Stangestolen / The Snake Chair by Poul Henningsen 1932

 

Over the last month or so, having looked at a number of Danish chairs designed in the 20th century, it seemed important to include this chair - The Snake Chair designed by Poul Henningsen - not because it is remotely representative … it is actually perversely unique … but because it is distinctly modern in the materials it used, with a single coil of tubular steel to support the seat and back, breaking very clearly with almost all conventions, but equally it appears to be 'of it's period'. So if someone who did not know the chair was asked to guess its date they would, at the very least, see that it is unlikely to be a recent design but is not old, in the sense of being traditional or conventional, and if then told that it dates from the 1930s would probably see that it fits with the general style of that period … with aspects in common with furniture from the Bauhaus in Germany or with Art Deco furniture from France or the Neterlands. It appears to be even more certainly of that period when you see photographs of the chair along with the piano that Poul Henningsen designed.

The form of the chair is the product of a highly individual and unconventional designer known now for his work designing lights that were - and still are produced by the Danish company of Louis Poulsen - but Poul Henningsen was also a journalist, writing for Politiken, and an editor of the journal Critical Review, he was an advocate of jazz music and admired Josephine Baker when she performed in Copenhagen, wrote songs, was a filmmaker and was architect to the park at Tivoli.

 

Designed by Poul Henningsen (1894-1967)

Originally made by VA Høffding

Height 85cms

Width 37cms

Height of seat 50cms

Stainless steel

Leather

 

design classic: PH 5 lamp by Poul Henningsen 1958

Poul Henningsen approached the design of lamps in a scientific and rational way as he sought to control electric lighting to produce even and glare-free illumination of a space. He is said to have had a study or work room at his home in Hellerup where the walls were painted black so he could trace the way light spread out or was controlled by metal or glass shades and he controlled light that was directed up and reflected off the ceiling.

The first lamps were designed and shown in Paris in 1925 and a whole series of lights were then produced that used either a series of shallow, curved shades in either metal or in glass that direct the angle of the light down or out and were combined with coloured baffles to change the colour tone of the light or he used a series of flaps or petals of glass or metal to hide the light source and again control the direction and angle of the beams of light.

These different lamps appear to be about appearance and style and fashion but in fact they allowed for such precise control of artificial light that they were installed in work spaces, in the exhibition spaces and staircases of the Design Museum in Copenhagen and, on long stems set at an angle, they were even used in ranks to floodlight indoor tennis courts.

The PH 5 was so common in Denmark that it has been claimed that every Danish family has at least one PH 5 light.

 

 

When the PH 5 was released, Poul Henningsen wrote that: “For a generation I have believed that consideration for the consumer and common sense would prevail, but now I have become a fatalist. I have accepted fate, and with Louis Poulsen´s permission I have designed a PH fixture which can be used with any kind of light source, Christmas lights and 100 W metal-filament bulbs. Although a fluorescent tube would be too much to ask in the existing form!”.

 

surely a chair is just a chair?

the teaching collection at KADK - Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademis Skoler for Arkitektur, Design og Konservering

 

If the title of this post had been something like "a discussion of residual symbols of power and poverty apparent in the design of seating in the period of transition from independent cabinetmakers to industrial production in modern Denmark" then many, quite reasonably, would not have swiped right.

But ……..

In the west, and particularly in northern Europe, although we seem to live in an increasingly secular age and tend to downplay or dismiss symbolism, it still plays a strong part in how our society is organised and functions. Of all the types of furniture we use, it is chairs that seem to be charged with the most meanings.

A photograph of chairs set on either side of a fireplace are still a strong symbol of hospitality suggesting the warmth and comfort of the hearth at the centre of a home but much less warm and cosy …..

A legal court or parliament sits or is sitting and the chair of the judge or the Speaker of the parliament is the focus of the whole room.

In a university professors have a Chair in their faculty and, in a business meeting, to 'take the chair' is to take control.

Companies have leaders or heads but they are usually referred to as the 'chairman' of the board of the company and when a new director is appointed they have a place on the board but it is usually described in English as 'a seat on the board.'

A Cathedral is the Seat of the Bishop and the See of the Bishop or Holy See is from sedes as in sedia or chair and ironically that is the same starting point for the English word sedentary from spending too much time in a chair. The actual chair of the bishop, some form of obvious throne, or chair on steroids, is given emphasis by being placed under a canopy as a symbol of their authority as if having the biggest and best and most expensive chair in the place was not enough.

Grand Medieval households were often arranged with separate tables for different levels or hierarchies within the family and its servants for dining and the high or posh table had at the centre a large chair for the owner or 'head' of the house while long tables in the 'body' of hall would have had benches for less important people.

In English politics most official photographs of government ministers at cabinet meetings show the Prime Minister sitting at the centre of the long side as a symbol of collective government … although that does not appear to be working too well at the moment.

Chairs can be used to draw someone into a group - so you invite someone to 'pull up a chair' or to 'just grab a seat' if you are distracted by something or someone else but want to keep them in the room. But you can do just the opposite … put them in their place or make them feel excluded by making someone stand while you sit.

And simply sitting down on a chair or standing up can be used to control a complex situation so in a legal court people might have to stand when the judge enters the room and cannot sit down again until after they are seated and when someone in charge stands up it can signal the end of a meeting.

Even in the home this sort of control can be used so a child behaving badly might be made to get down from the table or as a punishment made to stay at the table.

Chairs and seats reflect status so someone might want the 'best seats in the house' when they go to the theatre or economise by booking something up in the cheap seats.

You can stand behind someone who is sitting down and lean over them to intimidate them.

Or you can give them or put them in the hot seat.

And not just the chairs themselves but the arrangement of chairs can be important so lines of chairs or better an arc of chairs can focus attention on a lectern and even in democratic Denmark the cathedral in Copenhagen has an interesting arrangement with a royal pew up in a gallery, above everyone else, looking directly across at the preacher standing, but not sitting but with a canopy so both his words and his status are clear so this is a play of power on who is sitting above whom.

Think of the game for children where there is one chair less than the number of players who circle until music stops and the one who fails to get a chair is out and a chair is removed before the game continues until it is just two fighting, often literally fighting, for that last chair.

To 'send someone to The Chair' means executing them in an electric chair and when someone is interrogated they might be tied to the chair or simply held under a spotlight with the interrogators walking around …. Just think about the closing scene in the film Brazil and you can see the symbolism of power and complete loss in a single isolated chair.

 

On the whole, of course, modern Danish chairs are not quite that powerful but then Wegner's Round Chair had an important role in the Nixon Kennedy interview, almost certainly the most prestigious commission won by Finn Juhl was to design chairs for the United Nations building in New York and there is that iconic photo of Christine Keeler, the maker of spies and the breaker of political reputations, naked and sitting the wrong way round on a Chair 7 … OK it's a fake version of the Jacobsen chair but oddly that makes it somehow even more symbolic.

why so many posts here recently about chairs?

the Danish chair - an international affair - at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

 

Generally design blogs are about the latest and the newest and too often yesterday's post is old news … so even if there are categories and tags on a site there is often little reason for clicking or swiping back through past posts.

But there is now a lot of information and a lot of photographs on this site so is it possible to make stronger and clearer links to pull some of this together so it is accessible and is it possible to have a better structure on the site for slotting in future posts?

And its not just about linking information but thinking about how to present more information and more photographs than are published on a typical blog.

On-line sites have a phenomenal advantage over printed books because it's possible, in one place, to provide different levels of information, deeper within the site or just a link away, so there can be a lot more material for wider context or to explore a subject in greater depth with extra information or additional images that put a design into the context of local or social history or the context of work by other designers or in the specific context of a designer's total work.

So it's not just the what but the when and the how and the why.

Nor is it always easy to get access to works to take photographs for a blog …  do a Google search for a well-known piece of furniture - say the Peacock Chair by Hans Wegner - and there will usually be two pages of roughly the same view and they are either publicity images from the manufacturer or from a magazine or they are an image more like a quick holiday-snap and rarely are there any meaningful details. There are exceptions of course … sites with amazing photos … but not many.

Spending a lot of time at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen to look, really look, at the display of their collection of modern chairs, it was clear immediately that this is an amazing resource. The chairs are raised up off the floor but can be examined close up and are well lit against a neutral background. The arrangement of the display shows just how many types and forms of chair there are and you can see, through the 20th century, how architects and designers were trying out ideas or see how they were inspired by the possibilities of a new material or a new technique of production

The museum typography is also important because it gives a framework for the subject and it prompts analysis …. it's absolutely fine to stand in front of a piece of furniture and say that's nice - I like that - or to say I really don't like that - and then move on but once you start asking why you like it or why it is good or bad or why it is interesting or why it is weirdly unusual or why, curiously, it reminds you of something else, then you should be able to find out more.

So, as an experiment, there has been a bit of a blitz here to look at a selection of the chairs but in more detail and with more photographs than on most blogs and to experiment a bit with ways of presenting the information, images and observations.

There is a new time line or chronological list for one obvious way to index the information and photographs.

Of course a time line is not the only way or the best way to arrange different objects but the easiest as long as you put that piece in that year in a wider context: it is not enough to know which year which designer designed which piece of furniture but was this a young designer at the start of their career or someone well experienced but trying something new or someone stuck in a rut and producing the nth version of the same thing in as many years?

These are chairs that come from the classic period of Danish design or were designed in the preliminary stages … so chairs that mark important stages that lead to the designs of the 1950s and 1960s.

From here, the plan is to look at more furniture in more detail - more chairs, more recent chairs - and to talk to designers and manufacturers about how and why and when a design came about and to look at other types of furniture in similar detail.

country furniture

country furniture in buildings at Frilandsmuseet - the open-air museum north of Copenhagen

 

In Denmark traditional country furniture is called bondemøbler or peasant furniture and in England cottage or farmhouse furniture or by some academics vernacular furniture.

This is the chairs and tables and cupboards and beds made before the industrial and before the retail revolutions of the 19th century by families themselves or by local carpenters who would use local materials - so where possible oak or, as oak became less easily available and more expensive, then other local timber including ash or pine. The use of expensive foreign timber is rare in country furniture, for obvious reasons, and highly finished and polished surfaces or veneer were beyond the experience of local makers unless they worked in a relatively large market town and had a larger workshop. As a consequence wood was left untreated or furniture was either finished with simple wax or oil, to protect the surfaces, or could be painted and decorated.

Upholstery was also an expensive job that required a specialist so seats were usually simply flat wood planks or possibly wood hollowed out but rush and cane or even rope were used woven over a frame for chair seats. Mattresses or simple seat cushions could be made from a tough fabric with a filling of straw or animal hair.

living in a single room - Den Gamle By - the open-air museum in Aarhus - note the bed in a drawer under the settle or bench

 

Wood for chair and table legs and for the spindles of a chair back or for stretchers between the legs - to make a stronger frame - could be turned on a simple lathe and in England these lathes were often set up out in the beech woods and the turned legs and spindles brought into town where the chairs would be assembled. Turning legs and spindles for furniture required the same tools and skills needed for making the spokes of wood wheels for carts and carriages. With turned legs and spindles the fixing was also relatively simple with the end tapered and then pushed tightly into a drilled hole and that avoided having to cut complicated mortice-and-tenon joints that needed careful work with a saw and a chisel that was best done on a proper work bench where the wood could be held securely in place.

Through into the 19th century - and even into the early 20th century - local blacksmiths could make hinges and catches and nails if they were needed for the wood furniture.

Wealthier farmers in a village or clergymen who wanted more elaborate furniture for their posher homes or for the parish church bought more sophisticated and expensive furniture from nearby towns or even from abroad and then the features and styles of those imported pieces might be copied or roughly imitated by local craftsmen.

These relatively simple and 'honest' country chairs … honest meaning straightforward and unpretentious … were and still are appreciated even in the town or city. In part, they were cheaper for workers to buy but in the late 19th and early 20th century people were moving into Copenhagen to work in the port and work in new industries and may well have brought furniture from where they had lived, out in the countryside or smaller towns, or they deliberately sought out furniture that reminded them of distant family or distant lives.

It was the unpretentious modesty and simple techniques, that looked back to straightforward local carpentry, rather than fancy foreign fashions, that meant that people saw these well-made but basic and relatively light but strong chairs with turned legs and rush seats as appropriate for churches.

Good country furniture can be seen in appropriate room settings in the open air museums in Denmark and it is worth spending time looking at these pieces to see where modern designers have taken and adapted ideas or, even more interesting, to see types of furniture that are rarely made now such as the clothes press or plate rack or even the bed built into a cupboard or the large plank chests for bedding.

Features from good country furniture can be seen in the sophisticated work of major designers of the modern period including the Nyborg Library Chairs by Hans Wegner, the 'People's Chair' by Børge Mogensen and, of course, in the Church Chair by Kaare Klint.

Church Chair by Kaare Klint

Chair for Nyborg Library by Hans Wegner

an everyday chair

These chairs were designed by the Copenhagen City Architect's Office, about 1930, for use in school offices. They are not exactly what would have been found in a kitchen in Vesterbro or at a table in an apartment in Islands Brygge but they are pine and they are painted and the designs are straightforward with a simple arrangement of stretchers to strengthen the framework of the legs and simple plain wood back rests that are either fixed across or fixed between the uprights of the back.

Dining table and chairs in birch designed by Viggo Sten Møller and made for the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1929 by Adolf Jørgensen. The setting had a P.H. lamp over the table.

 

 
 

Over the last month or so, the posts here have focused on a number of chairs from the 20th century that are design classics and all, in different ways, examples of new styles or examples of experiments with new forms and new manufacturing techniques - but the problem is that this gives an impression that every Danish chair represents a point in time on a rapid, inevitable and ongoing progression of design innovations.

But if you look at photographs of homes from the 20th century or photographs from the annual exhibition of the Cabinetmakers' Guild Furniture exhibitions that were held from 1927 through to 1966 - where craftsmen were actually competing to produce the latest and the best - you see a good number of strangely old-fashioned chairs and much of the best modern furniture was produced in small quantities or in some cases only when commissioned and many of the designs would have been considered expensive, even at the time, so well beyond the budget of an ordinary working family.

Of course, for offices and schools and factories - let alone for ordinary families in ordinary homes in new apartments in the city in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s - and then on through the period of so-called classic Danish furniture in the 1950s and 1960s - Denmark actually had to produce ordinary chairs or, at least, chairs that were designed to be robust and affordable rather than being primarily award winning, memorable or collectable.

So part of the story of the development of modern design in Denmark is the story of designers trying to produce ordinary chairs that were well designed and well made.

One reason - perhaps the main reason - for the annual exhibition of the work of cabinetmakers was so that these craftsmen could show they could compete with the emerging furniture factories, so proposals from cabinetmakers were  "submitted for both cheap and somewhat more expensive furniture" for the exhibition.

For the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1929 Viggo Sten Møller and Hans Hansen designed furniture for a two-room apartment with a compact dining tables and chairs made by Adolf Jørgensen.

In 1932 Møller became the editor of the trade journal Nyt Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri and alongside technical articles he introduced pieces on colour schemes, lighting, textiles and he commissioned from the architect Marinus Andersen an article about furnishing a small apartment for a couple about to get married.

The cabinetmakers began to introduce a broader range of furniture so pieces specifically for children or in 1939 designs for a study for a student designed by Børge Mogenesn and Aage Windeleff. In the exhibition in 1962 there was even a large kitchen designed Henning Jensen and Hanne and Torben Valeur that was made by Christensen & Larsen although it was clear that this would have been an exceptional and expensive project … so hardly a flat-pack job.

But it was not just cabinetmakers who were trying to improve the design of furniture that could be sold at a reasonable price. Around 1930, Magnus L Stephensen was asked to furnish two test apartments for a public housing scheme designed by Povl Baumann at Ryparken that was based on a budget that was realistic for a young working family but he found only one factory and one traditional workshop in the city who could provide furniture he considered good enough within that budget.

Dan-stol (left) from 1930 by Søren Hansen the grandson of the founder of Fritz Hansen

Bentwood chair model 234 (above) from Fritz Hansen by Magnus Stephensen (1903-1984)

 

Magnus Stephensen produced designs for the furniture makers Fritz Hansen. Perhaps the first factory chair and in some ways one of the most popular everyday chair (in terms of the numbers produced) was the Café Chair in bent wood from the Viennese manufacturer Thonet that dated from the middle of the 19th century. Methods of steam bending wood, rather like the development of plywood, had not been common in Denmark but from the 1920s Fritz Hansen realised the potential of both. The grandson of the founder of the Fritz Hansen designed the Dan-stole for the company in 1930 - a rationalisation and simplification of the Café Chair - and then Magnus Stephensen designed the chair Model 234 that combined a bent-wood frame with a more comfortable shaped and curved back rest in thin wood.

Co-op Denmark started to manufacture high quality but inexpensive furniture in 1940 with the architect and planner Steen Eiler Rasmussen providing advice as a consultant. He had curated an exhibition of applied art in 1932 to look at well-designed everyday objects. 

 

Chairs and a dining table designed by Børge Mogensen and made by the cabinetmaker Erhard Rasmussen in pear wood for the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1944. Very simple square frame with upholstered pad for seat and simple curve of thin wood for back support presumably screwed to back uprights with plugs over the fixing in contrasting wood. But note that the back supports are curved in section so not actually that basic and because the legs are relatively thin in section then tere are stretchers to strengthen the frame but, rather unusual, to front and back but not to the sides between the front and back legs.

 

Børge Mogensen was appointed to be head of the design department at FDB Møbler (Fællesforeningen for Danmarks Brugsforeninger or Commonwealth of Danish Confederations of Users …  part of the Danish COOP) and he furnished a test apartment in 1944 in their store on Frederiksborggade in Copenhagen. In the sitting room there was a pine table, an Ercol style chair and a version of an English Windsor Chair at a desk that was a wall unit with a front flap that dropped down as a surface for writing at and on the floor their was simple rush matting.

Rasmussen published an article in the magazine Andelsbladet to explain the work of this better furniture campaign. The apartment in the store had "realistic rooms and floors, walls, ceilings, doors and windows - all with the dimensions that are found in ordinary little homes." … and it was described as a 'housing laboratory.'

"The new furniture is so ordinary and direct that one would almost believe it had made itself. But this is a virtue. It is not seductive and overwhelming like the pieces we see in advertisements, but then there is also hope that people will not grow tired of them in the long run."

Several well known or established designers in that classic period through the 1950s and 1960s produced chairs that were priced for an ordinary buyer … so Hans Wegner, Poul Volther, Mogens Koch, Jørgen Bækmark along with Børge Mogensen all designed chairs for FDB Møbler.

 

J39 / Folkestolen / People's Chair designed in 1947 for FDB by Børge Mogensen

 

Now all the major design and furniture companies have a range of basic or straightforward but well-made chairs and the launch of a new chair can be a major event and some companies produce major classics designed in the 1950s and 1960s where the price can be kept low by the rationalisation of manufacturing methods or simply by the scale of production making it possible to have a choice from dozens and dozens of different well-designed chairs that are well made and reasonably priced.

J48 designed by Poul Volther for FDB Møbler and still made for the Danish Coop. This is a good everyday chair but is also a sort of cross-over design inspired by simple country furniture but given a real sense of modern style with a choice of strong colours.

chair made in Copenhagen by Søren Ulrich …the style is reminiscent of chairs from the 1930s and 1940s and would be a good choice for a kitchen table or small dining room and really appropriate for one of the apartments in the city dating from the early 20th century

 

dining chairs by Inoda+Sveje

The Japanese designer Kyoko Inoda and the Danish designer Niels Sveje - who have their studio and showroom in Milan - have produced two dining chairs - DC9 and DC10 - in partnership with the Japanese cabinetmakers Miyazaki.

Back in September, during the London Design Festival, they took part in a talk and discussion at Aram's store in Covent Garden with Daniel Aram and with Marcus Fairs - the founder and editor of the online design magazine Dezeen. The event was streamed live on the Dezeen site but is still available to view on the Dezeen Facebook page. They made important points about the links between Danish and Japanese design and about the importance of both craftsmanship and quality in furniture production and about how designers and craftsmen can work in a close partnership.

This year has seen a number of exhibitions and events in Copenhagen that have marked the centennial anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic links between Japan and Denmark and it was inevitable that similarities between modern Japanese design and modern Danish design and the influence of each country on the art and design of the other has been discussed.

Perhaps the most obvious characteristics found in modern design in both countries are the appreciation of natural materials and the importance placed on craftsmanship and to these Daniel Aram added that both countries have a 'design rigour' … meant presumably in the sense of being thorough or meticulous. He elaborated on that point by observing that Japanese and Danish designers and craftsmen seem to master materials in order to produce beautiful objects.

In the session at the Aram store, Niels Sveje explained how their partnership with the Japanese cabinetmakers developed.

Miyazaki are a small company - with about 25 people - but all parts of production are done in house and everyone works on furniture that is produced in batches so there is a concentration or focus that helps to ensure quality control. As with PP Møbler in Denmark and Nikari in Finland, Miyazaki have taken on board modern technology and, again, not to reduce the cost of production but so quality can be improved or where something can be done in their workshop now that was not possible with traditional handcraft techniques.

Niels Sveje explained how they worked with the workshop in Japan. Initial designs were produced with a 3D design package but the next stage was to make a project type and that was then modified in the workshop because "ergonomics is something you have to feel with your body." That produced a chair that was, in effect, a one-off sculpture, and they had to develop their own scanner to take that on to a design that could be put into production. The result is a chair where shape and form and tactile qualities combine with innovative technical details for how the wood is cut to shape and the parts finished and joined together.

Such a meticulous design sequence meant a development period of two years but Niels Sveje justified that in the conclusion of the session when he said that his aim, when designing the chair, was for a piece of furniture that could be in production for at least his own lifetime.

Throughout the discussion there are fascinating observations about design and aesthetics … so all parts of the chair were to be tactile for the person using the chair and sitting in the chair and the sensation was compared with wearing a shirt - specifically in the sense that with a shirt, in direct contact with the body, in the way a chair is in direct contact, you feel all parts - the inside and outside - and surfaces cannot be separated. The design of a chair has to work with 'natural curves' so the lines are, he explained, where you expect them to be.

Daniel Aram added practical but positive comments about shipping costs and delivery times but perhaps the most important point was made by Niels Sveje when he said that the owner of the Japanese workshop was himself a cabinetmaker and was in the workshop every day … and that is different "from when you have an accountant leading the company." He concluded by saying that the design and production of the chair was a mutual achievement so it "couldn't work if you took one of us out of the equation."

DC10 by INODA+SVEJE

MIYAZAKI

DEZEEN on linethe discussion at the Aram Store

 

Lattice Chair by Hans Wegner 1942

chair photographed at the exhibition on the work of Hans Wegner at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014

 

The 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 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.

 

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 table wares 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 perhaps looked forward to ordinary 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 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.

 

Hans Wegner (1914-2007)

cabinetmakers Johannes Hansen

Cuban Mahogany

 

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

 
 

Hans Wegner (1914-2007)

cabinetmakers Johannes Hansen, PP Møbler

height 103cm

width 76cm

depth 76cm

height of seat 36cm

oak or ash with arm rests to match or in teak

seat paper cord

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

PP Møbler

detail of pp112 designed by Hans Wegner in 1978

 

 

In 1953 PP Møbler was founded in Allerød - a small town north Copenhagen - by the brothers Lars Peder and Ejnar Pedersen. The company started as traditional cabinetmakers …  the first chair made in the workshops was the Pot Chair - designed by Nanna and Jørgen Ditzel - that was produced by the upholstery company AP  Stolen but with PP Møbler subcontracted to make the frame.

Then they produced the frame for another important upholstered chair from AP Stolen - the Papa Bear Chair designed by Hans Wegner. He was impressed by the quality of the work - even though it was to be hidden by upholstery - and that was the beginning of one of the major partnerships in the history of modern Danish furniture.

The collaboration with Wegner was close … he challenged the cabinetmakers to think in new ways and they responded by not only developing new methods and techniques for bending and joining wood to realise the designs but they were also prepared to challenge and criticise and contribute suggestions in the development of his new designs.

In 1969 Wegner designed his first chair that was exclusively and specifically for the company - pp201 - and he encouraged PP Møbler to become an independent brand with their own products and their own sales department to sell furniture under their own name. He even designed a new company logo.

Circle Chair designed by Hand Wegner and produced by PP Møbler since 1986

 

Now PP Møbler also have the licences to produce earlier designs by Hans Wegner - with rights to make pieces originally produced by the cabinetmakers Johannes Hansen after they closed in 1990 - so they make some of the best-known chairs designed by Wegner including the Round Chair, the Minimal Chair, the Peacock Chair, Valet Chair and Tub Chair.

Ejnar Pedersen was certain that craftsmen had to have pride in their work so the company have remained traditional cabinetmakers. They have a huge respect for wood, retaining traditional methods of cutting and finishing but they are also aware of the need to develop and move forward although they make it clear that technology is not a substitute but should enhance “the craftsman's field of skills.”

They have developed computer-controlled milling machine for precision cutting and shaping - seen clearly on the Cow Horn Chair from 1952, with the two parts of the back joined by a comb in contrasting wood, and for the cutting and shaping and joins for the back of The Round Chair which are seen from every angle so even slight imperfections would be obvious.

Tub Chair pp530 designed by Hans Wegner in 1954

 

They produce a number of very complicated and demanding designs that tests the skills of the cabinetmakers ….  the Chinese Chair by Wegner pp66 from 1943 where the back is formed from a length of wood that has been compressed and then bent in three dimensions … the Tub Chair that has a double bent shell - one bent - one bent and twisted - the Peacock Chair designed in 1947 and the Flag Halyard Chair with a metal frame strung with rope designed in 1950.

PP Møbler have produced a prestigious group of experimental designs that pushed conventions include the bentwood chair by Poul Kjærholm from 1978.

Several chairs remained as prototypes for many years until the machines and techniques were developed including the machine that was necessary to make the hoop of wood for the Circle Halyard Chair designed in the 1960s but finally realised in 1986  and the Chinese Bench pp266 that was finally put into production in 1991 with the development of advanced pre-compressed and bending techniques.

PP Møbler

guide to the furniture of PP Møbler

 

This guide to the cabinetwork of PP Møbler was produced in 2016 and I was given a copy when I met their sales team at 3Daysof Design so I assume that it has been used mainly to promote the work of the company at trade fairs but is actually a well-written, general introduction to some of the best furniture made by cabinetmakers in Denmark.

It sets out a brief history of the company and discusses their work with different designers including Nanna Ditzel, Poul Kjærholm, Finn Juhl and Verner Panton but focuses on their important collaboration with Hans Wegner.

In a clear and straightforward way, it covers how timber for high-quality furniture is cut and prepared and how both traditional and new techniques are used together in the workshops to make the production of these major pieces possible and how new technology has been used to drive forward new designs and new approaches.

There is a useful introduction to the main species of timber they work with - oak, ash, maple and cherry - including a brief descriptions of grain and appearance and notes about how and why the different woods are used in the production of their furniture. The company has its own woodland and in this book they make some important points about the management of trees and about sustainability. When areas of woodland are felled and then replanted, a number of trees are left to protect new saplings. Those older and larger 'shelter tree' in a woodland have a longer growth period and when they, in turn, are felled, they are the source for much thicker planks - up to 5" thick - that are used for larger or more complex and important parts of chairs like the shaped backs. Pieces are cut to shape immediately the timber is delivered to the workshop but are then left for up to two years to condition. Complicated back and arm rests, that have to be made from several pieces that are joined, are cut from the same length of timber - as mirror shapes - so that colour and grain match across the back and for tables the leaves, for an individual table, are cut from the same tree for the same reason.

In the book there is a section or catalogue where each of the chairs has a short history of the design with an explanation of technical details that are specific or important to that piece. There are line drawings for each of their  chairs; easy chairs; chaise long; benches and a stool and tables or desks and there are even useful plans to show the arrangement of chairs around each of the tables with and without additional leaves.

Although relatively short, the book even covers maintenance of the furniture - explaining why certain finishes are applied with advice about how the wood can be cleaned and explains why a patina, developed over the years, is important as it makes each piece personal to the owner.

It is crucial that companies produce this sort of publication to engage customers but also, as schools cut back on teaching arts and crafts and as fewer people have the time or space to do woodwork themselves, it can't be assumed now that a potential buyer will know enough about wood and the techniques used in making furniture to understand why something was made in a certain way; see how a design reflects and respects the different characteristics of the trees used or understand why that has to be reflected in the price tag. Few buyers have the time or the inclination to become experts on cabinetmaking before they buy a chair but actually the more information they have then the more discerning they can be.

Books like this are also a way to give customers important information about sustainability. It may have been said by someone else somewhere else but there is a brilliant line in this book that I have not come across before … that a piece of furniture “should endure the time it takes for a new tree to grow.”

Much of this material and a good collection of photographs can also be found on the PP Møbler web site … including historic images of the workshops, images of the modern workshop equipment, with press photographs of the furniture produced and an explanation of techniques such as compression bending and the computer-programmed milling and cutting developed by the company.

PP Møbler

 
 
 

Cirkelstolen / The Circle Chair by Hans Wegner 1986

 

This chair is a testament to the imagination of Hans Wegner and the technical skills of the cabinetmakers PP Møbler.

Wegner first considered making a chair based on a large circle in 1965 but it took 20 years to put the design into production. Wegner thought that such a large circle could only be made in metal and it was Ejnar Pedersen, a founder of PP Møbler, who persuaded Wegner that it could be made in wood.

The circle is laminated with 11 layers of wood each 3.5 metres long, cut to shape and bent round and joined to form a circle. A specific machine to bend and link the circle was designed by Søren Holst Pedersen - the son of Ejnar Pedersen.

The circle is supported and held at an angle by an amazing combination of shaped struts and curved stretchers with the seat and back woven in halyard - the rope with a nylon core covered with jute that Wegner used in other chairs.

Despite the size, the chair is relatively light and with wheels on the back struts it can be moved into the right place quite easily.

Among the drawings for this design is an extraordinary sketch of a variation in metal like a giant loop twisted back on itself. It takes some mental effort to work out which loop goes which way and how the rope mesh would work but you can track everything through quite rationally and it is at that point that you understand just what an amazing mental command Wegner had of such incredibly complex 3D shapes … he imagined this and then sketched what he imagined and it would have worked and that really is an amazing skill.

 

 

Hans Wegner (1914-2007)

cabinetmakers PP Møbler

height 97cm

width 112cm

depth 94cm

height to front edge of seat 42cm

ash or oak

halyard - core of nylon with sleeve of woven jute

clips steel or brass

 

pp63 by Hans Wegner 1975

 

Chair pp52 designed by Hans Wegner in 1975 ... later called the Ferry Chair after the chair was purchased by DFDS for a ferry on the service across the North Sea

Chair pp63 is one of a series designed by Hans Wegener for the cabinetmakers PP Møbler in the 1970s. It dates from 1976 and remained in production until 2001.

The frame is a wider, so slightly more open and generous version of the well-known Ferry Chair - pp52 and pp62 - but the most obvious difference is the pattern of the weave for the seat in paper cord.

On the earlier Wishbone Chair from 1950, and for most chairs by Wegner with a paper cord seat, the rails of the seat are staggered - the side rails set higher than the front rail - and that determines the pattern of the weave with a distinct diagonal intersection where the cord is taken across the top, right over the rail and back on the underside.

On the pp63 the front rail of the seat is shaped, forming a slight hollow to the profile and curving forward at the front, and the mortices for the tenons of the front and side rails are at the same level forming a thinner profile. The cord is taken across the top in a single layer  - so not returning underneath - and the pattern is a basket weave with paired cords taken front to back but widely spaced with a line of knots at the front and back where the cords pass over the rail once, are turned back and round the rail with 6 or 7 strands to form a space and then taken back to the back rail passing over and under pairs of cords running left to right. These paired cords, running left right across the seat, go ver the side rail and round underneath and round a metal tension bar, just inside the side rail, and then back and round the outside of the side rail before returning across the top of the seat.

Stretchers below the seat are straight - taller than thick - and rounded at the top and bottom and are set quite low on the sides and across the back strengthening the impression of a robust frame for the chair seat.

The legs are set vertically - rather than angled out as on The Round Chair and Wishbone Chair - round in cross section below the seat, so like a pole, but above they are flattened off on two sides … in part to make them look less hefty but also as the way to reduce the size of the tenon at the top where the leg is housed into the underside of a back rail.

This curved top rail, forming a back rest and arm rails in a single piece, is set horizontally … on the Wishbone Chair and for pp201, the first chair in this series, the curved back rail is set at an angle rising up from the front to the centre of the back as on a Chinese Chair. More comfortable and deeper support for spine on the pp63 is provided by a flat face cut along the centre of the top rail and with a shaped crest added above, to make the back rest deeper. Made in two pieces there is an inlay of dark wood between the rail and the crest and distinctive key pieces in dark wood between the two halves of the crest.

The back rest has a shaped profile so the back face is hollow rather than flat.

By setting the legs vertical, cutting the mortice-and-tenon joints was simplified and by removing the taper on the legs turning was more straightforward and the stretchers are straight so curiously, although there are more parts to the chair, in many ways it appears simpler and more modern or less formal than The Round Chair and was certainly easier to make and wasted less wood so was less expensive to make.

 

The back rest has a shaped profile so the back face is hollow rather than flat.

By setting the legs vertical, cutting the mortice-and-tenon joints was simplified and by removing the taper on the legs turning was more straightforward and the stretchers are straight so curiously, although there are more parts to the chair, in many ways it appears simpler and more modern or less formal than The Round Chair and was certainly easier to make and wasted less wood so was less expensive to make.

 

pp63

Hans Wegner (1914-2007)

cabinetmakers PP Møbler

height 71cm

width 58cm ?

depth 48cm

height of seat 43cm

oak or ash

pp62 pp63 paper cord and pp52 upholstered

 

The Round Chair designed by Hans Wegner in 1949 

CH37 designed in 1962

pp208 from 1972 with the seat pad supported on the front and back stretchers that are set at a higher level than on the version with a seat in cord

the shaped front stretcher on a Chinese Chair designed by Wegner in 1945 - essentially the form of stretcher used to support the upholstered seat on the pp203, pp208, pp52 and pp58 - much less baulky than a traditional upholstered seat over a separate frame - the stretcher is rarely seen straight on and is much less obvious when seen from above ... and of course is completely hidden when there is someone sitting in the chair  

The series of chairs designed by Hans Wegner for the cabinetmakers PP Møbler - starting in 1969 and continuing through to one of the last commercial designs by Wegner in 1987 - is important because it shows a tight sequence of variations that are determined by technical developments in shaping and bending wood and clear developments in ergonomics (comfort) but also a strong sense of changing fashions … the designs are in pale wood rather than dark or exotic wood such as mahogany or teak and are less formal than the more expensive dining chairs produced through the 1940s and 1950s. The rationalisation of the design also makes them a more commercial proposition.

The starting point seems to have been to combine the best features of the Chinese-style chairs from the 1940s and The Round Chair from 1949 but the aim was also to produce a simpler chair, less formal and more appropriate for contemporary taste.

There appears to be an intermediate step for in 1962, Wegner had designed a chair - the CH37 - that had straight, vertical legs - so not tapered and not angled out - with stretchers to create a strong frame for the seat but the back rest was of the Shaker type with a thin curved piece of wood so, although it looks rather dated and too much like a country chair, it must have been relatively comfortable.

Then, designed in 1969, chair pp201 was the first chair specifically for the cabinetmaker PP Møbler. Wegner focused on making production more efficient but without compromising quality. It has the vertical legs that are completely straight and with straight rather than turned stretchers that are rectangular in section but rounded at the top and bottom and so similar to the stretchers on the Chinese Chair from 1945 and the Wishbone Chair from 1950. For this chair, however, the back rest is circular in section and bent round in a single curve, as on a Chinese Chair, flattened at the middle but with a deeper section added below the curve to form a deeper and more comfortable back rest and with a dark veneer separating the two parts and a single block of dark wood as a key at the centre.

That chair has a paper cord seat but there is also a version - the pp203 - with an upholstered seat. This does not have a separate frame for the seat but simply an upholstered pad that is supported by moving up the stretchers across the front and back that are also shaped so that at each end they have a shoulder and step down before they are joined into the leg.

A version of this chair was produced in 1972 where the same shape of back rest was cut from a single piece of wood and then bent to shape to simplify the work. Model pp209 had a seat in paper cord and the pp209 had an upholstered seat.

The next stage, the third in the sequence, was the pp52 or Ferry Chair from 1975, also with a leather seat, and a version - the pp62 - with paper cord seat. The frame of the chair, with straight legs and stretchers, was similar but the curve of the back is set horizontal - moving the front end towards the table up and the centre of the back down slightly but enough to change the level where it cuts across the spine so the additional section of wood, added to make the back rest deeper, and therefore more comfortable, was moved from under the curve to on top of the curve.

It was this version that was ordered by DFDS ferries in 1978 …. and with over 800 chairs purchased that is still the largest single order won by PP Møbler.

Final stage in 1987pp68 single piece of wood for back steam bent cord seat

The design was modified further in 1987 to create the pp58 that has a padded seat and the pp68 with a seat in paper cord but the front legs finish at the seat and the back rest or back rail is supported on the upper parts of the back legs and it curves round and extends to short arms like the Bull Chair. A version, the pp58/3  has three legs and stacks.


pp63 table.jpeg
 
PP63.jpg

pp201 1969 onwards

pp209 1972-2004

pp62 1975 onwards

pp68 1987 onwards

 

Barnestolen / The Papa Bear Chair by Hans Wegner 1951

 

Although perhaps known best for his chairs in wood, Hans Wegner designed a number of large upholstered chairs including the large arm chair known as the Papa Bear or Teddy Bear Chair. This was one of the first chairs designed by Hans Wegner that was produced by PP Møbler.

The wood frame has to be well made and solid as a base for traditional upholstery work which has horsehair padding over metal springs that are held in place by jute straps. The buttons on the back appear to be decorative but, in fact, the tension of the cord holding the buttons in place creates the profile of the back rest.

The upholstery takes a week of work for a single craftsman.

Wooden insets at the ends of each arm are thought to look like the paws of a bear so hence the name of the chair.

 

Hans Wegner (1914-2007)

cabinetmakers PP Møbler

height 101cm

width 90cm

depth 95cm

height of seat 42cm

legs in ash, cherry, oak or walnut and arms in cherry, oak rosewood, teak or walnut

Snorestolen / Flaglinestolen / The Flag Halyard Chair by Hans Wegner 1950

Flag Halyard Chair photographed at Designmuseum Danmark

 

It's said that Hans Wegner conceived the shape for this chair after a trip to the beach with his family where he spent a comfortable afternoon sitting in a hollow in the sand and was then inspired to recreate that shape in a chair but the sitting position is actually close to the angles of the seat and back on the tripartite Shell Chair he designed the year before although the Shell Chair has a shaped and padded head rest and the Flag Halyard Chair a cushion covered with fabric or leather that is held in place with straps.

As with most shell chairs, the Halyard Chair has two distinct parts with the upper part - the 'shell' or seat - as a steel frame strung with rope and a substructure or base in welded steel and the different functions are emphasised by the way the metal is finished with the steel of the cradle polished and the base painted.

 

There are H-shaped leg units to the front and back with the cross-bar of the H, the stretcher, holding apart and holding together the legs and setting their angle. These legs are widely set and angled out because the lower a chair then the more you need to press down on the chair frame to get yourself up out of it and the wide stance of the legs makes the chair as stable as possible.

Running front to back on either side, and welded across the tops of the legs, are beams bent down at the centre to form a shallow V that support and set the angles of the lower and middle section of the seat.

The frame of the superstructure in polished steel forms five flat panels for rope. Imagine a box, that is almost a cube but without a lid and then cut down the corners until you have a base with four flaps that can be angled out. The base is the part that goes under your back. One flap is folded out to support under the upper legs with the side opposite, cut down to about a half and angled outwards, as a head support. The remaining two pieces, on either side, are reduced to approximately half and angled out to support the elbows and lower arms … or to be the place to put your book or newspaper when you want to doze. Link the four flaps with loops of steel that look as if someone has partly unfolded a giant paperclip and set the whole thing on a gentle angle on the cradle of the legs.

 

Display at the furniture store Illums Bolighus in Copenhagen in October 2014 to demonstrate how the rope is strung on the Flag Halyard Chair.

 

It is a complicated job to string the chair with the halyard because it is covered with a single length of rope, rather than being done in sections, and tension has to be consistent. At each side, the rope is taken over the steel frame, then wrapped completely round the rod once and returned across the underside so that spaces out the strings and seems to act like a hitch knot.

Generally, on wooden chairs with a cord or cane seat, Wegner cuts the seat frame down where the paper cord is wrapped over to create a shoulder that holds the weave pattern and stops it opening out. Here there are steel rods across the top of the head rest and on each side of the side pieces that are flattened at each end, rounded off and drilled through - forming what is rather like a large washer - and these act as spacers for the frame and hold the rope in place to stop it from sliding along the frame. There are no rods across between the main sections or at the lowest part because they would stick into the body or stick into the back of the legs.

 

This sounds a bit like trying to describe how a magician does a trick … but, as you look carefully to work out what was done and begin to understand how it was done, the design seems even more impressive and an initial sketch for the chair, with a series of variations and changes in heavy overdrawing, shows just how rapidly the design evolved.

All in all the Halyard Chair is quite a tour de force.

 

Designmuseum Danmark has early editions of classic designs in their collection and on display but also, around the museum, are recent versions of some of the chairs - along with low tables and copies of catalogues - where visitors can try sitting in these chairs and read for a while. With this post in mind I wanted to take photographs of the Halyard Chair and look carefully at the way it was constructed but on three visits in a row there was a visitor asleep in the chair. Clearly it's a bit too comfortable.

Hans Wegner (1914-2007)

made by Getama and by PP Møbler from 2002

GE225 now known as pp225

height  80cm

width  104cm

depth 115cm

height to front edge of seat 38cm

 

steel - framework of legs supporting seat is painted white or green

240 metres of flag halyard - woven jute with a nylon core

sheepskin

discs or pads for feet - originally wood now made from plastic