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 to be manufactured by E Kold Christensen.
The structure 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 across the top, held in place with black allen screws, 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 and heavy chair … which 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.
PK22 in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen
It is also a good example of that design maxim that one way of determining if a design is good or bad is by considering 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 … so is there an appropriate use of the materials and an obvious expression in the design of the qualities of those 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. And 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 or was it by eye so 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 … so again right. The bars are curved down but not as a device or for decoration or for effect but because if they were straight then you might feel them through the seat.
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