Ax chair by Peter Hvidt and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen 1947

Ax Chair in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 
FH6135.jpeg
FH6135 detail.jpeg

Chair FH6135 by Peter Hvidt and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen 1959. Copyright for the images auction site Lauritz.com

 

This is an interesting chair because rather than forming a plywood shell, it uses laminated and moulded wood for the chair seat and the back rest that are supported between frames of laminated and bent beech in a form but not a style reminiscent of the chairs by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto from the 1930s.

The Ax series that included a number of chairs and tables was some of the first Danish furniture to be made after the War that was aimed specifically at the export market. Many of the pieces were designed so that they could be packed as parts and then assembled at the destination and in the 1950s furniture made in Denmark in more expensive woods such as teak or mahogany tended to be exported rather than sold to the home market.

Two chairs were made in this form - one narrower, the height and width for a traditional dining chair, and this design wider and lower as an easy chair.

Both had the distinctive feature of paired stretchers set parallel, one above the other, both between the front legs and between the back legs. These stretchers are turned - round in cross section, slightly tapered and shaped at the ends - and brace and hold together the two side sections of the frame. Those side frames are strong enough for the stretchers to be omitted.

The form of the bentwood side frames is important as Hvidt and Mølgaard-Nielsen developed a specific method of building up layers of laminate around a solid core - in mahogany or teak - rather like the way the handle of a tennis racket with a wood frame is joined to the laminated loop of the racket head. The most distinct example of this type of lamination is for the chair they designed for Fritz Hansen in 1959 - the FH6135 - where, to describe it crudely, four V-shapes in laminated and bent wood are fixed together around a solid diamond-shaped core to form an X that is the side frame of the chair.

A  triangular core in solid wood and the laminate bending and curving away on either side can be seen clearly but in a rather more subtle and rather less decorative way at the top of the front legs of the Ax Chair.

This detail contributes to the flowing or unbroken lines of the side view that is a distinct feature of the design. Note the way that the bottom edges of the side pieces for the seat are slightly chamfered across the front and this chamfer runs down unbroken into a curve that runs back under the side piece and then down the front leg just at the point where the fingers of a person sitting in the chair would grip the front edge of the seat as they are transferring their weight and standing up from the chair … a small but good example of ergonomics, careful design and high-quality manufacturing coming together in a carefully thought through detail and, in part, reflects that both designers trained as cabinet makers.

The front of the legs is not flat but they have a slight convex finish that in part shows the quality of the work but in part also makes a virtue out of a necessity because with laminated wood it is actually better not to try to achieve a crisp sharp angle to the edge or have a square-cut end to a piece as that can split or break away in use or with knocks or damage.

 
Chair, 1932, by Alvar Aalto

cantilevered chair by Alvar Aalto c. 1930 with seat, back and arm rests from a single piece of wood and with a tubular metal frame

 

In the Ax Chair the arm rests are distinctive. A chair from the 1930s designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto had a similar form of arm rest with what appears to be a slit cut through the wood and the seat bent down in an L shape to follow the seat and back but the outer part bent up to form the L shape of the arm rest - a horizontal part for the arm and elbow and the vertical part running back down to the seat - but in the Aalto chair that was all done - seat, backrest and arm rest - in a single piece of plywood whereas here it is the bentwood beech frame that is split and shaped.

In some books, the design of the Ax Chair is dated to 1947 but dated 1950 for the first production.

With the separate moulded seat and moulded back, in laminated wood, the design echoes the type designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1940s although the chairs are obviously very different in style. The Ax chairs seem somehow more traditional and more tightly controlled - more conservative - in comparison although they were certainly successful in terms of sales.

 

beech and mahogany bent frame

laminated teak seat and back

made by Fritz Hansen

 

height: 75cm

width: 62cm

depth: 71cm

height of seat: 38cm

Trinidad Chair by Nanna Ditzel 1993

 

 

The Trinidad Chair is one of the most distinct and most unusual of modern Danish chairs made in plywood. It was designed by Nanna Ditzel and was given that name because the fretwork of facades in Trinidad, seen by her on trips to the island, had been the initial inspiration for the design.

It has a low, simple but elegant frame in metal tube and the seat and the back rest of the chair are cut from separate pieces of laminated wood that are both in a fan shape that is almost reminiscent of the shape of a segment of a citrus fruit. Both backrest and seat are cut through with precisely cut slits that are fanned out gently across the shape.

Both the seat and the back rest are fixed to the frame with large flat rivets but what is striking is that the metal frame of the back is not taken across the top of the back rest but is set low and holds the bottom edge of the back rest to give the chair a form of construction and a silhouette that has a lightness and elegance that is unique in Danish chairs.

There are versions of the Trinidad with arm rests and options for an upholstered pad for the seat.

Made by the Danish furniture company Fredericia, the chair came originally in a number of wood finishes including maple, cherry, beech, birch and walnut but there are now options for colours for both the wood and the metal frame and the chair has just been released in new colours - a palette of soft warm greys selected by the Swedish design blogger Pella Hedeby - to mark the 25th anniversary of its launch.

Fredericia

 

Trinidad Chair in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

 

height: 85cm

width: 48.5cm

depth: 57cm

height of seat: 45.5cm

weight: 4kg

 

A bar stool version with smaller seat and back has a seat height of 76.5cm

Arne Jacobsen Arkitekt & Designer

 
 

Arne Jacobsen Architect & Designer, Poul Erik Tøjner and Kjeld Vindum, Dansk Design Center 1999.

Normally reviews here are for books that are still in print but this is a really good general introduction to the buildings and the furniture and fittings that were designed by Arne Jacobsen and it can still be found second hand.

It was published by the Danish Design Center to coincide with a retrospective exhibition.

The format is interesting with the pages 240mm wide by 229mm, when bound and trimmed, so a double-page spread is almost a double square.

Those double-page spreads are used well with most covering a single building or single theme and with the use of whole page images and the use of bleed off to good effect.

There is a good use of black and white photographs including historic images. Of course black and white photographs were more prolific in book production to control print costs but black and white images can also have distinct qualities in high lighting shape and form where sometimes colour can be a distraction and for many buildings black and white images heighten the drama of a space … often by bringing stronger emphasis to lines and edges.

All text and captions are in both Danish and English but used cleverly in columns with captions either stacked in a singe narrow column or actually divided to the margins of facing pages if appropriate so this is fairly subtle and you rarely have the impression that you are reading half a book.

There are a number of interviews that are spread through the book but distinguished by being printed on a pale grey paper. These provide a real insight into the working practice of Jacobsen from people who worked with the architect and many who worked with him over many years and on many projects.

These include Erik Olsen and Ove Hansen - who had worked with Jacobsen on the lighting produced by Louis Poulsen - Hansen was the chief engineer for Louis Poulsen - Verner Panton who worked in the Jacobsen design office - M Folmer Anersen who was the engineering consultant on several projects and Henning Simony who worked for Novo and collaborated with Jacobsen on the buildings he designed for the company.

Sandor Perjesi was a sculptor who worked with Jacobsen on the full-sized plaster models for the chairs for the SAS Royal Hotel and Peter Lassen worked on project development with Fritz Hansen and there are interviews with the men who worked with Jacobsen on the design and construction of St. Catherine's College in Oxford including Lord Bullock and Jack Lankester from the university and Knud Holscher who managed the project on site in Oxford.

There are some fascinating revelations that focus on Jacobsen's approach to design and work methods so for instance building projects were presented to clients with beautiful water colour drawings - several books of Jacobsen's water color paintings and studies from nature have been published - but furniture designs started with a small and often very rough sketch and then evolved through a series of models from the workshops of the companies that were then edited by Jacobsen and sent back for revisions … often many and many small revisions.

Niels Jørgen Haugesen, worked with Jacobsen on a chair design using plaster models in the same way that Jacobsen worked when he was designing The Egg and The Swan. He makes the brilliant point that Jacobsen taught him "about form; about the link between eye and hand - about seeing a piece of furniture both as sculpture and a functional object." (see page 108)

In several interviews it is stated that Jacobsen could be very critical and was very certain about what he wanted but was usually right and several designers make the point that few of his designs were unique or revolutionary in their initial conception but that he was very clear about how a form or a technique could be developed and how in that process he imposed his specific and personal aesthetic. It is also clear that, although many might assume that he completely controlled projects from his design office, that was not done by doing everything himself or by not letting things go but by either inspiring or demanding loyalty. Perhaps on major projects like the SAS Royal Hotel or the National Bank in Copenhagen, that was the only way that so much could be achieved in a relatively short time … was Jacobsen like Leonard Bernstein … a composer but also a great if difficult conductor?

The book ends with an interesting text from an interview with Arne Jacobsen that was published in the newspaper Politiken in February 1971 … interesting because Jacobsen rarely talked at length about his work and rarely talked about theory or aesthetics and this was published just a month before his death.

There is also a short bibliography and a useful chronological list of works that incorporates basic biographical information.

shell chairs in laminated wood by Arne Jacobsen

Ant Chair 1952,  The Tongue 1955,  chair model 3105 for Munkegård Elementary School 1955

Series 7 1955,  Side Chair 3103 from 1955,  Grand Prix 1957 ... all in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

 

Looking through recent posts on this site about Danish chairs from the 20th century a major and obvious omission from the list are the shell chairs in laminated wood that were designed by Arne Jacobsen in the 1950s.

It was an amazing and productive decade for the architect when he was working on major buildings but still designing housing. Work on Munkegård Elementary School in Copenhagen started in 1951 and was completed in 1956;  the Town Hall in Rødovre was completed in 1956 and the Town Hall in Glostrup was completed in 1959. Jacobsen designed major commercial and industrial buildings in this period - including an office building for A Jespersen & Son in the centre of Copenhagen - where work started in 1952 and finished in 1955 - the Christensen factory in Aalborg and a pharmaceutical factories for Novo Industri A/S in Copenhagen and for a new site at Bagsværd to the north of the city centre and from 1955 through to 1960, Jacobsen was working on the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen.

He designed several major housing schemes in that same period with both the Alléhusene housing complex and the  Jespersen row houses built in the area close to the railway station at Jægersborg - a growing suburb in the north part of Copenhagen where Jacobsen had designed housing in the 1940s - and there was a second phase of building on the coast  at Klampenborg - with the Søholm houses built just south of the Bellevue theatre and the Bellavista apartments that Jacobsen had designed in the 1930s.

For prestigious public buildings Jacobsen designed specific, custom-made, furniture but he also worked on more commercial designs with a growing demand for modern, well-designed furniture for the home. Jacobsen designed a series of shell chairs in laminated wood in collaboration with Fritz Hansen - the well-established Danish furniture manufacturer - that could be used in commercial and public buildings but were also increasingly popular for use in ordinary homes.

These chairs included model FH3100 known as the Ant Chair that was designed in 1952; model FH3102 or The Tongue - a small chair for children designed originally for Munkegård School in Copenhagen but later made in a larger version; from 1955 model FH3105 - another chair produced for Munkegård - and from that same year model FH3103 with a more pronounced curve between the seat and the back with a broader and deeper and squarer upper part to provide better support for the lower back and the shoulder blades.

The Series 7 - model FH3107 - the most famous of these laminated chairs - also dates from 1955 and is still the best-selling chair produced by Fritz Hansen.

Then, last in this series of shell chairs, the Grand Prix - model FH4130 - designed in 1957 and made in several versions.

The form of these chairs - with a moulded shell in laminated wood - divides them - visually and, in terms of construction and manufacture, into two distinct parts with a seat and back to the chair in one material - the shell in laminated and moulded wood - and a base or support that was made separately in another material.

This clear division of the production process could be exploited because it allowed the manufacturer to make different versions of a chair by providing options for distinctly different bases that changed not just the character of the chair but often also the way that the chair was used and where it was used …

  • most of the chairs could be purchased with thin metal legs that were bent under the shell and held in place on a fixing plate. These legs were compact and light in weight so the chairs could be used in a house or in a small apartment as a dining chair or a general chair
  • for several of the designs, there was an option for a support of legs in bentwood if a customer preffered a chair that looked more traditional
  • nearly all the chairs could be stacked and, although they were light, they were surprisingly robust, and came to be used in offices and canteens and meeting rooms
  • for several of the shaped and moulded chairs, there were options for a single vertical metal column that could be fixed in tiered rows for seating in a lecture theatre
  • most of the chairs had an option for a cross-shaped metal base, usually light-weight aluminium, that could be fitted with a swivel mechanism and/or castors for use at a desk so they could be used as an office chair
  • and - most unlikely of all - the simple and compact shell of the Tongue chair, designed initially as a chair for a child, was upholstered in leather and set on a high fixed metal column with a swivel mechanism for a bar stool at the SAS Royal Hotel.

These chairs are deceptively simple but, in production, the moulding process presented challenges.

The chairs that were designed by Alvar Alto and manufactured in Finland from the 1930s were the first Nordic designs to exploit the properties of laminated and moulded wood in the commercial production of furniture. The layers of wood veneer were curved into different forms under pressure so the shape was 'remembered' when the wood was taken from the press but although those chairs by Alto had the seat and back from a single piece of laminated wood, the curve was in one plane so that it formed, in effect, a scroll.

Trying to mould the laminated wood into more complex curves, either hollow or convex and in both directions across the shell, Fritz Hansen put the material under considerably more stress.

The challenges might seem to be relatively simple …

  • to use the thinnest possible gauge of plywood to stop the piece from looking crude or being heavy
  • to source high quality, unblemished and even or consistent veneer … plywood for construction can have patches or uneven colour but for these chairs the shell was just sanded and finished to maintain the natural qualities of the timber so a good or an interesting grain pattern can also be important
  • to bend as sharp a curve as possible between the seat and the back without the facing layers of the finished shell delaminating - so folding on the inner face of a curve or splitting on the outer face
  • to create complex curves that were hollow or concave front to back - so it was not like sitting on a plank - but also curved across the width, so from side to side which, in effect, anticipates the curve under the weight of a person sitting down - to avoid that feeling of it sinking in like sitting down on, or rather, in a canvas chair
  • to create those complex curves without cutting into and overlapping sections of the shell
  • to develop ways of fixing the thin shell to any form of leg or support … you cannot fix a leg unit with screws through the leg and straight into the shell from below, because the shell is too thin, but if you fix screws or bolts from above, driven down into the leg or base, then those are exposed and you would be sitting on the screw or bolt heads

On that last point, the first version of the Grand Prix had four L-shaped and moulded leg pieces stuck to the underside of the shell with a glue developed for that purpose but, I presume, under stress, the glue delaminated the facing layer of the shell so in later versions the design was changed to a cross-shaped and self-supporting framework of legs that was fixed to a plywood plate at the centre of the underside of the seat in a similar way to the fixing of the metal legs.

For comfort, there must have been extensive trials to adjust the flexibility of the shell and the strength, weight and flexibility of the legs or base - particular where the chair has legs in thin bent tube metal. Too flexible and the chair would feel unstable but too rigid and it would be like plonking down on a park bench. The chairs also use rubber spacers or buffers set further out from the centre fixing plate to hold the legs free of the shell; provide some control to the flexibility of the shell and also stop the legs torqueing or twisting or shifting round.

L1170907.jpg

The view of the underside of a Series 7 Chair shows just how complex and how subtle the design of the shaping of the metal legs is with the cross pieces of the legs under the seat protruding beyond the edge of the seat - so that the chairs could be stacked - and with the metal curved downwards towards the centre to follow the shape of the moulded seat rather than sitting against it. The legs are also angled outwards - rather than being set vertical - which in part makes the chair appear lighter and more elegant - strictly vertical legs can look basic or stolid - but also provides extra stability for a light chair.

There is an interesting but more general point about the shell chairs designed by Jacobsen and made by Fritz Hansen. We are now so familiar with major Scandinavian design companies like Muuto or Normann producing chairs with a range of bases and a range of colours and covers along with options for plain shells or upholstered versions, that we no longer see that as unusual - or, actually, we take that for granted because we expect a number of options when choosing a design. Before these chairs were produced by Fritz Hansen in the 1950s, chairs were designed as a complete or self-contained entity with production in relatively small numbers but, if there were options or variations, it might be that a different material could be used for the frame - so asking for a chair to be made in mahogany rather than oak for instance - or would be limited to selecting leather rather than textile for an upholstered chair.

At most, the scale of a chair might be adapted for a later version so Rud Rasmussen produced the Red Chair designed by Kaare Klint in a smaller size as a dining chair where the original, was wider with more generous proportions, designed for the meeting room at the Design Museum. Chairs like the Thonet Chair from Austria, produced through the second half of the 19th century, was made in large numbers and was made to be transported in parts and assembled on delivery but that was unusual and there were different models or different styles but no options within each type of chair. Several of the chairs designed  at the Bauhaus were conceived as relatively cheap furniture of a high quality of design for a large market but politics and events overtook their wider marketing and Alto, through the company Artek, certainly understood the commercial potential of marketing and international sales but it was the American company Herman Miller, marketing the designs of Charles and Ray Eames, and Fritz Hansen marketing the designs of Arne Jacobsen who really established the potential for large-scale production of well-designed furniture in the years through the late 1940s and the 1950s.

Republic of Fritz Hansen

note:

Shell chairs for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen - including the Egg and the Swan - were designed in this same period - in the mid 1950s - but were made in foam and upholstered so presented different problems and resulted in a very different aesthetic so they will be the subject of a separate set of posts.

FH3100 / Myren / The Ant Chair by Arne Jacobsen 1952

Ant Chair in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

The Ant Chair was designed for the canteen of Novo Industry - the pharmaceutical company - or rather - the story is that Arne Jacobsen had designed the chair but Fritz Hansen were not convinced that it was viable commercially. When a director from Novo visited the drawing office to discuss work on the design of new buildings for Novo and admired the chair, he asked Jacobsen about the design. Jacobsen told him it was for the canteen at the new factory and so secured an order for 200 that convinced Fritz Hansen that the design should go into production.

This was not an industrial design, as such, but the design for an industrially manufactured chair for everyday use.

It was launched by Fritz Hansen on the 24 October 1952, on the 80th anniversary of the company, and was shown first at the Danish Society of Arts and Crafts exhibition in Zurich and then at the Danish Museum of Decorative Arts in January 1953.

When the chair first went into production there was a choice from four types of plywood - beech, oak, walnut and teak - and a version finished with black lacquer. Later palisander and Oregon pine were added to the range and there was a version with coloured felt glued to the front face of the seat and the back.

Jacobsen designed the chair with three legs and despite requests for a version with four legs, he objected to the idea and it could not be put into production until after he died.

The legs in steel are held in place at the centre of the underside of the chair with rubber spacers so that they do not sit against the plywood but also to stop the legs twisting or moving sideways if someone using the chair shifts their weight.

The Ant was the first Danish chair that was made with a single shell in plywood that is curved in both planes to form a  seat and back in a single piece of laminated wood.

Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen experimented by cutting slits into the plywood to form a complex shell but Jacobsen achieved a sharp curve between the seat and back while also forming spoon-shaped hollow curves across the width of the seat and the back by reducing the width of the shape at the centre. That is the simple if unromantic reason for the distinct shape of the chair.

The Ant Chair is light in weight and stacks so it was used in public spaces like meeting rooms and lecture rooms. People remark that the chair has a decorative effect particularly when a number are set out in a space together in rows which creates a strong and undulating pattern reminiscent of fish scales.

In an interview Jacobsen revealed that he had considered using plastic rather than plywood but had rejected the idea because it would have made the chair too expensive - mainly because production of a moulded plastic shell requires an investment in expensive machinery.

made by Fritz Hansen and still in production

 

laminated wood shell (plywood)

legs in tube steel

a version was made with the legs covered with light grey fluted plastic

 

height: 77cm

width: 51cm

depth: 51cm

height of seat: 44cm

Chair 3105 - the Munkegård chair by Arne Jacobsen 1955

 

A small and elegant chair designed by Arne Jacobsen for Munkegård School in Copenhagen. It is sometimes referred to as The Mosquito.

Versions were produced by Fritz Hansen in beech, teak and stained black. The chair has been in production several times but is not currently available.

Jacobsen designed the elementary school that was completed in 1957 and, as with so many of his major projects, he designed so much more than the structure, designing the paving and planting of the courtyards, fittings including lighting and, with the chairs, Jacobsen also designed a school desk in plywood with a metal frame. The design of the desk has a simple flat top or writing surface that is bent to run down the back and then back under the top to form a shelf for books. The front edge of the shelf was turned down in the same way that the front edge of the chair seats was angled down to protect the back of the legs. The frame of the desks also included a hook on one side for hanging a school bag.

 

 

height: 77cm

width: 40.5cm

depth: 47cm

height of seat: 42.5cm but also lower versions made with a height of 36cm and 40cm

 

Chair 3103 by Arne Jacobsen 1955

 

 

The chair was designed by Arne Jacobsen in collaboration with Dr E Snorrason who gave advice on how to improve the lumbar support provided by the back of the chair. There is a sharper and more pronounced curve at the base of the back and the top of the back has a more generous width to support the shoulder blades.

The initial version made by Fritz Hansen was produced using a plywood faced with teak ... then popular and normally implying a more expensive piece of furniture. 

With fairly straight sides to the seat and angled front corners rather than a smooth curve, the chair is more angular than the other shell chairs by Jacobsen - almost octagonal.

There was a version of the chair with a swivel frame with wheels so that it could be used as an office or desk chair.

 

 

height: 62cm

width: 34cm

depth: 37cm

height of seat: 42.5cm

smaller versions of the chair with seat heights of 36cm and 34cm were made for children.

FH4130 / Grand Prix by Arne Jacobsen 1957

Grand Prix in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

The chair was shown at the XI Triennial in Milan in 1957 - where the design was awarded the Grand Prix from which it takes its name - and then shown at Charlottenborg, in Copenhagen, later in the same year.

In the original version the shell was made with a teak or beech finish or the chair could be upholstered.

The shape of the back is closely related to the FH3103 but here, rather than a straight line across the top of the back, the back has a truncated or stumpy Y shape that makes it, somehow, almost anthropomorphic.

There is a pronounced scooping out to the shape of the seat and at the front a pronounced down turn or lip.

Initially the chair had four separate legs that were L shaped and in laminated beech with a strong moulding to the cross section presumably, in part, to make it look less solid or less heavy. The legs mimicked the profile of the metal legs on the other shell chairs so were angled out towards the floor and at the top were curved but under the seat they were shaped to form a long hammer or hockey-stick shape to form as long a face as possible along the top for the legs to be glued to the underside of the shell. This proved to be unstable - presumably under the weight of a person the centre of the seat moved down or the legs splayed out and even if the glue of the leg held then the face layer of the plywood would presumably split away from the layer below.

 

 

The design was changed and the individual legs were replaced with two n-shaped pieces of steam-bent beech that cross at the centre where they are halved over each other to form a robust join and fixed to a circular plywood plate at the centre of the underside of the moulded shell. That form is closely related to the frame of legs in wood made for the Giraffe - the dining chair that Jacobsen designed for the SAS Royal Hotel.

A version of the Grand Prix chair with steel legs was also produced and in catalogues is identified as model FH3130.

 

 

height: 78cm

width: 48cm

Depth: 51cm

height of seat: 42.5

Chair 406 by Alvar Aalto 1939

 

Alvar Aalto produced several variations on the design of the Paimio cantilever chair of 1932 including versions with upholstered or padded seat and back. Chair 406 - designed in 1939 -  is interesting because Aalto reused the design of the cantilevered bentwood frame from the earlier Paimio cantilevered chair but with webbing woven across the frame for the seat and back rest rather than moulded plywood.

This seems to acknowledge the limitations when it was still only possible to curve plywood in one plane … so forming what is, in effect, a scroll shape along the length to form a seat that then curves up to form the back from a single piece of plywood but without also being able to scoop or hollow out the profile across the width of the seat.

The main part of the cantilevered frame of the 406 is a simple elongated H (172cm by 57cm) in laminated wood with the uprights of the H bent to form the runners, the front supports, arm rests and short uprights on either side of the back rest. These main lengths are rectangular in cross section - 1 inch by 2¼ inches (25mm x 57mm) and set flat for maximum strength and flexibility. The crossbar of the H supports the seat and the frame thins down immediately above that cross bar where the curves are tighter and slightly more flexibility is required.

A simple and separate rectangular frame (110cm by 46cm) for the webbing, is bent to a shallow curved shape that forms the seat and the back rest of the chair. The webbing is two inches wide and is taken across the frame and returned underneath and round and nailed or, in the modern chairs, stapled onto the inward facing edge of the frame.

The only other piece of timber is a stretcher, fixed across the back with screws, just above the seat to keep the side pieces of the frame a consistent distance apart and parallel where otherwise they could be forced inwards with the weight of a person sitting in the chair pressing down into the webbing and potentially moving the sides together.

There are remarkably few points of contact between these two parts - between the side frames and the frame of webbing that forms the seat and back and with the pronounced cantilever it reinforces the impression of the seat being suspended in space. Where the seat rests across the cross bar there are long screws - one on each side - that are countersunk and fix the seat frame in place from below and at the top of the arm rests, where the side frames are nearly vertical and running parallel to the back rest, they are fixed together with, I presume, hidden or blind dowels rather than taking a bolt or screw through to link the pieces.

The cross bar of the H-shaped frame and the corners of the frame of the seat / back are fixed with simple butted joins that are glued and again there must be hidden dowels through to fix and hold square the separate pieces. This form of construction is simple and honest and takes straightforward skills, with the holes drilled and controlled by jigs or patterns, but cabinetmaking skills are not required. The form and construction of the chair reflects honestly that it was designed to be made in a factory system rather than in a cabinetmakers' workshop.

details of the frame - from the top, the front of the seat from the side and from above and the front edge of the seat from underneath to show there is a single countersunk screw on each side to fix the seat to the crossbar of the frame

 

That does not stop this being a sophisticated and elegant chair. The design has a clarity and deceptive simplicity with precise curves and the angles of the front and arm rests giving the chair a much less angular profile than the comparable Bauhaus chairs in tube metal … so, for instance, the seat is not simply folded but rises up slightly towards the front and then dips down slightly once over the cross bar and the top bar of the back rest is gently curved.

There are clear contrasts with Danish furniture. The 406 has a good sitting position with high back support but it is not a chair in which to move around and, although the design is good looking and dramatic, it is certainly not to be seen from back.

It is a relatively light chair that weighs just 6 kilograms - although, for comparison, the Wishbone Chair by Hans Wegner weighs just 4 kilograms - and in some ways the chair is similar to but not strictly comparable with the Safari Chair - because it does not fold - but it is light and informal and certainly is good for use on a terrace or balcony although, with the webbing, obviously not weather proof.

 

Alvar Aalto Paimio Sanatorium

 

This small exhibition - described by Designmuseum Danmark as a "pop-up exhibition" - is based around two chairs from the permanent collection - Armchair No 42 and the Paimio Chair - also known as The Ring Chair - designed by Alvar Aalto and both used in the Paimio Sanatorium. The hospital in south-west Finland designed by Aalto was built specifically for the treatment of patients with tuberculosis - and was completed in 1933.

The chairs are displayed with historic photographs and copies of drawings that have been selected to show how important the hospital was and to put those two chairs in context.

Aalto was born in February 1898 so he was four years older than Arne Jacobsen. The exhibition does not compare directly the work of the two architects but there are marked and very important similarities. They grew up and then studied as architects in a period of massive social, political and economic changes in Europe and in a period that saw rapid advances in technology and industrial production that had a huge impact on architecture and furniture design. Political changes were more dramatic for Aalto because Finland only emerged as a nation, independent from both Sweden and Russia, in 1918 after a revolution.

 

Both architects, through the 1920s and through their first commissions, absorbed and readily adapted their designs to building in the relatively new material of concrete and the new techniques of construction that went with that material … so generally buildings with piers in concrete that supported concrete floors and, as a consequence, with freedom to experiment with external and internal walls that were no longer load bearing and with few restrictions in terms of height in buildings that could be constructed quickly.

Crucially, both architects worked on all aspects of a project … so not just the plan and structure of a building but all details of windows, door handles, light fittings and, for both men, designs for furniture.

They each achieved a uniform aesthetic in their buildings, and that was important, but it was also driven by the need for efficiency and an attempt to rationalise construction and manage costs - to produce as much as possible off site and to reduce the number of variations and options for the same reasons … so what became important was how they put together the parts and that was determined by function and not a hierarchy of fittings as in so many public and domestic buildings before the 20th century.

 

Here, in this exhibition, the two chairs show how Aalto was at the forefront of technical developments in furniture manufacture. His grandfather was a forester and taught at the Evo Forest Institute south of Tampere and Aalto himself developed a specific technique of cutting down into a length of squared-off timber, interlayering with thin slips of wood inserted into the cuts and with glue and steam bending and formed the timber for the frame for chairs and tables and other furniture.

He was one of the first designers to exploit and develop the use of plywood which again was bent - rather than used as flat sheets - to create a continuous surface for the seat and back of a chair but he also extended the bend or curve of the plywood to form a rounded support for the head and a rounded support for the back of the legs.

It is important to look carefully to see how the plywood shell of the seat and back and the bent-wood frame are joined together - with lugs or tabs in strategic positions on the edge of the plywood that fit into slots in the frame - and how crossbars link the frame on each side but also support the plywood at critical points.

 

Because of its topography and climate, Finland does not have the variety of native timbers for furniture making and house building that are found in Sweden and Denmark so the form of the chairs is not an odd whim of aesthetics but was necessary to be able to use native rather than imported timber - to do what was possible with native birch - a relatively small tree.

And the design of the chairs - and the distinct features of the building - reflect the nature of the disease treated at the hospital.

Tuberculosis was a contagious disease that effected the lungs but could also infect bones and the nervous system. By the early 20th century it was the cause of death of 7,200 people a year in Finland or about 13% of mortality year on year in the country.

When the hospital opened, treatment was based around providing patients with good nutrition and bed rest in the early stages of the disease and then with sun and fresh air although bright light and noise effected many sufferers badly.

The chairs are relatively low and long so the sitting position is close to reclining and the bent-wood frame and plywood provide a level of flexibility for long periods sitting in the sun or fresh air. The construction in wood was lighter than anything comparable that used tubular steel, so the chairs could be turned easily to be angled towards the sun and they were not upholstered to reduce contamination. Note that the Paimio Chair has narrow horizontal slits cut through the head rest so that air could circulate around the face.

The first private Sanatorium in Finland was opened in 1895 and the first owned by a federation of municipalities opened in 1914 but after passing a Tuberculosis Act in 1929 eight large sanatoriums were constructed with total of 2,500 beds and Paimio was the last to be completed in 1933 for 296 beds for patients from 52 municipalities including the city of Turku with an allocation of 100 beds. Because tuberculosis was contagious, the hospitals were generally set in countryside away from towns … the Sanatorium at Paimio was 20 kilometres east of Turku set in an area of woodland.

With the discovery of anti biotics, it became possible to alleviate and then control the spread of the disease and in 1960 the sanatorium buildings were modified and converted for use as a general hospital.

 

The exhibition at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen continues until 21 January 2018

 

note:

comments on this post were received today (19 February 2018) and, because these were interesting and raised some important points, it was worth posting a longer reply that has been posted on Copenhagen architecture & design news as an update

Paimio Sanatorium 1929-33

 

Alvar Aalto Architect volume 5 Paimio Sanatorium 1929-1933, Alvar Aalto Foundation and Alvar Aalto Academy (2014)

 

 

One of twenty eight volumes published by the Alvar Aalto Foundation and the Alvar Aalto Academy to cover the work of the Finnish architect.

The format, with pages set landscape, allows generous space for an attractive layout but also gives an appropriate page size for the reproduction of design drawings for the Sanatorium and its fittings and furniture.

The book is a compilation of separate essays:

Paimio Sanatorium written by Teppo Jokinen, includes some of the preliminary drawings by Aalto that were entered for a competition for the building in 1929 and drawings for the expansion of the scheme, a decision made before construction started, when the city of Turku joined with the original municipalities. To expand the facilities, two extra floors and a roof terrace were added to the main block of rooms for the patients to treat up to 296 patients from 52 municipalities with up to 100 of those beds available for the city of Turku.

The arrangement of blocks on the site has a long but narrow main range with bedrooms and balconies on six floors angled to face south-east and south to benefit most from the sun and so rooms and balconies look out over the forest. A separate block containing administration spaces and a dining room, library and consulting rooms and surgeries was set behind but linked to the main block by an entrance hall with lifts and the main staircase. There was also a boiler house, ancillary buildings and housing for physicians and other staff that are reminiscent of the housing for teaching staff at the Bauhaus in Germany and the housing built for the exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927.

 

It was a complicated building with innovative features including windows with baffled ventilation to ensure fresh air without drafts; heating systems that were designed to ensure air circulation without uncomfortable areas of high heat; a complicated lighting system including shades and baffles - reminiscent of the work by Poul Henningsen in Denmark at the same time - and of course the famous washbasins in each room that were placed on the wall towards the corridor so they could be serviced from outside without disturbing the patients but were also designed to be splash and sound proofed because many suffering from tuberculosis became very sensitive to intrusive sounds. Aalto, and what seems to have been a relatively small office, achieved all this within a tight time frame as the building was ready to take its first patients by 1933.

The essay Paimio Interiors by Kaarina Mikonranta discusses the importance of light and colour in the programme of therapy and looks at everything Aalto designed inside from furniture and light fittings, to the door handles that were designed so that the coats of doctors would not snag as they pushed through the doors. Given that most patients occupied rooms with just two beds then there would have been rather a lot of opening and closing doors through an average day.

Some lighting came from an earlier project - so the pendant lights were shown at the Helsinki Minimum Apartment exhibition in 1930 - but 10 new models were produced Oy Taito Ab.

 

Paimio Sanatorium - repairs and modifications by Ola Laiho is a useful summary of the subsequent changes made to the building and its fittings. Many were undertaken by Aalto or by the partnership that continued after his death. A new operating theatre was added in 1958 and then, after the Sanatorium was converted to a general hospital in 1960, the distinctive balconies and sun deck were converted to interior spaces, with that work completed in 1963, and, perhaps the most obvious change, the glass walls of lifts were replaced with concrete.

Paimio Sanatorium Project Description quotes in full an important summary of the project by Alvar Aalto himself.

To complete the volume, there are photographs compiled by Maija Holma and three essays - Tuberculosis in Finland in early 20th century by Arno Forsius; Early days of the sanatorium (1860-1902) by Anne Marie Chatelet and The Sanatorium in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s by Jean-Bernard Cremnitzer - that are general but set out important context for planning for this type of special hospital that became common throughout Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century.