an introduction to furniture design in Denmark in the 20th Century

In part, the history of furniture design in Denmark in the 20th Century was a story of reaching a wider market: that perennial problem for any manufacturer - do you produce now what the customer wants right now or do you promote what you can do as a designer to create a new market - to help customers to appreciate what you could produce given the chance. 

In Denmark at the beginning of the 20th Century, furniture of the highest quality was produced by cabinet makers who had received a long formal training. On the whole their business was to produce well-made furniture for a wealthy, established and, generally, conservative middle class.

Cabinet makers could reproduce traditional designs but important pieces would be designed by architects, most of whom, themselves, came from the wealthy middle class. Furniture designers as a separate profession only emerged from the academic system in the early 20th Century. 

Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi (The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts) had been founded in 1754 and there were separate schools for Architecture, Painting and Sculpture from its inauguration but a Department of Furniture Design was only opened in 1924 with Kaare Klint as head. 

As in England in the late 19th century, there was a growing interest in the crafts generally in Denmark. A Society for Decorative Arts was founded in 1901 and the Danish Society of Arts and Crafts was founded in 1914. A School of Arts and Crafts was established in Copenhagen in 1930 by the merger of the Craft School of the Danish Museum of Decorative Art and The Technical Society’s Schools’ department of art industry. Finally a School of Interior Design was founded privately in 1934 in Fredericksberg and is now part of the Academy School of Design.

Of growing importance were commissions for architects to produce furniture for public buildings including churches and government office and particularly furniture for museums and academies. 

Faaborg Museum

In 1914 Kaare Klint designed furniture for the museum at Faaborg, in the centre of Denmark, where Carl Petersen was the architect. Then, in 1922, Klint designed a chair for the office of the director of the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen and when the Danish Museum of Art and Design opened in 1926, he designed show cases and furniture and designed fittings such as panelling, locks and door knobs. 

This was a pattern to be repeated later, particularly by the architect Arne Jacobsen, who wanted, where possible, to design all aspects of a building and its interior including the furniture. Perhaps the most important example of this is the SAS hotel and airline terminal that was built in central Copenhagen early in the 1950s but he also designed furniture for the Council Chamber of Aarhus City Hall in the late 30s and Rødovre Town Hall in the 50s.

Ole Wanscher designed furniture and fittings for both the David Collection in Copenhagen, opened to the public in 1948, and for the Danish Institute of Science and Art in Rome founded in 1956. Clearly, such prestigious work brought these designers to the attention of not only wealthy private clients from Denmark but also brought them recognition abroad.

From the middle of the 19th Century, first international exhibitions and then trade fairs have also been important for promoting the work of furniture makers. The Milan Furniture Fair, launched in 1961 and now held every April, is the largest international furniture fair and is considered to be the best place for young and established designers and for manufacturers to promote their work but there were some important exhibitions in the 20th century that specifically promoted Danish design and brought the work of Danish designers to the attention of a much wider international audience. The Art of Denmark exhibition in New York in 1960 went on to tour other major American cities and Danish design was promoted in England by the exhibition Two Centuries of Danish Design staged at the V&A in London in 1968.

What was new in the late 20th Century was the idea that independent furniture designers could earn an income from the licence for a design when one of their pieces was produced by a manufacturer.