40 years of Danish Furniture Design - The Copenhagen Cabinet-makers’ Guild Exhibitions
In four volumes: 1927-1936, 1937-1946, 1947-1956 and 1957-1966
Compiled and edited by Greta Jalk - first published in 1987 and republished by Lindhart og Ringhof in 2017
a living room and study with furniture by the cabinetmaker Andersen & Bohm that was shown at the exhibition in 1928
these volumes of Dansk Møbelkunst Gennem 40 År are so important because they record just how and how quickly the work of the cabinet makers changed through even the first years of the exhibitions
This is a major reference work - not just for the history of modern Danish furniture design and the design of homes but these volumes, compiled by Greta Jalk, are also a record of social history - recording much about how Danish families lived or wanted to live through that period of massive changes in the middle of the 20th century - and indicate much about Danish business and the way that Danish design, through this period, was marketed.
There is a forward and a general introduction but otherwise the volumes are set out year by year with contemporary photographs of the furniture shown at each exhibition, along with some technical drawings. There are images of the covers of the exhibition catalogues - themselves giving an insight into Danish typography and graphic design through this period - and quotations from contemporary reviews of the furniture.
By the 1920s a widespread economic Depression across Europe was having a marked effect on the independent furniture makers and on the furniture trade in Copenhagen and to compound the problem, there was a clear change in the way people were living, so a change in what furniture they needed, with a growing number of people living in smaller apartments in the large number of new apartment blocks that were being built around the city.
Trade and craft guilds from the medieval period onwards had been formed to oversee the training of apprentices and to protect craftsmen and their work in their own cities - guilds were based in cities and towns - and to monitor and where necessary restrict competition. Usually the guilds also provided support for widows and retired craftsmen. Through the 19th century, in major historic cities in Europe, these craft guilds began to loose their relevance as methods of production, of all sorts of goods from glassware to furniture, moved from small workshops that served a district or a town or a city to larger and larger factories. So it is ironic that Denmark, producing now some of the best and most highly regarded modern furniture, does so because it’s old craft guilds survived longer than elsewhere and fought back and in the process adapted and changed.
So the first Cabinetmakers’ Exhibition in 1927 was organised as a way of demonstrating the skills of the furniture makers in the city and to bolster sales or, rather, to revive flagging sales.
From consecutive years an unusual idea … a square card table and chairs with sharply-curved backs set on an angle so when they were pushed in they form a scallop arrangement. The table and chairs shown in 1960 had been designed by Kaare Klint in 1935 and examples of the same design in mahogany were shown in 1946 and 1948. This version in rosewood was produced to commemorate the work of Klint who died in 1954. Svend Eriiksen wrote that “The tradition established by Klint is tenacious and durable. It will take vigorous effort to keep it alive” and the critic from Jyllands Posten wrote of this furniture that “they still stand out as some of the finest pieces to have been made in this country.”
Exhibitions were held in different venues but at an early stage room settings rather than simple display stands were built. Clearly, the aim was to show people, particularly young couples, how they might furnish a new home and they encouraged people to see furniture made by cabinetmakers as not just for the wealthy upper middle classes but as a sensible source for well-made furniture for a broad range of families.
In the second year, in 1928, there was a crucial change when cabinetmakers began to collaborate with architects and furniture was shown that had been designed by Viggo Sten Møller and Kay Gottlob and a sideboard was shown that was designed by Kaare Klint that was made by the cabinetmaker Otto Meyer.
That set a pattern and - to use a pun deliberately - that set the bench mark for the next forty years. These partnerships established an important precedence where designs and styles evolved - not just through discussion amongst the cabinetmakers but year on year as a response to what the market wanted.
This room from 1944 included Chair NV44 designed by Finn Juhl and made by Niels Vodder. The side table is interesting with an integral hot plate to keep food warm. Reviews were critical - one pointed out that “The table was a new and interesting kind of extension table; but it seemed as if its design was not really related to that of the other furniture” and another thought “the curved chairs are nice to look at and comfortable - but the cost of making it.”
Obviously, this furniture can not be completely representative of all furniture made through this period and nor was it all successful. Some cabinet makers were more adventurous than others … some produced amazing pieces of furniture that were not widely appreciated while other designs went on to achieve commercial success and some pieces are still produced and sold today.
The photographs and drawings in these volumes show how the way of life in the city for many changed through this period so, for instance, large cupboards for storing 12 or more place settings for formal dining disappear and tables and dining chairs become more compact. There were few beds shown - presumably for the simple reason that people don’t buy beds too often - but towards the later years there was quite a bit of furniture for the garden or balcony.
from 1962 bar stools in rosewood designed by Mary Beatrice Bloch and beds in teak designed by the Icelandic designer Gunnar Magnusson made by Christensen and Larsen. The sofa chairs and combined dinning table work table are also in teak, designed by Steffen Syrach-Larsen and made by the cabinetmaker Gustav Bertelsen & Co.
What you see, above all through these 40 years, is how the shapes and styles of chairs and tables and cupboards become simpler visually so superfluous decoration of any kind disappears.
That is not to suggest that the furniture compromised quality by becoming more basic so cheaper to produce. Actually the opposite. As clear form and shape become more and more important then there is nowhere for shoddy workmanship to hide. If there was any extravagance or bravado it was through using more expensive imported timbers such as walnut or teak but there was always a focus on quality of workmanship to demonstrate mastery of woodworking techniques.
Nor is that an implication that the cabinetmakers were defensive or protectionist or reactionary because many of the pieces shown at the exhibition involved new methods of construction that required new machines and jigs and new ways of working with wood - many of the most adventurous designs by Hans Wegner or Finn Juhl would have been impossible to make without new techniques for shaping, bending and joining wood. Furniture makers were moving from the workbench to the idea of the larger workshop or factory where larger numbers of each piece could be made so these exhibitions were less and less about the one-off commission, although those must have been welcome, but more and more about the establishment of an outward-looking and successful furniture industry.