A major exhibition about the work of Hans Wegner has just opened at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen. It runs from the 3rd April through to the 2nd November 2014 and marks 100 years since Wegner’s birth on the 2nd April 1914.
Of course the title of the exhibition is a marvellous irony, reflecting Wegner’s modesty and, as revealed in this exhibition, his subtle sense of humour. In 1952 he is quoted as saying “If only you could design just one good chair in your life … But you simply cannot.” In a long working life Wegner produced over 1,000 designs and over 500 of those designs were taken on to commercial production making him surely one of the most prolific designers of the 20th century.
What this exhibition shows clearly is the exceptionally high standard of Wegner's designs which had their origin in a traditional craft training but were clearly and rationally focused on commercial production through his work and collaboration with a number of major Danish manufacturers: Wegner, more than any other furniture designer in the post-war classical period of Danish furniture design, understood exactly what could be done with wood in a commercial workshop.
The exhibition, by displaying side by side many different pieces, shows how Wegner returned to a form or to an idea to try a variation or to improve, for instance, the form of a chair arm by modifying how it was shaped and supported. That it not to suggest that the 500 designs were simply subtle changes on well-worn themes. Here, above all, in the exhibition can be seen the huge variety of designs that Wegner produced from conservative pieces that come from the tradition of Kaare Klint, through experiments with plywood to metal frames strung with cord to a chair whose form was inspired by a hollow in the sand on a beach that Wegner dug for himself to sit in when he was on a family holiday.
As part of the design process, Wegner made scale models of the pieces and there you can see the first of many important clues that explain the success of his work: with a model in his hand he could assess the finished design from all angles. If there is one over-riding quality for furniture designed by Hans Wegner it is that his chairs can and should be seen from all sides.
At the exhibition in the Design Museum there are two huge, oversized, chairs in the entrance hall that show that these chairs are, in a very real sense, sculptures. Wegner chairs are comfortable and practical and sculpture.
Over-sized chairs in the entrance hall - a version of the Shell Chair designed by Wegner in 1963 and the J16 Rocking Chair that has been in production since 1944.
Photographs in isolation, without people, do not show the size of these two chairs so I took the opportunity to photograph these visitors to the exhibition trying out the rocking chair. I have no idea who they are but I am grateful to them for letting me show just how big and just what fun the two giant chairs were.
Over the next few weeks I will post a number of pieces about Wegner’s work because I feel that after a period when furniture design has been driven by novelty and fashion, we may be returning to a clearer understanding of the merit of investing in quality of manufacture and good design for what we buy for our homes … furniture for the long term and not part of a constant need to redecorate and replace.
for information about the exhibition and opening times go to Design Museum Danmark