Designmuseum Danmark gives this rocking chair from the United States a prominent place in the introduction at the entrance to their gallery of modern Danish chairs and so, by implication, an important place in the story of Danish furniture in the second half of the 20th century. There are obvious links with the style and form of chairs designed by Ole Wanscher, Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen and others in the 1940s and 1950s but I did not appreciate the complicated history of this chair or understand its direct influence until I read the account set out by Gorm Harkær in his monograph on Kaare Klint that was published in 2010.
In 1919 Kaare Klint took over the teaching of technical drawing for cabinetmakers at the Technical Society's school. His approach to furniture design was clearly set out in his programme where he states that the school "will not try to teach you to perform so-called beautiful specious Drawings where the whole room is reflected in the Furniture Polish: we will try to teach you to draw accurate and realistic line drawings. We will not try to teach you to draw Artworks in different Styles, but try to show you the beauty that lies in the perfect simple Design and Usability."
In the collection of Designmuseum Danmark but not currently on display… copy of a Shaker rocking chair made in beech by Rud. Rasmussen in 1942. The catalogue entry RP00074 gives the designer as Kaare Klint. Note the elongated vase-shaped turning at the top of the front legs above the seat that copies the form of the chair owned by Einar Utzon-Frank and drawn by O Brøndum Christensen in 1927 rather than the pronounced taper or thinning down of the upper part of the front leg on the Shaker chair purchased by the museum in 1935
In 1924 Klint was appointed an assistant professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, in the newly-established Department of Furniture Design, where, again, he emphasised the importance of measuring and drawing good examples of historic furniture and that took up much of the first year of the course. In 1927 Klint described these drawings as "the beginning of an archive of furniture studies." *
The Department of Furniture Design was based in the Danish Museum of Art & Design - now Designmuseum Danmark - and students made carefully-measured drawings of a number of key pieces in the collection including a chair by the 18th-century English furniture maker Thomas Chippendale which then formed a starting point for the design of several modern chairs.
The Danish sculptor Einar Utzon-Frank, who also taught at the Royal Academy, owned a rocking chair that was described as "in the American Colonial style" and that chair was surveyed in 1927 by O Brøndum Christensen. A precisely-measured drawing of a Shaker chair at a scale of 1:5 and photographs taken of the chair in 1928 survive. **
Then, in 1935, in an auction, the museum bought this Shaker Rocking chair, very close to the form of the chair owned by Utzon-Frank and it was recorded in the acquisition index as A32/1935 where it is described as a shawl-back rocker with a cushion rail … that is the thin turned, slightly curved bar that runs across the back at the top of the back posts of the back rest of the chair.
In 1937 Edward and Faith Andrews published Shaker Furniture and, after a copy of that book was acquired by the museum library in 1941, it appears that Kaare Klint began a correspondence with American museums about Shaker furniture. ***
The following year, in 1942, Rud. Rasmussens Snedkerier - the cabinetmakers who worked closely with Kaare Klint and made much of the furniture that he designed - made a copy of the Utzon-Frank chair. They appear to have used the survey drawing by O Brøndum Christensen because the upper part of the front legs of the Rud. Rasmussen chair - with an elongated, turned, baluster shape above the seat rail - matches the Utzon-Frank chair rather than the chair owned by the museum that has long, elegant tapering or thinning down of the front leg between the seat rail and where it is housed into the underside of the arm rest.
Also in 1942, Kaare Klint produced designs for a number of chairs in a Shaker-style for FDB - the Danish Co-op - who had just set up a new office for furniture design. Two chairs, one with arms and one without, given the numbers J20 and J21, were made as prototypes by Fritz Hansen Eftf although in the end they were not put into production. ****
the chair designed for FDB - photographed in the exhibition on the work of Kaare Klint at Designmuseum Danmanrk
The original rocking chairs were made in workshops at one of the Shaker communities in America and, from their design, probably at Mount Lebanon where the settlement had been established in 1787 and continued right through until 1947. The religious movement of the Shakers had originated in England but many of the group emigrated to America from the north west - particularly from Lancashire - in search of a more tolerant place to practice their nonconformist beliefs. They took with them ideas and styles and local carpentry techniques which influenced the buildings they constructed and the furniture and panelling and fittings that they made in the settlements they established. Then, having built themselves farm houses, schools and chapels, and because the religious settlements were rural and generally self sufficient and relatively isolated - so by nature closed or inward looking - then these styles and designs became rather fixed. In fact, rocking chairs of this design appear in auction house sale catalogues where some are given a late date of manufacture - some examples dating from early in the 20th century.
So although Klint was not exactly admiring a contemporary chair nor was he inspired by a chair that was particularly old but nor, and perhaps more important, was it a Danish style or from a Danish tradition.
In England, architects and designers of the Arts and Crafts movement responded to what they saw as the poor quality of design of furniture and factory-made household goods as the industrial revolution in England evolved. They looked for inspiration to what they appreciated as a the better craftsmanship of traditional oak furniture of the 17th century and artisan furniture, such as Windsor chairs and cottage chairs, of the 18th century.
However, the important difference between England and Denmark by the 1920s was that, apart from expensive workshop furniture made for companies like Liberties or Heal's, most traditional cabinetmakers' had long disappeared but in Copenhagen the workshops and the skills of cabinetmakers had survived and, even if they felt threatened by factory production, were trying hard to adapt to a very different society and were trying to make furniture for a different customer.
So for Klint it was more about the survival of cabinetmakers' skills rather than revival and the Shaker chair was, for him, an example of a design that he considered to be so good that it would be difficult or impossible to improve. Wasn't that why the rocking chair was one of the few copies made by Rud. Rasmussen rather than a unique and specific design from Klint?
He must have admired the honesty and modesty of the Shaker chairs: they were straightforward and what decoration there was derived from the form and from the joinery and the techniques of the assembly … qualities that inspired the Church Chair by Klint from 1936, with the Shaker-style ladder back and thin turned stretchers and inspired the designs for FDB. Perhaps the only thing that is surprising is that the man who designed some of the most rational storage furniture from the period - with large pieces of furniture with cupboards and a series of drawers - was not, it would seem, inspired by the fitted cupboards and chests of drawers that are some of the best proportioned and most beautiful pieces that were produced by the Shakers.
* Gorm Harkær, Kaare Klint, in two volumes by Klintiana (2010) page 635
** drawing RR model no. 6356 reproduced by Gorm Harkær on page 637 and the photographs page 637
*** page 367
**** Gorm Harkær reproduces the drawings and photographs of the two prototypes on pages 640 and 641
Architects and furniture designers of the Arts and Crafts movement in England reacted to what was seen by some as the poor quality of design that was on display in the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and the poor design of manufactured goods in the second half of the 19th century. A leading proponent for a return to the quality of hand-made furniture and household goods and textiles was William Morris. The Art Workers' Guild was founded in 1884 and the architect and designer C R Ashbee founded the Guild and School of Handicraft in London in 1888 that moved to Chipping Camden in 1902.
There were comparable Arts and Crafts movements in the Netherlands and Germany and Austria but all, in reality, producing expensive furniture for a wealthy middle class … closer in character to the style of furniture in Denmark by Gottlieb Bindesbøll and his contemporaries rather than the work of Danish designers in the 20th century.