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
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
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.
Over the last couple of months, posts have been added here for just over 60 Danish chairs from the last century with a brief assessment for each that focuses on details of form and construction and, where possible, puts the design into a wider context.
A third of these chairs were designed by Hans Wegner but that reflects the number of chairs he designed and, of course, his importance as a master of innovation who, as a designer, continually pushed the boundaries for what could be done and how and why.
The series was inspired by the chairs in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen where a new display was opened just over a year ago. A selection of the chairs is now shown in a well-lit arrangement in a dedicated gallery where the chairs are set, each in its own display case, so it is possible look at the design without distraction and, with the chairs raised up off the floor, it is possible to look closely at how the chairs are constructed and to appreciate the techniques of the carpentry - the way that the separate parts are cut, shaped and fitted together - the finish of the wood, the use of metal for parts of the chair or, with some, the whole frame, the appearance of new materials such as plywood or plastic and, in many of the chairs, the superb quality of the workmanship.
This gallery at the design museum presents to the visitor a key body of research material on open access with extensive labels and information panels but in addition the museum catalogue is available on line so it is also possible to look up furniture in the collection by date, period, maker, dimensions or materials and type and the index also means that it is possible to search for information or images on other furniture by the same designer or the same maker that is not currently on display but is in the collection.
It was also crucial for these recent posts here, on this web site, that last year saw the republication of the four volumes on the cabinetmakers' annual exhibitions - Dansk Mobelkunst Gennem 40 År - published by Lindhardt og Ringhof. Edited by the designer Grete Jalk, these were published first in 1987 and record the exhibitions that were held in Copenhagen each year, from 1927 through to 1966, to show to the public the latest and the very best of Danish furniture.
For the first decade, the exhibitions were held at a number of different venues in Copenhagen but from 1937 through to the last exhibition in 1966 all but one year, when the exhibition was at Charlottenborg, and a year at the Forum - a total of 28 exhibitions were held at the design museum - then called Kunstindustrimuseet. This was remarkable and spot lights the ongoing role of the museum in showing current design - not simply to curate the design of the past - and one reason why the present exhibition Dansk Design Nu - looking at Danish design this century - is so important.
With posts here on 60 chairs, and the intention to add more, then some sort of index was necessary and arranging that by date it also works as a time line for chairs from the 20th century. At the very least, this proves that there was not a clear or straightforward linear progress through those decades so it raises interesting questions about the age of designers or at which point in their career they produced a specific chair and whether, whatever their age, they were pushing boundaries or exploring for themselves a new trend or a new material.
The display of chairs in Designmuseum Danmark provides an amazing opportunity to not only look closely at the chairs but the lighting also meant that it is possible to take photographs of details. This recording of details of the joinery and the materials is more and more important as fewer and fewer people learn about timber or working with wood when they are at school and it is not an aspect of design covered in many blogs.
For obvious reasons the measurements of the chairs have been given where possible. It is important to have some way of judging the scale of a design and that is rarely obvious from a photograph and particularly difficult outside the context of a room.
But also, as I looked at more and more of the chairs and looked at the photographs from the cabinetmakers' annual exhibitions it was obvious that it is now difficult to understand these pieces of furniture in anything like an original setting and that becomes more difficult with time as these pieces of furniture move from being everyday objects that people have in their homes and sit on to be what are now valuable collector or museum pieces.
Some of the designers and architects themselves were clearly concerned about the setting of their furniture … from the earliest exhibitions in the late 1920s the cabinetmakers used room settings and much of the furniture was aimed at a specific customer and therefore, to some extent, a known type of room … from a young couple moving into a small, new two-room apartment through to a wealthy middle-class family buying bookshelves and a desk by Klint or chairs for a large terrace or garden … so all designed with at least some idea of the space or the setting where the furniture would be used. Some designers went further. Poul Kjærholm designed with meticulous care the settings of his furniture in exhibitions and shop displays and Finn Juhl chose the colours against which his furniture was shown … producing drawings with colour wash of the room settings for the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition.
This first selection has focused on key chairs of the classic period of modern Danish furniture, so with just 60 not even, at this point, all the most famous chairs but a reasonable selection of different types of chair and different materials and a range of designers. One problem is that it panders to the idea that Danish designers focus on chairs and it reinforces a general misconception that somehow the only period of great design in Denmark was that so called Classic period of the 1950s and 1960s. So the next stage for this web site will be to look at recent chairs, since the turn of the century, and present them in a similar way … looking at form and construction and context … and possibly then to look at other types of Danish furniture in the same way … so sofas and tables might be next.
This should form a growing body of material with a chance to experiment with indexing and cross referencing and posts will be updated to add to entries if more information or better photographs become available or to add more links to archive drawings and historic images.
In many ways the chair appears to be old fashioned - looking backward to earlier styles of furniture with a romantic reinterpretation of an historic type of chair - but it also marks or defines the start of a distinctly modern approach to furniture design.
Faaborg is on the south coast of the island of Funen - just over 40 kilometres from Odense. The museum was founded in June 1910 to display the work of a group of artists known as the Funen painters and in 1912 it was the artists themselves who proposed Carl Petersen to design a new gallery that was to be built along one side of the summer home and garden of Mads Rasmussen … a wealthy businessman who had made his fortune through canned food.
Petersen was a leading figure in the architectural movement known as New Classicism. That might sound like yet another or simply the next revival of a historic style but in fact it was the architects of this group who instigated major changes as Danish architecture moved towards both Modernism and Functionalism.
Kaare Klint joined Carl Petersen as an assistant in December 1913, as work on the new gallery started, and his first designs were for furniture for the archives - a room at the end of the sequence of galleries with wide doors onto the garden. Drawings are dated February 1914 with designs for a sofa, bookcases, a bureau and chairs.
The first working drawings for this chair for the main gallery are dated June 1914 and then a small model and a full-sized prototype were made.
The starting point for the design was a Danish form of chair known as a Klismos that had first appeared in the late 18th century and was derived from chairs that had been depicted on classical vases and sculpture. The distinctive features were legs that had a marked curve between the seat and the floor - almost as if the legs are splaying out under the weight of the person - and with the back legs continuing up above the seat as posts to support a very sharply curved back rest.
Klint designed a chair that was a distinct improvement on earlier designs and was certainly much lighter both in weight and appearance than many versions. In part this was because the chair was actually designed deliberately to be light so that it could be moved around the gallery by the visitor so they could sit down directly in front of a painting to study the work.
photographs taken at Designmuseum Danmark in the major exhibition from June 2014 through to October 2015 on the work of Kaare Klint
Kaare Klint (1888-1954)
made by N M Rasmussen, Rud. Rasmussen and N C Jensen Kjær
oak, cane, leather
height of seat 43cm
The Faaborg chair is still in production and is now made by Carl Hansen & Son
In 1915 the furniture designed by Kaare Klint for the Faaborg Museum on Funen - along with drawings and even a section of tiled floor for the main gallery - were exhibited in Copenhagen in the Danish Museum of Art & Design that was then still in its original building on City Hall Square.
Clearly this was good marketing for Klint then went on to design a number of chairs of the Faaborg type for a number of important and influential clients in Copenhagen.
The original Faaborg Chair from 1914 has cane in the panels of the back and there was a rather heavier looking version of that chair, with solid panels in the back rest with a top rail that flares out in a more marked way, that was made by the cabinetmaker N M Rasmussen in 1916 for Aage Lunn and then in 1917 a version of the chair in Cuban mahogany was made for Dansk Kunsthandel in Copenhagen by N C Jensen Kjær.
This chair is much heavier and more robust than the chair for the Faaborg Museum with deeper pieces for the frame of the seat and the back rest has a much more pronounced outward curve to the lip or top rail. As with the Faaborg Chair, the front legs are tapered but vertical and the back legs are set at 45 degrees to the curve of the seat and back and are not just tapered but are also curved or flared outwards following the form of a Klismos chair.
All round, this is a much more robust chair. There is a third rail around the back above the cane seat but below the top of the cushion and the upper part of the leg does not cut in or reduce until it is above this point … in part meaning that the tenons of the rail are housed into mortices in the thickest part of the leg but also to link visually the cushion and the seat rail and create a series of closely related curved lines from the top rail down.
Another variation of the Faaborg Chair, with a fixed leather seat, was produced in the 1930s.
designed by Kaare Klint (1888-1954)
made by N C Jensen Kjær
Cuban mahogany, cane seat and leather cushion
height of seat 46cm
This chair was designed by Kaare Klint in 1923 for the office of the Thorvaldesn Museum in Copenhagen * and made by N C Jensen Kjær. In style, it looks back to the chair that Klint designed for the museum at Faaborg in 1914.
Made in burl oak, the frame has a distinct, sharply-curved, and high back support. As with the chairs for the museum in Faaborg, both the front and back legs are continued up to support a curved and horizontal rail and there are intermediate rails, half way between the seat and the top rail, but with the upper parts here filled with thin curved panels of wood held in channels in the frame - rather than the cane work of the Faaborg Chair.
However, the seat is cane and that supports a separate leather cushion - rather than having full upholstery - so, as a consequence, the chair is lighter and the frame of the seat can be thinner.
As with a traditional chair of the Klismos type, both the front and the back legs curve or flare slightly outwards to the floor to provide more stability but they also make the chair rather more elegant than if they were straight. The precision of the cabinetwork means that there is enough strength in the frame for any cross stretchers between the legs to be unnecessary.
When seen from underneath, it is obvious that the carpentry, where the rails of the seat are joined into the leg of the Thorvaldsen chair, is more precise and stronger so the slightly crude blocks across the leg and frame on the underside of the seat to strengthen the join on the Faaborg chair can be omitted here.
Above the seat, the legs are made thinner with chamfers that reduce the cross section from square to octagonal and the rails are also chamfered on the outer side. Again, this seems to be a development or refinement of the Faaborg chair where the legs above the seat are just reduced in thickness on the inner face. This cutting back of the pieces of the frame makes the chair look less heavy but the thin chamfers also have a marked visual effect, with the different surfaces catching light in different ways so it is like a stronger line on a pencil drawing that reinforces an outline.
Kaare Klint is rationalising and refining his design although there is one change from the Faaborg chair that appears to be retrogressive … on the Faaborg Chair the back rail of the seat is curved, to follow the semi circle of the back rest, whereas here, on the chair for the Thorvaldsen Museum, the back rail of the seat is flat so this chair follows more closely the form of the historic Klismos type where the back support over sails the seat in a distinctive way when the chair is viewed from the side. But then, of course, the chair was for a major public building that dates from the 1840s so Klint may well have considered the slightly old-fashioned form more appropriate.
* In May 1914, after working with Carl Petersen in Faaborg, Klint married and travelled with his wife to Java for an extended trip and did not return to Copenhagen until the Spring of 1916. He worked first with the architect Povl Baumann and then with Carl Petersen again - on alterations to the Thorvaldsen Museum and work for the David Collection in Copenhagen - and when Petersen died in 1923, Klint continued with both projects.
chair photographed at Designmuseum Danmark
designed by Kaare Klint (1888-1954)
made by the cabinetmaker N C Jensen Kjær
height to seat 49cm
Clearly this chair is not a modern chair - not by any stretch of the imagination - but it is important because it shows how styles and forms of furniture from the 19th century continued on well into the 20th century.
The chair was designed in 1921 for the Court House in Fredericksberg … the municipality immediately to the west of Copenhagen … so the commission was for furniture for a major civic building that itself dated from the 19th century and therefore, perhaps, more formal and more solid and more traditional furniture was appropriate but it also shows clearly that it is unwise to try and see the history of design in terms of a rapid and inevitable changing of the guard in a clear-cut way or even as something that everyone at the time just accepted as inevitable.
The chair appears to be old-fashioned to modern eyes and the design, taking the distinct form of a Klismos stole or classical type of chair, looks back to a style of chair made in Denmark from the late 18th century onwards but it would have been seen as perfectly acceptable to architects and designers of the New Classicism school that was strong if not dominant in Denmark from about 1915 and through to the 1930s.
Nor are architects or designers restricted to one style across their work. Born in 1887, Kaj Gottlob was just a year older than Kaare Klint and so, then in his early 30s, he can hardly be written off as an old man out of touch with new trends. He had travelled widely in Greece, Italy, France and North Africa and after teaching at the Technical School from 1915 and then at the Royal Academy Building School he was appointed as a professor at the Royal Academy in 1924. Although his furniture designs were generally in this style, he is acknowledged to be one of the leading architects of the Modernist Movement … by the late 1920s he was seen as a Functionalist - not a term you would use for this chair - and his most famous designs are probably for the two bridges over the harbour in Copenhagen with Knippelsbro that he designed in the 1930s and then Langebro that Gottlob designed after the War and that was completed in 1954.
a Klismos chair in Designmuseum Danmark from circa 1790 by N A Abildgaard (1743-1809)
detail of chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen
Designed by Kaj Gottlob (1887-1976)
made by Fritz Hansen Eftf
ash, cane seat, leather cushion
height of seat 42cm
Although this is a folding chair it was not designed as a deckchair or even primarily for use outside but it was for a small apartment and was designed to be hung on the wall so it was out of the way until it was needed.
The cross bar below the seat is shaped and has curved cross struts to form a notch to keep the chair steady when it is hung over a single hook.
Deceptively simple with an open wooden frame for the seat and back, that are square and infilled with cane, and that cross over as an X shape when seen from the side. The back rest is concave and continues on down in a single curve to form the front legs of the chair and the seat running on down to form the back support is slightly convex.
Where the design is ingenious is in the way the structure, the precise alignment of the key parts of the frame and a hinge or pivot at the centre, allow the chair to fold flat and stay flat when it is hanging. The frame also has to allow for the cane to be taken down through slots at certain points, rather than around the whole frame, to accommodate handles and so on.
As with so many designs by Wegner it looks easy and simple when he has finished but take a step back to the beginning and try to design the same thing without any reference to his solution and you begin to see how he had such an amazing perception of three dimensional space. The impressive thing about any puzzle, say a complex crossword puzzle for example, is not that someone can solve it but the mind that created it.
The Folding Chair, made by Johannes Hansen, was shown in the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1949 and what now seems so incredible is that this chair was actually far from the star piece that year. In 1949 Wegner and Hansen presented to the public The Round Chair and the tripartite Shell Chair.
Børge Glabn in Arkitekten wrote:
Hans Wegner and Johannes Hansen "confront us with something altogether different; a classic simplicity both in analytical approach and in the synthesis of its practical application. …. The use of materials was clear and lucid, the fervour of the makers was evident in the craftsmanship, and the idea underlying the composition was clear and consistent." **
It is said by Christian Holmsted Olesen * that the Folding Chair is one of the designs by Wegner that was most plagiarised.
* Hans J Wegner, by Christian Holmsted Olesen in Store Danske Designere, Lindhardt og Ringhof (2008)
** Dansk Møbelkunst Gennem 40 År 1947-1956, edited by Grete Jalk, Lindhardt og Ringhof, (2017) page 98
designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
made by Johannes Hansen and then PP Møbler
teak, oak or ash and sjeneflet (cane)
height of front edge of seat: 39cm
length when folded: 99cm
Through the 1930s and 1940s and on into the 1950s, designer experimented with not just different materials, so here shaped plywood, but also looked for new and unconventional forms of construction.
Here, Hans Wegner seems to have been inspired by the carpenters sawbuck … what is called in England a saw horse or sometimes simply a trestle. This was a straightforward and usually light bench, often made quickly and crudely with available timber with a length of squared-off wood as a top bar and simple supports at each end - either just two pieces of wood fixed and angled out to form an inverted V or, if it had to support more weight, then cross bars were added between the legs to form an A at each end. These were used on their own or with a pair to support a length of wood as it was sawn or cut to length or two of these could be used together with planks set across to form a temporary table or even a platform when painting a ceiling or hanging wallpaper.*
Of course, the geometry of the form of Wegner's chair is actually rather more sophisticated than a trestle.
The key part of the structure is an H shape at the front with robust turned and tapered uprights or posts with a cross bar that is the support for the front of the seat. This primary H frame is not upright but leans backwards and is supported by a second similar but much shorter H shape that is propped against it and the cross bar of that back H supports the back of the seat that is slotted into the cross bar.
Where the shorter back support meets the taller front posts there are short and shaped arm rests, housed and cantilevered forward, very close to the form of the arm rests on the Peacock Chair by Wegner.
There is a deep back rest in plywood, with a level top but bowed downwards across the bottom and slightly curved inwards. This is not fixed across the uprights but held between them with lugs at the top and bottom, on each side, shaped from the back rest itself and held in slots on the inward facing edges of the pots so a form very close to the way that Alvar Aalto fixed the curved plywood shells of his chairs between the bentwood frames of the supports on each side.
Designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
made by Carl Hansen
height of seat 37cm
For comparison, in the following year, Wegner designed a dining chair Carl Hansen - CH29 - that is closely related in its form to the Sawbuck Chair.
Sawbuck dining chair 1952
height of seat: 44cm
* The name of the chair implies a sawbuck was a direct inspiration but sometimes these names were applied subsequently if the form reminded people of something … the case with the Wishbone Chair.
early versions of the chair shown at the exhibition on the work of Hans Wegner at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014
early versions of the chair shown at the exhibition on the work of Hans Wegner at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014 - the chair in the foreground with the more straightforward simple bending of the back leg and the final form beyond
Sometimes good design is about designing something better and sometimes it's about designing something different and, without doubt, it was the exploration of what many could see as unconvential styles and forms that drove forward Danish design through the 1960s and 1970s.
This shell chair by Hans Wegner, designed in 1963, could certainly not be described as conventional as for Wegner it was one of his most sculptural and most simple designs.
First drawings for the chair show a more squared-off back with a slight downward curve across the top but with sharp outer corners and that emphasised that the sides of the back rest followed up in line from the angle of the front legs.
There are just four parts to the chair with a wide and curved seat in thick plywood with an outline close to the shape of a segment of orange and a back rest as a separate piece, gently curved and with a complex shape, tapered towards the top, with all corners generously rounded and the angles of the sides set by the angle of the legs below when seen from the front.
The frame of the legs is in bent wood with two front legs from a single piece of wood that forms a saddle shape to support the seat. There is a single back leg formed from a single elongated triangle of wood that is taken back from the cross bar of the front legs, under the seat, and then first up behind the back rest to support it and set its angle and then swept back down to the ground.
In the prototypes these leg pieces were a single uniform thickness but in the final design they are split and divided at crucial points at the curve between the front leg and the part that runs under the seat and at the point on the back leg where it reaches its highest point and then is curved sharply to run down to the ground.
In 1998 the chair reintroduced into their catalogue by Carl Hansen
Chair 3208 in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark
3108 - an early version of the chair - was designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1961 but The Lily - or at least a first version of The Lily without arms - was shown at the Scandinavian Furniture Fair in Copenhagen in 1969 and the final form with arms was shown at the furniture fair the following year.
Clearly the Lily is related to the other shell chairs in plywood that Jacobsen designed - including The Ant from 1952 and the Series 7 chairs from1955 - but the Lily has a more marked shape with a much narrower waist between the seat and the back that was there to make possible a more pronounced curve of the shell. Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum, in their book on the work of Jacobsen,* suggest that this created so much tension in the shell that up to 75% that were made had to be rejected.
A version of the Series 7 Chair had narrow arm rests on what are almost stalks extending up from the back leg - a curious reinterpretation of the back post of a traditional chair in wood - but on the Lily Chair, the arm rests are exaggerated - almost flamboyant for Jacobsen - and make the chair more sculptural and much more dramatic.
Unlike so many of the his contemporaries, Jacobsen was an architect who designed furniture outside the world of the cabinetmakers … even Poul Kjærholm, the designer who moved his work furthest from traditional cabinetmaking and closest to engineering had started his training as an apprentice to a cabinetmaker in Gronbech in 1948.
Jacobsen showed his furniture just once at Cabinetmakers' Exhibition - in 1933 in collaboration with Fleming Lassen - and that was not a success with the critics. Perhaps this chair is the one from this period that is closest to industrial or product design and it is certainly a very good example of how Danish designers in the post-war period broke with all conventions for what a chair should look like or how it should be made.
* Arne Jacobsen, Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum, The Danish Architectural Press (2001)
the back and the arm rest of a Colonial Chair designed by Ole Wanscher in 1949
This is really a simple point about engineering in wood.
There are many factors that influenced modern Danish design and made the furniture of the period specific to the country and contributed to its success.
One key role was that of the cabinetmakers. Their work through the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s was not simply a matter of producing work of a high quality but their skills enabled designers to push materials - specifically their work with wood - in very new directions.
It was the close working relationship between the designers starting with Kaare Klint and his partnership with Rud. Rasmussen and then on of course through the collaboration between Hans Wegner with first Johannes Hansen and then the craftsmen of PP Møbler or Ole Wanscher working with A J Iversen or the work of Finn Juhl made by Niels Vodder.
This was not simply a matter of a maker realising a design: this was about being proud of a skill but having the confidence and the desire to push boundaries and that in fact was what was, essentially, at the heart of the apprenticeship and guild system … its DNA from the middle ages onwards. For cabinetmakers it was about taking the techniques of joining one piece of timber to another and adapting and improving and refining that, along with understanding what wood could and could not do, to make furniture that was, in terms of its mechanics viable.
It might seem inane or at best unnecessary to point out that, however beautiful or amazing the design looks, a chair fails, literally, if it collapses or if it is uncomfortable.
A chair by Finn Juhl shows the designer pushing the materials and the joiners skills to new limits. Other chairs by other designers from the classic period are more subtle but no less amazing. In the Colonial Chair by Ole Wanscher, designed in 1949, the turned posts of the back rest are just 30mm in diameter and the slats that support the cushion of the back rest are just 8mm thick and gently curved along a total length of 480mm but the slats are housed into the posts and the whole thing takes the weight of someone sitting in the chair and leaning back.
longer post and photographs of the Colonial Chair by Ole Wanscher
Danish furniture from the second half of the 20th century is generally and more immediately associated by most people with wood and, as a consequence, with cabinetmaking or at least with wood-working techniques of the highest quality but actually metal work and engineering were important in the evolution of Danish design and, even in wood, many designs, particularly designs that pushed boundaries, experimented with structure and with joining or joinery that is actually engineering but engineering in wood rather than metal.
The furniture designed by Poul Kjærholm displays the purest and most refined engineering in metal.
Chair PK22 was the first chair that Poul Kjærholm designed specifically for E Kold Christensen. The structure in steel is reduced to a minimum with each leg unit in a single strip of steel with just four bends and that includes forming minimal feet. The two leg pieces are linked by two square-ended but gently curved cross bars, set on edge, bolted with black allen screws across the top and the seat is a simple rectangle with a gentle convex surface that runs back and down slightly to a back rest equally simple but with a gentle concave curve in the vertical plane.
The chair is covered either with leather or, providing an amazing contrast of textures, with woven cane.
The modern chair of comparable quality and similar form is the Barcelona Chair from 1929 by the German designer Mies van der Rohe but in comparison that chair appears to be heavy and solid. It fits within a cube of 75cms so it is an interesting design in terms of a clear concept and it was certainly ground breaking and is a stunning chair but it is actually a large chair … that in explains, in part, why the Barcelona Chair is found in entrance lobbies in the office buildings of large companies.
The chair by Poul Kjærholm is lighter, more elegant, really less muscular, and has very different qualities and virtues: it was designed on a smaller and more domestic scale and has a more subtle relationship with the space it occupies.
It is also a really good example of that design maxim that one way of determining if a design is good or bad is by thinking about if it would be possible to add anything or take anything away without undermining the design. Of course there are other ways of determining good design … an appropriate use of the materials or, in terms of function, doing what it is meant to do and doing it well and the PK22 ticks those boxes as well … but here what is so striking is the reduction of the form to a perfect minimum.
The legs are made as a pair … a front leg and a back leg together … and the link between the two legs is the support of the seat. The front legs and back legs are at different angles because they reflect different forces … the difference between leaning back in a chair and not tipping it backwards but equally not tipping it forward as you transfer weight and stand up and a difference in height sets the angle of the seat which should not be horizontal. All done in a single strip of steel and bent with a curve rather than a sharp and harsh angle. And those curves … could they be larger or smaller? Almost certainly not. How did Kjærholm determine the radius of those curves? A mathematical relationship? By eye because they looked absolutely right?
The angle of the back is determined by the angle of the fixed relationship of the seat and the back rest and both are curved enough but no more than enough to form the start of a hollow for the body of the person sitting down.
Cross bars link the two leg units and are fixed with two bolts … one bolt would allow the parts to twist or pivot against each other and three would be excessive. The bars are curved down but not as a device or decoration but because otherwise you would feel them through the seat and the 'upholstery' is not as rigid and unforgiving as plywood but certainly not as decadent or as thick and intrusive, visually, as a couple of inches of springs or horsehair or foam.
Surely, this is the essential chair? Not essential, as in must have although it is that as well, but essential as in reduced in the most precise and cerebral way to the essence of a chair.
Poul Kjærholm (1929-1980)
made initially by E Kold Christensen
and now made by Fritz Hansen
matte chrome-plated steel
rattan or cane and also versions covered with leather or with canvas
height of seat: 35cm