Danish Furniture Design in the 20th Century by Arne Karlsen was written in the early 1990s but was reprinted by Dansk Møbelkunst in 2007 with two volumes in a boxed set.
These volumes are the best assessment of modern Danish furniture available in English and are beautifully illustrated with historic photographs and new photographs of surviving pieces. Many of the photographs of some of the best pieces in museums and public buildings in Copenhagen appear to have been taken specifically for the book. Full-page photographs are set out facing reproductions of original presentation or technical drawings.
Karlsen was an architect who worked with Mogens Koch, to whom the volumes are dedicated, and he approaches the subject through his hands-on experience as a furniture designer. The volumes provide a very readable and a very good broad chronological overview but what makes them invaluable is the addition of detailed and critical assessments of the most important and influential examples of chairs, tables and storage furniture produced through the century.
By discussing Danish furniture in a chronological sequence it is clear that the style of these well-made and sophisticated pieces evolved, in part, following fashion but more obviously through a rational evolution of construction techniques as the designers took forms and woods that they understood and then experimented with tried-and-tested cabinet-making techniques to push the form of their designs forward.
Of course this reinforces the importance of training or, with some of the architects who were essentially self taught when they moved across to furniture design, the book shows clearly the importance of understanding the skills of the cabinetmaker and exploiting that understanding to develop new forms - to push to new levels the form of, for instance, chair legs and chair arms without making them weak or difficult to reproduce.
These designers also experimented with new materials that meant, of course, they had to work with new techniques for construction: in the middle of the century, they experimented with laminating and steam molding timber to create complex curved shapes for seats and chair backs, and by the 1950s, began to explore the possibilities of using molded plastic.
The century saw important changes in the way high quality furniture was made - at first by cabinet makers in independent workshops at the beginning of the century, producing individual pieces for prosperous middle-class customers, through the rise of the new furniture stores, catering to an increasingly prosperous lower middle class, and then, in the second half of the century, the need to produce well-made simple furniture, using new industrial manufacturing, to provide cheap but well-designed furniture for an increasingly prosperous working class.
The book provides some social and political context for the design of Danish furniture. Karlsen explores, through the century, a general and rapid change in life style that meant that new and different types of furniture were needed. After the First World War ordinary people were acquiring more possessions and this accelerated after the Second War. These were changes that required new forms of furniture or at least furniture that was adapted to new consumer technology and that technology advanced rapidly through the 1950s and 1960s: people no longer needed storage simply for tableware and clothes - they needed storage or display space for televisions, tape recorders and record players.
Although the first edition of the book was written in 1990 one paragraph seems to resonate a quarter of a century later. Arne Karlsen wrote:
“In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the foundation for high-quality manufacture was eroded slowly but surely. This was not because people had less money to spend, but because life at home changed, and people changed their purchasing priorities accordingly. Even conservatively orientated families adopted new life styles. For example, the television set and stereo system increasingly rule out a family meal at the dinner table and laid claim to available capital. Furniture was no longer the most important furnishing in the family home. Furniture was not what people bought first; it had to wait until all the electronic equipment had been acquired. And since this equipment had to be continually updated, more and more rarely was there money left over for good-quality furniture. Furniture became discount goods.”
Perhaps, as we assess the long-term consequences of our economic recession and we worry more about our need to use natural resources with more care, we may decide that cheap furniture pandering to our demand for the novel or the fashionable might not be quite so easy to justify and perhaps returning to the idea of investing in well-designed and solidly-made furniture that has a much longer life span might be a good option.