chair for the museum in Faaborg by Kaare Klint 1914

Now, in many ways, this chair appears to be old fashioned - looking backward to earlier styles of furniture as a reinterpretation of an historic type of chair - but it should be seen to mark or define the start of a distinctly modern approach to furniture design.

Faaborg is a small town on the south coast of the island of Funen - just over 40 kilometres from Odense. A new museum there was founded in June 1910 to display the work of a group of artists known as the Funen painters and in 1912 it was the artists themselves who proposed that Carl Petersen should design a new gallery to be built along one side of the summer home and garden of Mads Rasmussen … a wealthy businessman who had made his fortune through canned food.

Petersen was a leading figure in the architectural movement known as New Classicism. That might sound like yet another or simply the next revival of a historic style but it was the architects of this group who instigated major changes as Danish architecture moved towards both Modernism and Functionalism. They included in their designs some of the features of classical architecture - so columns and cornices and mouldings inspired by classical buildings in Greece and Italy - but generally, and more important, they used an arrangement of identical rectangular windows across simple, regular and well-proportioned facades that provided an appropriate sense of order to new buildings of greater and greater length that were designed to exploit new structural forms possible when using concrete and a beam and post construction that normally dictated equally spaced bays. It was architecture that was, above all, rational and essentially mathematical … very much an intellectual exercise rather than to do with instinct or romanticism.

Kaare Klint joined Carl Petersen as an assistant in December 1913, as work on the new gallery started, and his first designs were for furniture for the archive - a room at the end of the sequence of new galleries with wide doors onto the garden. Drawings are dated February 1914 with designs for a sofa, bookcases, a bureau and chairs. 

The first working drawings for this chair for the main gallery are dated June 1914 and then a small model and a full-sized prototype were made.

The starting point for the design was a Danish form of chair known as a Klismos that had first appeared in the late 18th century and was derived from ancient chairs that were depicted on classical vases and sculpture. The distinctive feature was the legs that had a marked curve between the seat and the floor - almost as if the legs are splaying or sliding out at the ground under the weight of the person - and with the back legs continuing up above the seat as posts to support a sharply curved back rest.

Klint designed a chair that was a distinct improvement on earlier designs and was certainly much lighter both in weight and appearance than many versions … designed to be light so that it could be moved around the gallery by any visitor so they could sit down directly in front of a painting to study the work.

 

photographs taken at Designmuseum Danmark in the major exhibition from June 2014 through to October 2015 on the work of Kaare Klint

in the exhibition the prototype, with out-turned front legs and vertical back posts, was shown with the footstool designed by Klint to also be used in the galleries at the museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

designed by: Kaare Klint (1888-1954)
made by: N M Rasmussen, Rud. Rasmussen and N C Jensen Kjær

oak, cane, leather

height: 72 cm
width: 56 cm
depth: 57 cm
height of seat: 43 cm

The Faaborg Chair is still in production
and is now made by Carl Hansen & Son

Klint acknowledged that Petersen had suggested changes to the design and implied that the most serious discussions were about the way that the top of the back rest should or should not curve outwards.

Key dimensions of the chair fit within the system of the classical mathematical proportion known as a Golden Section or, by extension, Golden Rectangles so the overall radius of the arc of the back and the height from the ground to top of the seat rail are the same dimension and are directly related to the overall width of the front of the seat as a Golden proportion. Such a precise mathematical framework must surely have come from teaching by Petersen - by then a leading architect of the New Classical architecture movement in Denmark.

A model for the new chair was made but does not survive - lost in a fire - but there is a photograph of the model and it shows an early stage in the development of the design. In that model, Klint proposed that the back posts should be continued up, above the line of the back rest, with a higher parallel but shorter rail with a panel or plaque in the void between the two horizontal rails and that echoed a tripartite subdivision of the front rail of the seat that, in an early version, broke forward for the centre third but in the final version was removed and replaced with a simple flat and flush line for the front rail of the chairs that were made for the museum.

There was another and more significant change. A full-sized prototype has front legs that curve outwards below the seat … not forward as was found with a Klismos type … but out to the sides and the back legs in that version were vertical. In the final version the front legs are vertical and the back posts are splayed or curved out below the seat but because the posts are set at 45 degrees, on the arc of the back rest, the curve or splays run out at an angle. It is this detail of the construction that gives the chair a lighter and more elegant and stylish form where four straight and perfectly vertical legs could well have looked severe and actually too narrow and therefore, visually at least, potentially unstable.

The seat of the chair and the back rest and sides had split cane, in part to keep the chair as light as possible and, in part, to keep the chair visually as light and open as possible so that they did not form a hefty and dominant feature of the gallery. It has also been said that the back rail was kept simple and horizontal, rather than with a slope down the arm rest, so that again it did not draw the eye and distract from the paintings. For the same reason the wood of the frame was given a soft natural finish rather than the heavy varnished or dark polished finish more usual at that period.

 
 

Kaare Klint and Poul Henningsen were related by marriage and Klint gave Henningsen the important commission to design lighting for the Design Museum although that did not prevent a certain amount of banter from Henningsen.

There is a well-known photograph from 1927 in Kritisk Revy, the journal Henningsen published, where he is balancing a chair from Thonet on an outstretched hand.

Years later - in 1962 - Henningsen explained that it was, in fact, a comment on Klint and the Faaborg chair:  

"By making this chair five times as expensive, three times as heavy, half as comfortable, and a quarter as beautiful, an architect can very well win himself a name." He went on to say that he could not sit in the Faaborg chair "without becoming melancholy about the past. What pointed to the future in that chair was probably first and foremost thoroughly conceived and executed craftsmanship."

In English that is said to be damning with faint praise but actually the point about thorough conception and execution is a key to not only the subsequent work by Klint himself but is an important way to understand and appreciate the quality of modern Danish furniture both in design and through production.

The Red Chair by Kaare Klint 1927

chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

Chippendale stole / Chippendale chairs

 

A Red Chair by Klint shown in the design museum alongside an 18th-century Chippendale style chair

Designed by Kaare Klint for Kunstindustrimuseet - the Danish Museum of Art and Design - now Designmuseum Danmark.

A large version of the chair was used in the lecture theatre in the museum but there are two different and smaller versions to fit at a table or desk and also versions were made with arms - one with plain wood arms and another with padded or upholstered arm rests.

It is too easy now to dismiss this chair as 'old-fashioned' or at least not particularly relevant to what is happening now in modern chair design and that is, in part, simply because it is not a type or style of chair that is now popular.

Klint himself acknowledged how much the chair was inspired by a so-called Chippendale chair - an English chair that dates from the middle of the 18th-century and was in the collection of the museum when Klint taught there. That is, the Red Chair is inspired by the style of the earlier chair, that was well made, solid and sitting confidently and square to the floor, with a hard wood frame and upholstered seat but what is crucial is that in his reworking of the design Klint analysed and re-assessed the details of the construction so, for instance in the use of plain but carefully positioned stretchers between the legs of the chair that not only makes it stronger but gives it a balance as well as contributing to that sense that it is a well-set chair.

The Red Chair is also important because it has a carefully contrived simplicity - which means that it is carefully designed and is more complicated in its construction than might appear. It has a conventionally upholstered seat that is not straight, flat or horizontal but dips down at the front and the back legs are not set square or vertical but are angled back from the back of the seat so again making the chair much more stable but also making it more difficult to make. And the solid comfort of the chair also expresses a sense of quality … a sense that this is a sensible and robust chair for relatively heavy use in a public space but certainly not that it is a cheap chair.

What you see here is how Klint brought to his furniture design an almost clinical analysis of form and construction and that was new.

The chair was also produced in relatively large numbers so although it could not be described as a factory product it must have been seen as a significant and prestigious commission for the cabinetmaker Rud Rasmussen.

Rud Rasmussen included the chair with their work shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1931. A review of the exhibition noted that, unlike other contributors that year, Rasmussen and Klint did not show the furniture in a room setting but exhibited working drawings and photographs on the wall behind the furniture - so clearly this was a much more academic presentation.

A comment in the Copenhagen newspaper Politiken has resonance now for the reviewer of the exhibition pointed out that ….

"… the fact that Danish chairs have become more comfortable as well as more beautiful is an indication that we are on the right track. There are even a few new types which would have had great sales potential if only they had been created in a somewhat larger country than Denmark" *

… but he also went on to note that this chair had become a successful and profitable export piece. Klint designed a number of chairs that were a variation of the Red Chair and other designers also produced chairs of this Red Chair Type - discussed in a separate post.

 

note:

* quotation taken from Dansk Møbelkunst Gennem 40 År, volume 1 1927-1936, page 118

 

At least one set of the chairs was covered with red Niger goat skin - hence the name Red Chair.

The leather is stretched over the upholstery and nailed, with precisely-spaced nails along the bottom outward-facing edge of the seat and around the edge of the front of the back rest. The nails are each covered with leather and are a decorative feature that comes directly from the method of upholstery.

Seen from the underside, the upholstery of the seat is over a strong webbing and the thicker back rail means that the verticals of the back are clasped to make a stronger join.

Down the front and side of the front legs is a shallow but elegant and symmetrical wave moulding and the stretchers and cross rail have a shallow rounding so the frame appears to be simple and straightforward but has a subtle and understated finish from the cabinetmaker.

 

 

designed by Kaare Klint (1888-1954)

cabinetmaker Rud. Rasmussen

height: 90 cm
width: 58 cm
depth: 55 cm
height of seat: 46 cm

 

chair for Kvinderegensen by Rigmor Andersen 1931

chair in Designmuseum Danmark

Kvinderegensen, Amager Boulevard, Copenhagen

 

Chippendale stole / Chippendale chairs

 

After studying technical drawing for a year in 1922 Rigmor Andersen entered the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts where she was a student under Kaare Klint in the new School of Furniture and then, from 1929 to 1939, worked in Klint's studio. Her designs for the furniture for Kvinderegensen, a residence for women students on Amager Boulevard in Copenhagen was one of her first major projects and included this chair from 1931.

It was made by Rud Rasmussen, the cabinetmakers who produced much of the furniture designed by Kaare Klint, and is in mahogany with leather for the seat and back rest so immediately it is clear that this was a chair that was well made in an expensive imported wood and made to last … mahogany and leather are not just robust but age well. The chair is also unfussy and that seems to make sense when you find that it was made for an educational building.

The Kvinderegensen for female students was designed by Helge Bojsen-Møller and was completed in 1931 or 1932 in a stripped back, almost stark classical style in brick with good proportions … so rather like the chair, of it's period but anticipating the simple forms and reduction in decoration found in more recent design.

With the chair much depends on the quality of the cabinetmakers work with crisp sharp lines to the legs and stretchers with precise joins and with a neat crisp chamfer along the bottom front edge of the frame of the seat and down the inner edge of the legs where the chamfer runs out at the top precisely where it meets the frame. In part, this is a visible demonstration of the time and care spent making the chair but it also has a visual impact giving the wood a crisp line along the edge where the light catches the angle of the chamfer. It works in the same way that a bead or very thin rounded moulding works along the edge of a drawer that insets into the frame of the carcase or a thin quadrant moulding works on the edge of a door or drawer that stands proud of the frame. It is like putting a thin but strong line in darker pencil on a drawing to reinforce the edge of a shape or volume and here gives the chair a sharper or more precise outline.

 

designed by Rigmor Andersen (1902-1995)
made by the cabinetmaker Rud. Rasmussen

height: 116 cm
width: 48 cm
depth: 43 cm
height to front of seat: 43 cm

 

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