chair by Søren Hansen 1943

chair in Designmuseum Danmark

From the late 1920s and through into the 1940s, the furniture manufacturer Fritz Hansen Etft experimented with new materials and tried out new manufacturing methods. They made chairs with frames in steamed and bent wood, producing several chairs based on chairs produced by Thonet in Austria from the middle of the 19th century with a bentwood frame for the seat and bentwood legs with a plain seat cut from plywood and without upholstery.

This chair, designed by Søren Hansen, uses plywood in a much more ambitious and much more obvious and prominent way. 

The boldly-shaped back of the chair was cut from plywood and bent into a curve around the bentwood frame of the seat and then fixed in place with screws. It might appear to be rather crude in form and it looks as if it would spring apart or even collapse if you lent back in the chair but the design is relatively strong with the arm rests made from a single piece of bent wood that loops around behind the back to provide support.

Søren Hansen was a grandson of the founder of the furniture company and, with his brother, took over control of the company in the 1950s so it would seem that he took this interest in plywood or laminated wood forward so the shape of the plywood back should look vaguely familiar ..… surely this is an early version or a preliminary stage of a shape that was to develop ultimately into the more sophisticated and much more famous Chair 7 by Arne Jacobsen? The main difference is that the back of this chair by Hansen is curved in just one plane and it must have taken quite a few trials and experiments before the workshop could perfect the complex form of the later shell chairs that are curved in two planes to form a seat and back together in a single piece of plywood.

The year of the design also explains, in part, the reasons for the experiments with plywood and bentwood for making chairs. Through the Second World War, good high-quality timber for making furniture was scarce and of course the situation meant that most people were spending much less or no money on new furniture. But, actually, the war also saw rapid improvements in cutting and shaping plywood as it was used for building light-weight planes and boats with thin sheets of laminated wood pinned over a wood frame. Alvar Aalto had designed several chairs in the 1930s that used bent plywood but with the curves in a single plane … essentially a long scroll … but it was in the United States that the designers Charles and Ray Eames developed designs of shell-shaped chairs in plywood and plastic in the late 1940s and early in the 1950s.

 

designed by Søren Hansen (1905-1977)
made by Fritz Hansen Eftf

steam-bent arms and plywood seat and back ash
height: 86cm
width: 53cm
depth: 53cm

Portex Arm Chair  by Peter Hvidt and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen  1945

designed by Peter Hvidt (1916-1986) and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen (1907-1986)
made by Fritz Hansen Etft

frame beech - front legs turned - back posts steam bent

height: 80cm
width: 61cm
depth: 62cm

The Portex range of furniture was designed to be exported, so there was a desk where the legs could be unscrewed and shipped in the desk drawer, although this chair, actually, was shipped assembled. The designers themselves explained exactly why and in doing so explain functional aspects of the chair that were taken into account in its design.

"While we realized the necessity of being able to dismantle or fold up cupboards, tables and beds during transport, we did not dare use these principles for chairs. A chair screwed together that might be quite stiff to begin with will never in the long run be able to stand up to the stress that it will invariably be subjected to. A chair must often bear great weight, must be able to tolerate being tilted, and will be moved more or less brutally throughout the day. The screw would work in its hole under these stresses, and in the end will loosen. The stacking principle was chosen since it has the advantage that the chair could be assembled and finished at the factory. The disadvantage was that the known stacking chairs shows clear signs that they can be stacked."

The chair was inspired by a Shaker chair although, unlike Shaker chairs, it can be stacked. 

The frame of the seat is interesting with main cross bars between the front legs and between the back posts with the plywood seat over-sailing the front frame rather than being set into a rebate - so making the thin seat a distinct feature. There are timbers running front to back on each side, at an angle, to form the trapezium shape of the seat so that back legs of a chair on top can be slotted down on either side of the seat below when the chairs are stacked. These pieces of timber for the frame are much taller than they are thick - in part because the cross pieces have to be housed into legs with a round rather than a square cross section - so the thickness has to be limited - but it also keeps the frame as light as possible although this was clearly still a fairly robust chair … chairs that can be stacked tend to come in for rather more rough treatment than chairs left in place around a table or left permanently in rows in a meeting room.

 

chair by Børge Mogensen 1949

 

As with the almost contemporary FH1936 chair by Hans Wegner - this chair has an elegant frame in wood that forms a base for the plywood back … here with a back in relatively thin plywood that was cut to shape and sections were  cut out so that the back could be bent round to a more pronounced curve and then held in place with tabs that are glued down into slots in the seat.

Faced in cherry, this was not cheap plywood but presumably it was presented at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition to prove that plywood was an appropriate material for more expensive furniture.

 

designed by Børge Mogensen (1914-1972)
made by Erhard Rasmussen
shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1949

cherry and teak

height: 75cm
width: 47cm
depth: 54cm
height of seat: 39cm

 

Metropolitanstolen / Metropolitan Chair by Axel Bender Madsen and Ejnar Larsen 1949

 

designed by Axel Madsen (1916-2000) and Ejnar Larsen (1917-1987)
made by Ludvig Pontoppidan
shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1949

height: 76cm
width: 56cm
depth: 44cm
height of seat: 44cm

The frame of the seat is interesting with side pieces that have a very pronounced inward curve. When seen from a normal viewpoint this reduces the bulk of the frame and emphasises the thin piece of plywood that forms the seat and makes the chair look lighter and more elegant.

Here the back and the arm rests of the chair are in a single piece of shaped and curved plywood. This is cut from a single sheet and bent and held in place by screws driven down into the tops of the legs with the screw heads covered by plugs of wood.

The shape is reminiscent of the changes in plane of the back and arm rests of The Chair (The Round Chair) by Hans Wegner from the same year although in that chair the back rest and arms of The Chair are in solid timber - rather than in plywood -  cut with the sections joined to achieve the propeller like twist in the shape. *

note

 * The first version of The Chair had a seat woven in cane but a year later a version with an upholstered seat was produced. What is interesting is that in that relatively expensive chair, the seat was not given traditional upholstery that would have either been taken over the frame of the seat, destroying the clean lines and elegant curves, or it might have had an upholstered cushion dropped into the frame instead of the cane work but that would have been baulky. The solution was to use a sheet of plywood resting on simple metal tabs, fixed on the inside edge of the frame just below the top, with a padding over the plywood - presumably in the original chair with hair but now foam - that was then covered with leather.