed with a view to industrial manufacture and replied that his "furniture, like most furniture at the Cabinetmakers' Guilds' exhibition, is 50% handmade and 50% industrially made. Here in Denmark we would not accept 100% industrial manufacture unless its results were technically better than the work of the hand. I will not accept a surface or material treatment of the kind found in Eames's mass-produced furniture."

But Kjærholm also studied under Jørn Utzon, who taught industrial design, and he encouraged Kjærholm to explore the use of less conventional materials for furniture and from 1956 onwards, Kold and Kjærholm worked on furniture where the main material was metal, rather than wood, with high-quality engineering techniques replacing wood and cabinetmaking skills to create new forms of Danish furniture. **

Ole Palsby - in his essay in a book on Kjærholm that was published in 1999 - made the crucial point that Kold and Kjærholm succeeded because they used metal in a Scandinavian context. 

Elsewhere in Europe, through the 1930s and later, in the work of the designers from the Bauhaus and elsewhere, metal furniture was made, generally, with a frame in steel tubing, usually with a polished chrome finish, and that was not popular in Denmark. If there was any inspiration for his ideas from the work of the Bauhaus, Kjærholm looked to the work of Ludvig Mies van der Rohe for the low height and the solid weight of his furniture - for instance the Barcelona Chair of 1929 - and, more significant, to his buildings and interiors for setting furniture in formal, stark spaces. 

Working with Kold, Kjærholm used heavy steel in flat strips with a matt finish that had very different qualities to metal tubing and he combined the steel with high-quality leather and unpolished wood that provided a much more subdued contrast of colours and tones. Kjærholm appreciated the way that steel aged - developing a patina. 

He used glass for table tops but primarily so that the frame rather than the surface dominated. Kjærholm said "I consider steel a material with the same artistic merit as wood and leather."

Rather than welding, Kjærholm used sophisticated bolts and locking nuts to join the metal parts and that reinforced the sense that these chairs and tables were an expression of precise engineering. These fixings are as important in the design process for Kjærholm as the exposed but precise joins and new ways of bending and shaping wood that Wegner developed in his collaboration with cabinetmakers.

It would be a mistake - in emphasising the engineering and the architectural aspects of his work - to loose sight of the fact that Poul Kjærholm trained and began his career as a cabinetmaker and understood not just the importance of using the best materials but also the importance of working with the best craftsmen to produce his furniture. He worked with the metal smith Herluf Poulsen; with Ivan Schlecter for upholstery, particularly leather, and with Ejnar Pedersen, founder and owner of the cabinetmakers PP Møbler, for work in wood.

Ole Palsby made another important point when he observed that furniture by Kjærholm is "generally smaller, low and transparent, making man the most important part of the room" and observed that Kold "believed to the end that artistic quality can sell, that production with an artistic intention was marketable."

Kjærholm designed the displays in Bredgade at the showrooms of E Kold Christensen where the furniture was shown against large black and white photographs of open landscapes and this format was repeated for an exhibition in Paris where the space was precisely divided and controlled with lines of pendant lights forming a cross to divide the main space and furniture was placed precisely to show the importance of the space around each piece.

In 1965 Kjærholm designed the display for an exhibition of his work held at the showroom of Ole Palsby in Hovedvagtsgade in Copenhagen.*** 

There the furniture was shown disassembled so, for the PK9, one shell was shown covered with leather and one uncovered and both on a low plinth alongside the three steel legs and the two spacing pieces that lock the legs together to form the support of the shell. Shown like this the reaction must have been to think that surely something must be missing. Could such a sophisticated chair come from so few and such simple parts? But it is only when those simple but precisely-designed parts are assembled that, they define and occupy a space; take on a real volume, and only then assume their function as something a person could sit on. Perhaps that is why Michael Sheridan, in his Catalogue Raisonne, described the furniture by Kjærholm as "studies in construction."

That is shown clearly in the design of the support of the shell in the PK9. Inevitably, with a shell in plywood or plastic or fibre glass or, as here, in polyester, the support for the chair is almost invariably in a different material. Arne Jacobsen designed L-shaped legs that met in a central block under the set for the support of shell chairs; several designers produced a frame work with either legs or even runners and some designed a central column combined either with feet that branched out from the bottom or a circular pedestal.

With the PK9 Kjærholm has just three pieces of steel that are vertical at the centre but curved out at the bottom to form a stable base and curved out at the top to support the seat with two identical pieces at the front running out to the sides and one slightly longer curve of steel running straight out to the back to support and brace the chair. These three strips of metal are joined by two small hexagonal joining pieces to create not a central column but three faces of the outline of a hexagonal column. The angles of the upper curves set the seat with a slight backwards tilt.

The shell of the PK9 - moulded in polyester and covered with leather - makes this, perhaps, the most beautiful chair of this type. It can be difficult to talk about aesthetics - about why one shape or a line or curve is beautiful and another not - because ultimately it has to be a subjective judgement but this chair has a balance and a generous width but an elegance of line that has not been matched.

Looking back, it is difficult to see how Kjærholm created such a subtle and complex shape without being able to model it in 3D on a computer. There is a story that Kjærholm was at the beach with his wife Hanne and when she stood up he was inspired by the impression her bottom had left in the sand and modelled that shape in clay.

For some chairs there are sketches and working drawings by Kjærholm with elevations on graph paper but that hardly seems to be the way to design such a complex shape. 

A photograph survives of a wire chair designed by Kjærholm in 1953 that shows a wooden former and a full-size papier-mâché model and it would have been possible to draw lines over the paper to get the spacing of the wires right. The shape of the seat for that chair, without the base is close to the shape and the angles of the PK9. The wire chair was not put into production but could the papier-mâché model for the wire chair have been the starting point for the shell of the PK9?

This analysis of design and structure makes the chair sound like an intellectual exercise in form, construction and aesthetics but it is all that and it is actually supremely comfortable and the wide generous shape makes it feel generous in its proportions and, although it might seem a rather mundane point, the width means that it feels natural and easy to put the hands palm down on either side to push down when standing up.  However beautiful a chair surely it also has to be strong, stable and comfortable? 

 

bibliography:

Poul Kjærholm, edited by Christoffer Harlang, Keld Helmer-Petersen and Krestine Kjærholm, Arkitektens Forlag (1999)

The Furniture of Poul Kjærholm: Catalogue Raisonne by Michael A. Sheridan (2008)

 

notes:

 * Each year, between 1951 and 1970, the Lunning Prize was awarded two designers chosen from the four Nordic countries and in 1951 the other recipient of the award with Hans Wegner was the Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala. When Kjærholm was awarded the prize in 1958 his fellow recipient was the Swedish ceramacist Signe Persson-Melin.

**  Between 1956 and 1959 Poul Kjærholm developed 13 designs with Kold and 10 are still in production. Shortly after the death of Poul Kjærholm, from lung cancer at a tragically young age, Ejvind Kold sold his business to Fritz Hansen with the licences for many of the designs and they now produce the PK9.

 *** There are photographs of the exhibition in 1965 in the archive of Danmarks Kunstbibliotek with two views of an arrangement with the table with a round stone top - catalogued as the PK54 - also designed in 1961 - with four chairs.

Fritz Hansen

 

PK24 / ECK24 by Poul Kjærholm 1965

photographed at Designmuseum Danmark in 2015 in their exhibition 'Reclining'

 

 

This has to be one of the most elegant recliners and one of the most stripped down and spare. It is simply a frame in sprung steel covered with a taut skin of woven cane and supported on the thinnest possible steel frame. 

There is a separate frame of steel that folds under the centre section of the seat - running parallel to the cane work but separated from it by spacers. This forms what looks like a sledge or from the side runners that rest on a simple frame … a third rectangle in flat steel strip but with the ends bent upwards but at an angle to form a cradle.

The round table PK54 designed by Kjærholm in1963 - with square frames in steel slotted together to form a cube - or the glass table PK61 designed in 1956 - with four L-shaped pieces of steel together forming a frame and legs - play the same intellectual game to produce sophisticated three-dimensional forms out of minimal elements … almost like an artist marking an edge or a shadow with a slightly heavier weight of line, to define a volume, and then obliterating everything else to rely just on that emphasis of the edge.

Here the use of cane is equally unique. Not the material itself, of course, but on all other furniture with cane work you are aware of a frame first that is filled in with a lattice of cane - the cane does not exist without the frame. On the PK24 you see first a sheet of woven cane and it is only when you look again that you work out what holds the curved form because without the steel, keeping that shape would be impossible. All that is visible of the steel frame of the seat and back is a small square of exposed metal at each corner.

The chair comes also in leather and the same holds true … you see first a swoosh of leather and then have to work out how that shape is formed and held.  

There is a leather covered head rest with both chairs but where other recliners have pillows held in place by knots or belts with buckles this head rest is a simple roll with a counterweight of steel on two straps slung over the top of the back rest.

 

 

designed by Poul Kjærholm (1929-1980)
PK24 made first by E Kold Christensen and then from 1982 by Fritz Hansen Eftf

steel, cane, leather-covered head rest

height: 87 cm
width: 67 cm
length: 155 cm

exhibition Reclining at Designmuseum Danmark in 2015

Fritz Hansen