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.

 

The Colonial Chair PJ149 by Ole Wanscher 1949

The PJ149, also known as the Colonial Chair, was designed by Ole Wanscher (1903-1985) and was made by P Jeppesen Møbelfabrik from 1949 onwards. The company later changed its name to PJ Furniture A/S.

Wanscher came from Copenhagen, from a well-established, middle-class, academic family … his father was the art historian Vilhelm Wanscher. Initially Wanscher trained as an architect, first at technical school and then at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, but moved almost exclusively to furniture design. In the 1920s he worked in the office of Kaare Klint and it was Wanscher who produced the first drawings for Klint for the Red Chair for the Danish Museum of Art and Design. For Klint, as part of that project, he produced detail drawings of a Chippendale chair in the collection of the museum and the influence of 18th-century English chairs with arms and the inspiration of more vernacular English ladder-backed chairs can be seen in the design for Jeppesen.

The chair is remarkably light, with the cross-section of the legs and stretchers reduced to the minimum but the chair retains strength through the careful design and position of mortice and tenon joints. Where the arm meets the back post it is swept up which not only makes the profile much more elegant but allows for a thin but tall tenon, to compensate, and the front post of the arm is taken down across the side frame of the seat to be housed into the rail between the front and back leg. This reinforces the side and provides extra strength where most needed … when standing up people instinctively put their hands down over the ends of the arm rests and push up meaning that the end of the arm takes all the weight. The vertical post is expanded below and behind the side rail of the seat without appearing to compromise the slenderness of the frame.

Despite its appearance of refined elegance, the chair is carefully designed for commercial production: the woven cane seat is on a frame that is constructed independently and then dropped in when the chair is finished or assembled.

Slender slats of the ladder back and the separate covered cushion for the seat and back also mean that not only does the chair appear to be lighter and simpler but it avoids a separate and, for many chairs, a complex stage of traditional fixed upholstery. 

Features such as the turned tops of the front legs and the back uprights and the simple loops of leather over the uprights holding the back cushion in place show how every detail of the design of the chair was refined.

Colonial chairs in the Library/Meeting room of the hotel, SP34, in Copenhagen

 

The Colonial Chair is still in production -
made for Carl Hansen & Son and in their catalogue as OW149.

width: 65 cm
height: 85 cm
height to front edge of seat: frame 36 cm / cushion 440 cm
depth: 68 cm

 

Chair J2991 by Ole Wanscher 1960

chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

Ole Wanscher (1903-1985)
made by A J Iversen

 

modern version of the Faaborg Chair designed by Kaare Klint and made by Rud. Rasmussen

 

From the late 1930s and all the way through to the last Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1966, A J Iversen showed furniture designed by Ole Wanscher.

A number of variations were produced of chairs in this style, one with a deeper back rest and another with a bowed front to the seat. This form of chair remained popular through the 50s and 60s - with the back rest running round into the arm rests and the curve supported at the front by the front legs taken up as posts. This gives the frame of the chair structural integrity so, although the legs are relatively thin and certainly elegant, the construction is so precise that stretchers can be omitted.

The upholstery for the seat is interesting with a thin pad with what appears to be an internal plywood frame with canvas webbing to form a thin profile and the main rails of the seat itself are relatively shallow so the chair is remarkably elegant … compare this with, for instance, the chair by Kaare Klint for the Thorvaldsen Museum with a deep seat rail to form a more robust chair or with the Faaborg Chair from 1914 to which it is obviously related.

In the view from below it becomes clear that the front, back and side rails of the seat are separate pieces that are housed into the legs. The back legs are set an angle so the square cross section of the legs are flush with the curve of the back and there are blocks of wood across the inside to reinforce the join where the wood of the frame of the seat is housed into the legs and these blocks also support the upholstered seat itself. Similarly, at the front, curved angle pieces or brackets reinforce the join of the side frame and front frame to the front post and again provide the main support for the seat.

The back rest and arms are formed from four pieces of wood with a tight zig-zag join and like several of the chairs designed by Wegner the back rest is thicker and vertical but where the wood curves round into the arm rests these are thinner and set flat but the effect it so subtle here that it is far less sculptural - far less dramatic. 

The outer ends of the arm rests swell out slightly in width and are rounded off. Perhaps the strongest feature is the continuous horizontal line of the underside of the back rest and arm rests that, with the straight and horizontal line of the front rail of the seat, gives the chair a certain sharpness or sense of line that marks it out clearly from work by Juhl or even from designs by Wegner. 

The front legs are vertical but above the front rail of the seat they taper in thickness and curve outwards slightly to the sides and the back legs or rather the back posts are curved for the full height in a gentle arc so their silhouette, with the leg curving out and away to the floor, is a late echo of the Klismos form.

In his review of the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1962, Bent Salicath in Dansk Kunsthåndværk makes an interesting comment on the furniture shown that year when Wanscher and Iversen showed a version of this chair in rosewood with a more pronounced bow to the front rail of the seat and there was a companion chair with the same frame and seat but a high-arched backrest that was upholstered and covered with leather:

"Ole Wanscher might be called the philologist of furniture making. His chairs are constructed with a stringency which seems almost grammatical, and they betray a great feeling for the linguistic qualities of the dimensioning. He devotes himself to bringing out clearly pronounced forms in his furniture." *

 

notes:

 * Quotation from Dansk Møbelkunst Gennem 40 År Volume 4, page 198

As a student, Ole Wanscher studied under Kaare Klint at the Danish School of Art and Design and then, from 1924 until 1927, worked with Klint before establishing his own office. On the death of Klint in 1955, Wanscher succeeded him as professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and remained there until his retirement in 1973.

A J Iversen was a major figure in the guild of cabinetmakers and he is recognised as one of the great furniture makers of the 20th century but this partnership with Wanscher can be seen, with hindsight, as marking the end of an era. Jacob Kjær, another major figure in the guild, had died in 1957 and this period is marked by increasing doubts and rising pressure as the furniture factories became more and more powerful and as the demand for good furniture meant more and more a demand for good design but at a price more people could afford.