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.

 

Påfuglestolen / Peacock Chair by Hans Wegner 1947

 


Now, we tend to use the term masterpiece for paintings … particular those by one of the 'old masters' … but it actually refers to a work made by an apprentice, journeyman or master craftsman to show off their skills. So surely, this chair is a masterpiece by Hans Wegner?

It's not exactly flamboyant or even particularly egotistical but it does show a number of real skills and an amazing command of design in three-dimensional space.

It takes a traditional type of chair - an English Windsor chair - and shows just how it should be done.

A Windsor chair normally has a hooped back with spindles although other chairs with a back rest or rail for a head rest can be called a Windsor as it is now a generic term.*

The spindles across the back of the Peacock Chair are shaped and flattened at the point where the shoulder blades of a person in the chair would rest but they extend in an arc out to the side spindles so it is also decorative. They resemble the 'eyes' on the tail feathers of a peacock and the name was soon applied to the chair.

chair photographed at Designmuseum Danmark

 


It is a wide chair with a relatively low seat so this is an easy chair rather than a dining chair. The seat is paper cord and at first glance it appears to be the traditional pattern with the cords taken across the seat and across the underside with their intersection forming a diagonal cross but on most chairs the cord is taken completely over the rails of the seat but here the wood pieces of those rails are unusually wide with a narrow slot along the centre with the spindles of the back housed in the outer part of the seat frame and the cords of the seat taken across and down the slot before returning on the underside. It is only across the front rail of the seat and at the front ends of the sides - in front of the vertical supports of the arm rests - that the cords are taken across the whole width of the side rail in the area where someone would put their hands down to steady themselves as they stand up from the chair.

 


The legs of the chair are turned and are housed in holes that go right through the frame of the seat where the end is cut and split with a wedge in dark wood to hold the leg in place. There are side stretchers between the front and back legs and a cross stretcher between them forming an H shape below the seat.

There are paddle-shaped arm rests and these are supported on diagonal struts that run down through the seat and inwards to be housed in swellings at each end of the cross stretcher.

The chair was shown by Johannes Hansen at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1947.


It is interesting that despite the design of the chair - with its origin in an historic form - the style of the room is much more modern than the room setting from Hansen with furniture by Wegner that was shown just a few years earlier. This room had a fairly traditional sofa but a good simple coffee table in wood and a version of a square-sided Windsor Chair with ramped arm rests ** all set around a rush mat and there were fitted book cases rising the full height on either side of the window and, opposite the sofa, a long range of three units … one a desk with drawers, one unit with narrow drawers and one with a double cupboard and above what appears to be a hanging system with glass-fronted display cabinets and what looks like hessian on the walls.

The Peacock Chair is now produced by PP Møbler

 

designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
cabinetmakers Johannes Hansen, PP Møbler

oak or ash with arm rests to match or in teak and seat paper cord

height: 103cm
width: 76cm
depth: 76cm
height of seat: 36cm

 

notes:

 * The area of Berkshire north of the medieval town of Windsor has chalk hills - The Chilterns - that were covered with beech trees. Men would work out in the forest with temporary or moveable lathes and would cut and turn the spindles, stretchers and legs for chairs and these would be brought down into the local towns - Windsor or High Wycombe - where they would be made up into chairs with seats made elsewhere and often from very different wood so usually elm but sometimes oak or sycamore and with the bow made in ash or even yew. The chairs were often quite simple and are sometimes called country chairs and were bought for inns, farmhouses and cottages but could also be quite elaborate and expensive pieces of furniture. It was not a common Danish form … Axel Steensberg in his book on Danske bondemøbler shows just one example from Fyn and that has a bow back but shaped splats rather than spindles. Kaare Klint used an English example of a Windsor chair in the collection of the design museum for teaching.

 ** A version of that chair was made by Carl Hansen

 

Klapstol / Folding Chair JH512 by Hans Wegner 1949

 


Although this is a folding chair it was not designed as a deckchair or even primarily for use outside but it was for a small apartment and was designed to be hung on the wall so it was out of the way until it was needed.

The cross bar below the seat is shaped and has curved cross struts to form a notch to keep the chair steady when it is hung over a single hook.

Deceptively simple with an open wooden frame for the seat and back, that are square and infilled with cane, and that cross over as an X shape when seen from the side. The back rest is concave and continues on down in a single curve to form the front legs of the chair and the seat running on down to form the back support is slightly convex.

Where the design is ingenious is in the way the structure, the precise alignment of the key parts of the frame and a hinge or pivot at the centre, allow the chair to fold flat and stay flat when it is hanging. The frame also has to allow for the cane to be taken down through slots at certain points, rather than around the whole frame, to accommodate handles and so on.

As with so many designs by Wegner it looks easy and simple when he has finished but take a step back to the beginning and try to design the same thing without any reference to his solution and you begin to see how he had such an amazing perception of three dimensional space. The impressive thing about any puzzle, say a complex crossword puzzle for example, is not that someone can solve it but the mind that created it.

The Folding Chair, made by Johannes Hansen, was shown in the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1949 and what now seems so incredible is that this chair was actually far from the star piece that year. In 1949 Wegner and Hansen presented to the public The Round Chair and the tripartite Shell Chair.

Christian Holmsted Olesen * suggested that the Folding Chair is one of the designs by Wegner that was most plagiarised.

The Folding Chair is now made by PP Møbler

 
 

In Arkitekten, Børge Glabn wrote:

Hans Wegner and Johannes Hansen “confront us with something altogether different; a classic simplicity both in analytical approach and in the synthesis of its practical application. …. 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.” **

 

notes:

 * Hans J Wegner, by Christian Holmsted Olesen in Store Danske Designere, Lindhardt og Ringhof (2008)
 ** Dansk Møbelkunst Gennem 40 År 1947-1956, edited by Grete Jalk, Lindhardt og Ringhof, (2017) page 98

 
 

 

designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
made first by Johannes Hansen and then PP Møbler

teak, oak or ash and sjeneflet (cane)

height: 75cm
width: 61cm
depth: 74cm
height of front edge of seat: 39cm
length when folded: 99cm

 

The Chair by Hans Wegner 1949

 

the version of The Chair with upholstered leather seat first produced the following year - so from 1950 onwards

Hans Wegner showed this chair first at the Annual Exhibition of the Cabinetmakers’ Guild in 1949. 

Made in oak by the cabinetmaker Johannes Hansen, it was identified in subsequent catalogues as Chair JH501 but it was Wegner himself who described it as the “round one” and in Denmark it is known generally as The Round Chair. Exported to America, it is now known there simply as The Chair. It is still in production but is now made by PP Møbler and in their catalogues is chair PP501.

The chair shown in the cabinetmakers’ exhibition had a woven cane seat and cane was wound around the back rest to cover where the wood of the arms was joined to the piece of wood that formed the back. It was not until 1950 that an alternative version was produced, with leather upholstery rather than cane for the seat, and the form of the back and the joins that were used were altered so that the chair could have a plain wood back and arm rests without cane work. That version appeared in catalogues as the JH503 from Johannes Hansen and is identified now as the PP503 by PP Møbler.

Both the PP501 and the PP503 are available now in cherry, walnut or ash, as well as in oak - like the first version - and the finish - which makes a considerable difference to the character as well as literally to the feel of the chair - can be lacquer or an oil finish and the ash and oak can also be finished with a soap treatment. In part, it is these options for different timbers and different finishes that help make this chair so enduring and still so popular. *

There is something of the chameleon about the design so, in a dark wood, that has a high polish and with a leather seat, it has more than enough style and sophistication for either a boardroom or for a more formal dining room but in pale oak, with a matt finish and a cane seat, it looks decades younger and fits happily with a contemporary arrangement for a family room alongside furniture of very different design or period.

an early version of The Chair with cane around the back rest

Chair 501 with a cane seat but without cane wound around the back rest - photographed in the new gallery of chairs at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

The Round Chair was one of the first pieces of furniture that was designed after the second world war for commercial production. Clearly, it was not a cheap factory product but certainly marked a new direction away from the skilled but small workforce found in a cabinetmakers’ workshops and who were producing all high-quality furniture before the war. 

In February 1950, the influential American magazine Interiors published an article that showcased work by Finn Juhl, Borge Morgensen and Wegner but it was The Round Chair that was featured on the cover. The Round Chair was selected for the Good Design Exhibition - organised by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with The Chicago Merchandise Mart - that ran from November 1952 through to February 1953. That was the second year of the exhibition when the display was arranged or designed by Finn Juhl. ** The price tag on the chair appears to have been $125. ***

The Round Chair featured again in an exhibition in New York in the Georg Jensen store on Fifth Avenue in 1959 that focused on the work of Wegner and although it was the Round Chair that was on the cover of the catalogue it was, curiously, the cane version and with cane around the back so the original JH501. 

So, The Round Chair was one of the first important and one of the first commercially successful pieces to be produced in what is now referred to as the classic period for modern Danish furniture but when asked about The Chair, Wegner commented that, personally, he thought that it was his best achievement … “not because of its export success, but because I have been more thorough with it than anything else.”

Many people have written about just how modest, genuinely modest, Hans Wegner was so this statement is revealing. If he says he was thorough then it was almost-certainly a lot of hard work combined with experience and presumably a fair bit of determination. Understanding that is crucial to seeing why the design of this chair is so important. The proportions and the gentle curves of the chair look simple but simple does not mean easy and certainly does not mean basic. So part of being “thorough” was getting those lines and those dimensions and those relationships of the main parts of the chair right. Not perfect - to create an ideal - but right for this particular chair. That is, in part, about compromise … not compromise in the modern sense of doing what you can get away with but compromise in the sense of balancing what is gained or what is lost as elements of the design are changed. Here there are several broader points of compromise or balance or trading off that makes the chair such an important example of how the design process should work. So each part is reduced down … to put it crudely a straight leg with a square cross section could do the same job of supporting the seat and the arm of the chair … but take too much away and the leg looses its strength and the places where joints have to be cut to house the seat frame into the leg are weakened. The choice of wood for this specific design is an important consideration from the start … so the same design could not be made from birch. It is not hyperbole to say that the design reflects what Wegner knew about what good Danish craftsmen could do with good Danish oak … though again most Danes would be too modest to state that in that way. So from the start, the design built on well-established and well understood expertise. The quality is another and a very deliberate compromise although it might seem odd to describe it as a compromise in quality with a chair like this but in fact it was a very successful compromise. Cut quality and it is less likely to survive in commercial use but focus on it having to be a robust chair for the board-room or restaurant and it becomes too expensive and possibly too heavy and solid for domestic use in the home. It would be interesting to see if figures are available to show how many of these chairs are in restaurants and how many are in homes. Finally there was a careful balance between what could and should be done to use factory methods in the production … to simplify the design and to use machines to increase the numbers that could be made. This chair was aimed at large scale production for export or at least the production of more chairs than could be made in a small workshop … but from the start it seems to have been an important but difficult part of the design brief - to again use anachronistic and modern marketing jargon - to produce a chair in relatively large numbers but to produce a chair that showcased Danish craftsmanship and quality. 

The separate parts of a Round Chair shown in the introduction to their new display of chairs in Designmuseum Danmark

 

The vertical elements of the chair are all elegantly tapered and with the smooth and subtle curves of the back rest and the strong but thin profile of the arms this is one of Wegner’s most beautiful if not the most beautiful of his designs. 

Elements are shaped and cut back but not so much that it weakens the structure. Nor are the shapes imposed on the wood … the shaping of the arms and the rounding of the end of the arms, where they over sail the front legs, all exploit the way that the grain in a good piece of timber means that it can be cut and shaped and sanded smooth. One detail that shows well the techniques and skills of the cabinet makers is the shaping of the underside of each arm piece at both ends to form integral housings for the top of the leg. The on-line site for PP Møbler has photographs of a craftsman cutting or finishing that shape with what is called in England a spoke shave … a special plane for rounding and tapering a spindle with a cutting blade in the centre and handles on each side so the cabinet maker uses it with both hands.

For stability, all four legs of The Round Chair are set to be angled inwards diagonally at the top, or perhaps it is better to describe them as splayed outwards to the foot. This means that the joints between the legs and the seat frame have to be cut sharply and accurately, particularly the shoulders of the tenons, but these angles reduce the chance of tipping the chair backwards, as someone sits down, or sliding sidewards as someone stands up if their weight is not evenly distributed. It is also important visually so, even when no one is sitting in it, the chair appears to stand firmly and confidently on the ground. 

Faaborg Chair by Kaare Klint (1914)

Windsor Chair by Hans Wegner (1947)

 

To understand what this means, look at the Faaborg Chair designed by Kaare Klint in 1914. That chair has front legs that are cut square and tapered but vertical and the back legs are flared or curved out at the bottom to provide that stability but it makes the balance of weight for the chair appear rather precarious ... almost too delicate for the oddly solid and rather heavy back despite it being in cane. 

The low and quite wide silhouette of The Round Chair, when seen from the front, links it with Wegner’s design for the slightly earlier Windsor Chair from 1947 although in that chair the arm pieces are designed with a very different form being ramped up to just below the top rail that is housed between the back leg pieces, just below the top, and the back legs are not straight but given a slight change of angle at the point where there are the joins for the side frame and back frame of the seat. So, Wegner, through a series of designs for different chairs, was experimenting … trying to produce a simple but strong and stable design but one that combines straight legs with curved and rounded shapes that trim back the main vertical elements of the chair to the thinnest and most elegant profile possible without compromising the strength of the chair particularly at that crucial point where the legs are joined to the frame of the seat. Ultimately, what confirms that the design is both strong and stable, despite it’s relatively light weight, is that Wegner could avoid having stretchers of any form below the seat.

For The Round Chair, the complex shape and flowing form of the back and arm rest has been described by some as a propeller shape, because it reminds them of the complex curves for the blades on the first wood propellers on very early aeroplanes. The back and arms of The Round Chair although it reads as a single if complex shape is constructed with three separate pieces of curved and shaped wood that are then joined together … if it was cut from a single piece, it would not only waste timber but would snap or split where it curved round against the grain. 

Early versions of the chair had cane wrapped around the centre part of the back rest, in part, to link visually with the seat but also to disguise this fact that the back and arms were not a single piece of wood but a composite. The second version of the design is strong but, more important, more honest as the joins are made into a feature of the design. In several chairs Wegner made this strengthening of the joins even more obvious by inserting dramatic angled tails or combs in a contrasting wood to make them a strong visual feature.

 

the original form of the back with cane covering where the arm is joined to the back piece. Drawings by Wegner show an early version of the chair with cane also wrapped around the arm rests  

 

the modified design where the arm piece is run into the vertically set back piece with a marked and strong join that has become a distinct feature of the design

 

However, it is the first version of The Round Chair with a cane seat that shows off so clearly the skills of the cabinet makers … upholstery can be used to cover all sorts of tricks in the design of the frame to make it stronger or cheaper or easier to make but with a cane seat, there is really nowhere to hide anything. In a good, high-quality chair, the joints and the finish have to be perfect because everything can be seen. Although, of course, having said that, the upholstery on the 503 hides nothing for the leather seat is dropped into the frame as a pad rather than resorting to the common practice of taking leather or fabric right over the frame and fixing it with nails to completely cover the substructure of the seat.

There are several different ways to hold in place the canes of a woven seat. In the cheapest form of chair, panels of pre-woven cane are fixed across the seat frame and held down in a channel with a thin rod of cane but it can be difficult to stretch the cane work tight across the seat. In some chairs a series of vertical holes are drilled down through the front, the back and the side pieces of the seat and the canes are taken up through one hole, stretched across the seat to the opposite side and taken down a hole and then up through the adjoining hole and then back across the seat either straight across or commonly across a diagonal which then produces the popular honeycomb pattern. In other chairs, the cane can be taken over the outside of the frame and doubled back underneath - copying the usual method with rush seats - but that can make the cane work look rather solid or baulky.

For The Round Chair, the method used to fix in place the cane seat is rather more complicated. The cane is taken over the edge of the seat frame but then doubled back through long slots through the vertical face of the frame. These slots cannot be cut the full length of each piece of the seat frame because that would undermine the strength of the frame and make it difficult to cut and would weaken the joints where the frame is housed into the legs so these slots stop short at each end.

 

Because of these foreshortened slots the densely woven area of the cane seat is consequently set in from the frame but this becomes a strong feature of the design with adjoining canes crossed over in pairs to form a line of elongated Xs as an open border to the more-densely woven area you sit on. It becomes a positive element of the weaving pattern and, as with the earlier Faaborg Chair by Kaare Klint, it gives the seat a lighter look and a more distinct relationship with the floor which can be seen through the cane work.

There is a downward curving cross brace, running front to back under the seat of the cane version, that is important as it strengthen the frame but few people will even notice it - in part because the outer ends are also wound in cane so it is less obvious when seen from above through the cane work of the seat.

the underside of the chair showing how complicated the cane work really is with the stretchers of the seat actually in two pieces so that the cane is taken round twice to return to the outer face of the frame before being taken back across the seat. The stretcher running front to back braces the frame and keeps the cane work taut when someone sits down. The ends are wound with cane where they can be seen from above through the more open border of the seat

Wegner clearly saw the checkerboard pattern of the cane work on The Round Chair as both an integral and an essential part of the design.

So The Round Chair looks good; was in the vanguard of the rapidly developing style of modern Danish furniture in the early 50s; marked a change to producing not just cheaper furniture but more expensive pieces commercially rather than in a cabinet makers’ workshop and it helped establish an international market for Danish design but is it comfortable? In the end, ergonomics should be the test for any chair.

For a start, there is a marked drop or curving down of the centre of front rail and this gives the seat a slight hollow shape that takes a backside more comfortably.

Looking down on The Round Chair from above, you can see that the broad curve of the back forms a wide and generous seat - The Round Chair is 630mm wide overall so not the widest of dining chairs but the Wishbone Chair, designed in 1950, is just 550mmm wide. In some ways again, The Round Chair is reminiscent of the Faaborg chair although where that chair, designed by Kaare Klint in 1914, is different is that it has a level and continuous, horizontal line to the top of the back and arms, when seen from the front, which encloses the person sitting in it …  it seems to force your arms up higher to a more stilted angle to the body or you can just rest your elbows on the sides but then your hands should be set demurely together in your lap. That is perhaps the key to the comfort of The Round Chair, so, to put that the other way round, the shape of The Round Chair, with arm rests lower than the top line of the back, allows the person sitting in the chair to rest and support their arms on the side pieces of the chair, in a lower and more natural position.

 

The back rest itself is deep, set as a strong vertical but is gently curved in plan to provide a broad band of lumber support but the arm pieces, as they curve round from the back, twist to the horizontal with a slight swelling out, close to the back, to support the elbows, but then the arm pieces taper in and continue to a slight and chamfered or undercut lip beyond the front legs. That projection or over sailing helps to make the join, between the arm and the top of the front leg, stronger but also the fingers of the person sitting in the chair, drop naturally and comfortably over the end of the arm and that feels like a natural and relaxed way to sit …. with the arms along the top of the side pieces and then when getting up out of the chair it is easy to use your arms to steady yourself and then give a slight pressure downwards as you stand up. So …. easy to sit down in the chair, wide enough to fidget around if you are uncomfortable or bored and about as easy as possible to get out of.

 

 

 


Notes and context:

 

Wegner presented three chairs at the Cabinetmakers’ Exhibition in 1949 and they could not have been more different. Along with The Round Chair, he showed the Folding Chair JH512, designed to hang on a wall in a small apartment, and the dramatic tripartite Shell Chair, which has an amazing combination of bold cut-outs in thick plywood and a complicated bentwood frame. These were all virtuoso pieces and presumably for Wegner, then in in has mid 30s, they marked his coming of age as a furniture designer.

 
 


his photograph of The Chair was taken at the Wegner exhibition just one good chair at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014. It shows that Wegner, from this point on, returns to themes or ideas or techniques … not to copy or repeat a design but he back tracks to an interesting point where he could explore a different sequence of choices through the design process to take a design to a very different end. The Cow Horn Chair JH505 dates from 1952 and has shortened arm rests so that when not in use the chair can be pushed closer to the table. Office Chair JH502, with its dramatic deep back rest and a metal frame, was designed in 1955 and shows a development of the back of the Round Chair that provides more support for the spine and over a slightly wider range of positions as someone may have to use an office chair for much of the day whereas sitting on a dining chair is normally for a much shorter period. Wegner became interested in ergonomics and in the early 50s worked with Professor Egill Snorrason who had undertaken research on posture, particularly for patients who had polio.

When people talk about The Round Chair, many comment on just how comfortable it is which is said to be the reason why John F Kennedy requested Wegner’s chair when he appeared with Richard Nixon in a television interview in September 1960 - the first ever Presidential campaign debate - and an appearance for the chair that gave it considerable status.

 

John F Kennedy had aggravated a pre-existing back problem while on active service in the American Navy during the war although that was not widely publicised as it might well have been seen as a sign of weakness that could have been exploited by political opponents particularly as he was dependent on a number of strong pain-killing drugs. Kennedy was one of the first politicians who understood the importance of image so if he realised that if he moved around in his chair during the broadcast, simply because he was in pain and uncomfortable, it might be interpreted as being nervous or even evasive as he answered questions.

A Round Chair with cane seat was added to the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1953 (MoMA Catalogue 486.1953) and was the first of seven different chairs designed by Wegner that have been acquired by the museum.

 

* In 2015, the shipment of fake Wegner chairs made in China and destroyed by officials when they arrived in Norway were copies of The Round Chair.

** The first Good Design exhibition from November 1950 through to February 1951 was designed by Charles and Ray Eames.

*** A check-list in the MoMA archive of pieces in the exhibition includes just one chair by Wegner described as “Chair, Oak, Cane Hans Wegner” that must be The Round Chair and the retail price is calculated as about $125. One web site that calculates inflation suggests that $125 in 1951 would have been equivalent to about $1,280 or 9,000 Kroner or just over £1,000 now in 2017.

This post was edited and expanded and new photographs added in February 2017

 

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 ….. "

 

Kohornstolen / Cow Horn Chair by Hans Wegner 1952

 

Considered to be a development of the form and style of The Round Chair but more compact with short elbow rests rather than the longer arm rests of The Round Chair or the later Bull Horn Chair. This means that the chair can be pushed in closer to the table and it is easier to get up from the chair when sitting at the table.

The front legs stand proud of the seat and are rounded on the top. The cane of the seat or, in the upholstered version, the leather covering of the seat are taken over the rails of the seat in the traditional way.

The two pieces of timber for the back are cut in line from the same plank. Joining timber end to end with grain exposed is weak so here the join is reinforced with tenons cut from a contrasting wood to make this a distinctive and decorative feature of these chairs.

Johannes Hansen showed the chair at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1952

PP Møbler

in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 
 

photographed in the showroom of PP Møbler

photographed at the exhibition on the work of Hans Wegner at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014. ... the Office Chair 502 - shown behind the Cow Horn Chair was designed three years later in 1955 and shows how Wegner returned to the shape of the back with elbow rests but made it deeper and joined the separate parts in a very different way 

 

 

designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
cabinetmakers Johannes Hansen, PP Møbler

oak, ash or cherry - detail rosewood
cane seat or upholstered

height: 75 cm
width: 59 cm
depth: 45 cm
height of seat: 44 cm

 

Long-Horned Bull Chair by Hans Wegner 1961

 

A wide chair with a shaped back with longer arm rests than the Cow Horn Chair. The back is formed from two pieces of curved wood that are joined at the centre with six tenons in rosewood.

The legs are set at a slight angle, the front legs proud of the seat and rounded at the top - reminiscent of the Wishbone or Y Chair. There are stretchers at the front and back as well as between the front and back legs - all set close to the seat. The cane seat is shaped, curved down at the front and back, and the upholstered version has the leather upholstered directly over the rails of the seat.

A round table with four of these chairs in teak were shown by Johannes Hansen at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1961. Svend Erik Møller in Politiken wrote:

“His new models will not cause a stir - they will not even become the subjects of discussion. It is simply outstanding furniture making, the result of an ideal cooperation between an architect and a cabinetmaker who understand each other perfectly.”

PP Møbler

 

designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
cabinetmaker Johannes Hansen, PP Møbler

original chair teak - now in oak, ash or cherry
detail rosewood
cane seat or upholstered

height: 74 cm
width: 72 cm
depth: 51 cm
height of seat: 45 cm

Den Lille Stålstol / The Little Steel Chair by Hans Wegner 1965

chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 

 

Wegner first designed a steel framed chair with a version of the shaped back of the Cow Horn Chair in 1955 and that was shown in an exhibition for the new Bellahøjhusene housing development in Copenhagen and then shown at H55 in Helsingborg in Sweden in the same year. The design - with three prototypes showing different ways to join the wood for the back rest - were made with Fritz Hansen but were not put into production.

This version, The Little Steel Chair or Minimal Chair , PP 701, was designed for Wegner's own house in Gentofte in 1965 and the shaped back is a smaller version of the Bull Horn Chair - the chair with longer arm rests than the Cow Horn.

The curved back rest with arm rests are formed from four pieces of wood cut from planks 45mm thick and the right and left arm rest and the lower and upper sections are cut from the same plank and cut in line. As the grain runs in different directions and cannot match then a contrasting veneer is used between each joint and for the distinctive cross at the centre of the back.

The chair was shown by Johannes Hansen at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1965.

PP Møbler

 

chair photographed at Design Werck in Copenhagen

 

 

designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
cabinetmakers Johannes Hansens, PP Møbler

oak, ash, maple, or cherry
detail/veneer in original chair was wenge
stainless steel
leather

height: 70 cm
width: 63 cm
depth: 46 cm
height of seat: 45 cm