the tripartite Shell Chair by Hans Wegner 1949

the Tripartite Chair now in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 

 

More often than not, when someone describes a chair as unique then it is either hyperbole or they are writing for an advert or a sponsored post ……

…. but the tripartite shell chair - designed by Hans Wegner and shown to the public at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1949 - really is unique because just one chair was made by the cabinetmaker Johannes Hansen and after the exhibition it was not sold but taken by Wegner to use in his own home - the design was never put into production.

Wegner had previously designed furniture with shaped and curved laminated wood for Fritz Hansen - Chair FH1936 and a bench or sofa version FH1937 and the tripartite chair was not the only chair in plywood in the 1949 exhibition because Børge Mogensen, Wegner's colleague and friend, also showed a shell chair.

Although the form of the tripartite chair seems simple - a wooden frame with three separate pieces of laminated wood that are shaped and curved for a seat, back rest and head rest - it is difficult to describe the shape of the chair and almost impossible to describe the frame that supports that seat, back rest and head rest.

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Ax chair by Peter Hvidt and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen 1947

Ax Chair in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 
FH6135.jpeg
FH6135 detail.jpeg

Chair FH6135 by Peter Hvidt and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen 1959. Copyright for the images auction site Lauritz.com

 

This is an interesting chair because rather than forming a plywood shell, it uses laminated and moulded wood for the chair seat and the back rest that are supported between frames of laminated and bent beech in a form but not a style reminiscent of the chairs by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto from the 1930s.

The Ax series that included a number of chairs and tables was some of the first Danish furniture to be made after the War that was aimed specifically at the export market. Many of the pieces were designed so that they could be packed as parts and then assembled at the destination and in the 1950s furniture made in Denmark in more expensive woods such as teak or mahogany tended to be exported rather than sold to the home market.

Two chairs were made in this form - one narrower, the height and width for a traditional dining chair, and this design wider and lower as an easy chair.

Both had the distinctive feature of paired stretchers set parallel, one above the other, both between the front legs and between the back legs. These stretchers are turned - round in cross section, slightly tapered and shaped at the ends - and brace and hold together the two side sections of the frame. Those side frames are strong enough for the stretchers to be omitted.

The form of the bentwood side frames is important as Hvidt and Mølgaard-Nielsen developed a specific method of building up layers of laminate around a solid core - in mahogany or teak - rather like the way the handle of a tennis racket with a wood frame is joined to the laminated loop of the racket head. The most distinct example of this type of lamination is for the chair they designed for Fritz Hansen in 1959 - the FH6135 - where, to describe it crudely, four V-shapes in laminated and bent wood are fixed together around a solid diamond-shaped core to form an X that is the side frame of the chair.

A  triangular core in solid wood and the laminate bending and curving away on either side can be seen clearly but in a rather more subtle and rather less decorative way at the top of the front legs of the Ax Chair.

This detail contributes to the flowing or unbroken lines of the side view that is a distinct feature of the design. Note the way that the bottom edges of the side pieces for the seat are slightly chamfered across the front and this chamfer runs down unbroken into a curve that runs back under the side piece and then down the front leg just at the point where the fingers of a person sitting in the chair would grip the front edge of the seat as they are transferring their weight and standing up from the chair … a small but good example of ergonomics, careful design and high-quality manufacturing coming together in a carefully thought through detail and, in part, reflects that both designers trained as cabinet makers.

The front of the legs is not flat but they have a slight convex finish that in part shows the quality of the work but in part also makes a virtue out of a necessity because with laminated wood it is actually better not to try to achieve a crisp sharp angle to the edge or have a square-cut end to a piece as that can split or break away in use or with knocks or damage.

 
Chair, 1932, by Alvar Aalto

cantilevered chair by Alvar Aalto c. 1930 with seat, back and arm rests from a single piece of wood and with a tubular metal frame

 

In the Ax Chair the arm rests are distinctive. A chair from the 1930s designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto had a similar form of arm rest with what appears to be a slit cut through the wood and the seat bent down in an L shape to follow the seat and back but the outer part bent up to form the L shape of the arm rest - a horizontal part for the arm and elbow and the vertical part running back down to the seat - but in the Aalto chair that was all done - seat, backrest and arm rest - in a single piece of plywood whereas here it is the bentwood beech frame that is split and shaped.

In some books, the design of the Ax Chair is dated to 1947 but dated 1950 for the first production.

With the separate moulded seat and moulded back, in laminated wood, the design echoes the type designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1940s although the chairs are obviously very different in style. The Ax chairs seem somehow more traditional and more tightly controlled - more conservative - in comparison although they were certainly successful in terms of sales.

 

beech and mahogany bent frame

laminated teak seat and back

made by Fritz Hansen

 

height: 75cm

width: 62cm

depth: 71cm

height of seat: 38cm

Trinidad Chair by Nanna Ditzel 1993

 

 

The Trinidad Chair is one of the most distinct and most unusual of modern Danish chairs made in plywood. It was designed by Nanna Ditzel and was given that name because the fretwork of facades in Trinidad, seen by her on trips to the island, had been the initial inspiration for the design.

It has a low, simple but elegant frame in metal tube and the seat and the back rest of the chair are cut from separate pieces of laminated wood that are both in a fan shape that is almost reminiscent of the shape of a segment of a citrus fruit. Both backrest and seat are cut through with precisely cut slits that are fanned out gently across the shape.

Both the seat and the back rest are fixed to the frame with large flat rivets but what is striking is that the metal frame of the back is not taken across the top of the back rest but is set low and holds the bottom edge of the back rest to give the chair a form of construction and a silhouette that has a lightness and elegance that is unique in Danish chairs.

There are versions of the Trinidad with arm rests and options for an upholstered pad for the seat.

Made by the Danish furniture company Fredericia, the chair came originally in a number of wood finishes including maple, cherry, beech, birch and walnut but there are now options for colours for both the wood and the metal frame and the chair has just been released in new colours - a palette of soft warm greys selected by the Swedish design blogger Pella Hedeby - to mark the 25th anniversary of its launch.

Fredericia

 

Trinidad Chair in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

 

height: 85cm

width: 48.5cm

depth: 57cm

height of seat: 45.5cm

weight: 4kg

 

A bar stool version with smaller seat and back has a seat height of 76.5cm

shell chairs in laminated wood by Arne Jacobsen

Ant Chair 1952,  The Tongue 1955,  chair model 3105 for Munkegård Elementary School 1955

Series 7 1955,  Side Chair 3103 from 1955,  Grand Prix 1957 ... all in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

 

Looking through recent posts on this site about Danish chairs from the 20th century a major and obvious omission from the list are the shell chairs in laminated wood that were designed by Arne Jacobsen in the 1950s.

It was an amazing and productive decade for the architect when he was working on major buildings but still designing housing. Work on Munkegård Elementary School in Copenhagen started in 1951 and was completed in 1956;  the Town Hall in Rødovre was completed in 1956 and the Town Hall in Glostrup was completed in 1959. Jacobsen designed major commercial and industrial buildings in this period - including an office building for A Jespersen & Son in the centre of Copenhagen - where work started in 1952 and finished in 1955 - the Christensen factory in Aalborg and a pharmaceutical factories for Novo Industri A/S in Copenhagen and for a new site at Bagsværd to the north of the city centre and from 1955 through to 1960, Jacobsen was working on the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen.

He designed several major housing schemes in that same period with both the Alléhusene housing complex and the  Jespersen row houses built in the area close to the railway station at Jægersborg - a growing suburb in the north part of Copenhagen where Jacobsen had designed housing in the 1940s - and there was a second phase of building on the coast  at Klampenborg - with the Søholm houses built just south of the Bellevue theatre and the Bellavista apartments that Jacobsen had designed in the 1930s.

For prestigious public buildings Jacobsen designed specific, custom-made, furniture but he also worked on more commercial designs with a growing demand for modern, well-designed furniture for the home. Jacobsen designed a series of shell chairs in laminated wood in collaboration with Fritz Hansen - the well-established Danish furniture manufacturer - that could be used in commercial and public buildings but were also increasingly popular for use in ordinary homes.

These chairs included model FH3100 known as the Ant Chair that was designed in 1952; model FH3102 or The Tongue - a small chair for children designed originally for Munkegård School in Copenhagen but later made in a larger version; from 1955 model FH3105 - another chair produced for Munkegård - and from that same year model FH3103 with a more pronounced curve between the seat and the back with a broader and deeper and squarer upper part to provide better support for the lower back and the shoulder blades.

The Series 7 - model FH3107 - the most famous of these laminated chairs - also dates from 1955 and is still the best-selling chair produced by Fritz Hansen.

Then, last in this series of shell chairs, the Grand Prix - model FH4130 - designed in 1957 and made in several versions.

The form of these chairs - with a moulded shell in laminated wood - divides them - visually and, in terms of construction and manufacture, into two distinct parts with a seat and back to the chair in one material - the shell in laminated and moulded wood - and a base or support that was made separately in another material.

This clear division of the production process could be exploited because it allowed the manufacturer to make different versions of a chair by providing options for distinctly different bases that changed not just the character of the chair but often also the way that the chair was used and where it was used …

  • most of the chairs could be purchased with thin metal legs that were bent under the shell and held in place on a fixing plate. These legs were compact and light in weight so the chairs could be used in a house or in a small apartment as a dining chair or a general chair
  • for several of the designs, there was an option for a support of legs in bentwood if a customer preffered a chair that looked more traditional
  • nearly all the chairs could be stacked and, although they were light, they were surprisingly robust, and came to be used in offices and canteens and meeting rooms
  • for several of the shaped and moulded chairs, there were options for a single vertical metal column that could be fixed in tiered rows for seating in a lecture theatre
  • most of the chairs had an option for a cross-shaped metal base, usually light-weight aluminium, that could be fitted with a swivel mechanism and/or castors for use at a desk so they could be used as an office chair
  • and - most unlikely of all - the simple and compact shell of the Tongue chair, designed initially as a chair for a child, was upholstered in leather and set on a high fixed metal column with a swivel mechanism for a bar stool at the SAS Royal Hotel.

These chairs are deceptively simple but, in production, the moulding process presented challenges.

The chairs that were designed by Alvar Alto and manufactured in Finland from the 1930s were the first Nordic designs to exploit the properties of laminated and moulded wood in the commercial production of furniture. The layers of wood veneer were curved into different forms under pressure so the shape was 'remembered' when the wood was taken from the press but although those chairs by Alto had the seat and back from a single piece of laminated wood, the curve was in one plane so that it formed, in effect, a scroll.

Trying to mould the laminated wood into more complex curves, either hollow or convex and in both directions across the shell, Fritz Hansen put the material under considerably more stress.

The challenges might seem to be relatively simple …

  • to use the thinnest possible gauge of plywood to stop the piece from looking crude or being heavy
  • to source high quality, unblemished and even or consistent veneer … plywood for construction can have patches or uneven colour but for these chairs the shell was just sanded and finished to maintain the natural qualities of the timber so a good or an interesting grain pattern can also be important
  • to bend as sharp a curve as possible between the seat and the back without the facing layers of the finished shell delaminating - so folding on the inner face of a curve or splitting on the outer face
  • to create complex curves that were hollow or concave front to back - so it was not like sitting on a plank - but also curved across the width, so from side to side which, in effect, anticipates the curve under the weight of a person sitting down - to avoid that feeling of it sinking in like sitting down on, or rather, in a canvas chair
  • to create those complex curves without cutting into and overlapping sections of the shell
  • to develop ways of fixing the thin shell to any form of leg or support … you cannot fix a leg unit with screws through the leg and straight into the shell from below, because the shell is too thin, but if you fix screws or bolts from above, driven down into the leg or base, then those are exposed and you would be sitting on the screw or bolt heads

On that last point, the first version of the Grand Prix had four L-shaped and moulded leg pieces stuck to the underside of the shell with a glue developed for that purpose but, I presume, under stress, the glue delaminated the facing layer of the shell so in later versions the design was changed to a cross-shaped and self-supporting framework of legs that was fixed to a plywood plate at the centre of the underside of the seat in a similar way to the fixing of the metal legs.

For comfort, there must have been extensive trials to adjust the flexibility of the shell and the strength, weight and flexibility of the legs or base - particular where the chair has legs in thin bent tube metal. Too flexible and the chair would feel unstable but too rigid and it would be like plonking down on a park bench. The chairs also use rubber spacers or buffers set further out from the centre fixing plate to hold the legs free of the shell; provide some control to the flexibility of the shell and also stop the legs torqueing or twisting or shifting round.

L1170907.jpg

The view of the underside of a Series 7 Chair shows just how complex and how subtle the design of the shaping of the metal legs is with the cross pieces of the legs under the seat protruding beyond the edge of the seat - so that the chairs could be stacked - and with the metal curved downwards towards the centre to follow the shape of the moulded seat rather than sitting against it. The legs are also angled outwards - rather than being set vertical - which in part makes the chair appear lighter and more elegant - strictly vertical legs can look basic or stolid - but also provides extra stability for a light chair.

There is an interesting but more general point about the shell chairs designed by Jacobsen and made by Fritz Hansen. We are now so familiar with major Scandinavian design companies like Muuto or Normann producing chairs with a range of bases and a range of colours and covers along with options for plain shells or upholstered versions, that we no longer see that as unusual - or, actually, we take that for granted because we expect a number of options when choosing a design. Before these chairs were produced by Fritz Hansen in the 1950s, chairs were designed as a complete or self-contained entity with production in relatively small numbers but, if there were options or variations, it might be that a different material could be used for the frame - so asking for a chair to be made in mahogany rather than oak for instance - or would be limited to selecting leather rather than textile for an upholstered chair.

At most, the scale of a chair might be adapted for a later version so Rud Rasmussen produced the Red Chair designed by Kaare Klint in a smaller size as a dining chair where the original, was wider with more generous proportions, designed for the meeting room at the Design Museum. Chairs like the Thonet Chair from Austria, produced through the second half of the 19th century, was made in large numbers and was made to be transported in parts and assembled on delivery but that was unusual and there were different models or different styles but no options within each type of chair. Several of the chairs designed  at the Bauhaus were conceived as relatively cheap furniture of a high quality of design for a large market but politics and events overtook their wider marketing and Alto, through the company Artek, certainly understood the commercial potential of marketing and international sales but it was the American company Herman Miller, marketing the designs of Charles and Ray Eames, and Fritz Hansen marketing the designs of Arne Jacobsen who really established the potential for large-scale production of well-designed furniture in the years through the late 1940s and the 1950s.

Republic of Fritz Hansen

note:

Shell chairs for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen - including the Egg and the Swan - were designed in this same period - in the mid 1950s - but were made in foam and upholstered so presented different problems and resulted in a very different aesthetic so they will be the subject of a separate set of posts.

FH3100 / Myren / The Ant Chair by Arne Jacobsen 1952

Ant Chair in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

The Ant Chair was designed for the canteen of Novo Industry - the pharmaceutical company - or rather - the story is that Arne Jacobsen had designed the chair but Fritz Hansen were not convinced that it was viable commercially. When a director from Novo visited the drawing office to discuss work on the design of new buildings for Novo and admired the chair, he asked Jacobsen about the design. Jacobsen told him it was for the canteen at the new factory and so secured an order for 200 that convinced Fritz Hansen that the design should go into production.

This was not an industrial design, as such, but the design for an industrially manufactured chair for everyday use.

It was launched by Fritz Hansen on the 24 October 1952, on the 80th anniversary of the company, and was shown first at the Danish Society of Arts and Crafts exhibition in Zurich and then at the Danish Museum of Decorative Arts in January 1953.

When the chair first went into production there was a choice from four types of plywood - beech, oak, walnut and teak - and a version finished with black lacquer. Later palisander and Oregon pine were added to the range and there was a version with coloured felt glued to the front face of the seat and the back.

Jacobsen designed the chair with three legs and despite requests for a version with four legs, he objected to the idea and it could not be put into production until after he died.

The legs in steel are held in place at the centre of the underside of the chair with rubber spacers so that they do not sit against the plywood but also to stop the legs twisting or moving sideways if someone using the chair shifts their weight.

The Ant was the first Danish chair that was made with a single shell in plywood that is curved in both planes to form a  seat and back in a single piece of laminated wood.

Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen experimented by cutting slits into the plywood to form a complex shell but Jacobsen achieved a sharp curve between the seat and back while also forming spoon-shaped hollow curves across the width of the seat and the back by reducing the width of the shape at the centre. That is the simple if unromantic reason for the distinct shape of the chair.

The Ant Chair is light in weight and stacks so it was used in public spaces like meeting rooms and lecture rooms. People remark that the chair has a decorative effect particularly when a number are set out in a space together in rows which creates a strong and undulating pattern reminiscent of fish scales.

In an interview Jacobsen revealed that he had considered using plastic rather than plywood but had rejected the idea because it would have made the chair too expensive - mainly because production of a moulded plastic shell requires an investment in expensive machinery.

made by Fritz Hansen and still in production

 

laminated wood shell (plywood)

legs in tube steel

a version was made with the legs covered with light grey fluted plastic

 

height: 77cm

width: 51cm

depth: 51cm

height of seat: 44cm

Chair 3105 - the Munkegård chair by Arne Jacobsen 1955

 

A small and elegant chair designed by Arne Jacobsen for Munkegård School in Copenhagen. It is sometimes referred to as The Mosquito.

Versions were produced by Fritz Hansen in beech, teak and stained black. The chair has been in production several times but is not currently available.

Jacobsen designed the elementary school that was completed in 1957 and, as with so many of his major projects, he designed so much more than the structure, designing the paving and planting of the courtyards, fittings including lighting and, with the chairs, Jacobsen also designed a school desk in plywood with a metal frame. The design of the desk has a simple flat top or writing surface that is bent to run down the back and then back under the top to form a shelf for books. The front edge of the shelf was turned down in the same way that the front edge of the chair seats was angled down to protect the back of the legs. The frame of the desks also included a hook on one side for hanging a school bag.

 

 

height: 77cm

width: 40.5cm

depth: 47cm

height of seat: 42.5cm but also lower versions made with a height of 36cm and 40cm

 

Chair 3103 by Arne Jacobsen 1955

 

 

The chair was designed by Arne Jacobsen in collaboration with Dr E Snorrason who gave advice on how to improve the lumbar support provided by the back of the chair. There is a sharper and more pronounced curve at the base of the back and the top of the back has a more generous width to support the shoulder blades.

The initial version made by Fritz Hansen was produced using a plywood faced with teak ... then popular and normally implying a more expensive piece of furniture. 

With fairly straight sides to the seat and angled front corners rather than a smooth curve, the chair is more angular than the other shell chairs by Jacobsen - almost octagonal.

There was a version of the chair with a swivel frame with wheels so that it could be used as an office or desk chair.

 

 

height: 62cm

width: 34cm

depth: 37cm

height of seat: 42.5cm

smaller versions of the chair with seat heights of 36cm and 34cm were made for children.

FH4130 / Grand Prix by Arne Jacobsen 1957

Grand Prix in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

The chair was shown at the XI Triennial in Milan in 1957 - where the design was awarded the Grand Prix from which it takes its name - and then shown at Charlottenborg, in Copenhagen, later in the same year.

In the original version the shell was made with a teak or beech finish or the chair could be upholstered.

The shape of the back is closely related to the FH3103 but here, rather than a straight line across the top of the back, the back has a truncated or stumpy Y shape that makes it, somehow, almost anthropomorphic.

There is a pronounced scooping out to the shape of the seat and at the front a pronounced down turn or lip.

Initially the chair had four separate legs that were L shaped and in laminated beech with a strong moulding to the cross section presumably, in part, to make it look less solid or less heavy. The legs mimicked the profile of the metal legs on the other shell chairs so were angled out towards the floor and at the top were curved but under the seat they were shaped to form a long hammer or hockey-stick shape to form as long a face as possible along the top for the legs to be glued to the underside of the shell. This proved to be unstable - presumably under the weight of a person the centre of the seat moved down or the legs splayed out and even if the glue of the leg held then the face layer of the plywood would presumably split away from the layer below.

 

 

The design was changed and the individual legs were replaced with two n-shaped pieces of steam-bent beech that cross at the centre where they are halved over each other to form a robust join and fixed to a circular plywood plate at the centre of the underside of the moulded shell. That form is closely related to the frame of legs in wood made for the Giraffe - the dining chair that Jacobsen designed for the SAS Royal Hotel.

A version of the Grand Prix chair with steel legs was also produced and in catalogues is identified as model FH3130.

 

 

height: 78cm

width: 48cm

Depth: 51cm

height of seat: 42.5

Danish chairs of the 20th century

 

Over the last couple of months, posts have been added here for just over 60 Danish chairs from the last century with a brief assessment for each that focuses on details of form and construction and, where possible, puts the design into a wider context.

A third of these chairs were designed by Hans Wegner but that reflects the number of chairs he designed and, of course, his importance as a master of innovation who, as a designer, continually pushed the boundaries for what could be done and how and why.

The series was inspired by the chairs in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen where a new display was opened just over a year ago. A selection of the chairs is now shown in a well-lit arrangement in a dedicated gallery where the chairs are set, each in its own display case, so it is possible look at the design without distraction and, with the chairs raised up off the floor, it is possible to look closely at how the chairs are constructed and to appreciate the techniques of the carpentry - the way that the separate parts are cut, shaped and fitted together - the finish of the wood, the use of metal for parts of the chair or, with some, the whole frame, the appearance of new materials such as plywood or plastic and, in many of the chairs, the superb quality of the workmanship.

This gallery at the design museum presents to the visitor a key body of research material on open access with extensive labels and information panels but in addition the museum catalogue is available on line so it is also possible to look up furniture in the collection by date, period, maker, dimensions or materials and type and the index also means that it is possible to search for information or images on other furniture by the same designer or the same maker that is not currently on display but is in the collection.

It was also crucial for these recent posts here, on this web site, that last year saw the republication of the four volumes on the cabinetmakers' annual exhibitions - Dansk Mobelkunst Gennem 40 År - published by Lindhardt og Ringhof. Edited by the designer Grete Jalk, these were published first in 1987 and record the exhibitions that were held in Copenhagen each year, from 1927 through to 1966, to show to the public the latest and the very best of Danish furniture.

For the first decade, the exhibitions were held at a number of different venues in Copenhagen but from 1937 through to the last exhibition in 1966 all but one year, when the exhibition was at Charlottenborg, and a year at the Forum - a total of 28 exhibitions were held at the design museum - then called Kunstindustrimuseet. This was remarkable and spot lights the ongoing role of the museum in showing current design - not simply to curate the design of the past - and one reason why the present exhibition Dansk Design Nu - looking at Danish design this century - is so important.


With posts here on 60 chairs, and the intention to add more, then some sort of index was necessary and arranging that by date it also works as a time line for chairs from the 20th century. At the very least, this proves that there was not a clear or straightforward linear progress through those decades so it raises interesting questions about the age of designers or at which point in their career they produced a specific chair and whether, whatever their age, they were pushing boundaries or exploring for themselves a new trend or a new material.

 

The display of chairs in Designmuseum Danmark provides an amazing opportunity to not only look closely at the chairs but the lighting also meant that it is possible to take photographs of details. This recording of details of the joinery and the materials is more and more important as fewer and fewer people learn about timber or working with wood when they are at school and it is not an aspect of design covered in many blogs.

For obvious reasons the measurements of the chairs have been given where possible. It is important to have some way of judging the scale of a design and that is rarely obvious from a photograph and particularly difficult outside the context of a room.

But also, as I looked at more and more of the chairs and looked at the photographs from the cabinetmakers' annual exhibitions it was obvious that it is now difficult to understand these pieces of furniture in anything like an original setting and that becomes more difficult with time as these pieces of furniture move from being everyday objects that people have in their homes and sit on to be what are now valuable collector or museum pieces.

Some of the designers and architects themselves were clearly concerned about the setting of their furniture … from the earliest exhibitions in the late 1920s the cabinetmakers used room settings and much of the furniture was aimed at a specific customer and therefore, to some extent, a known type of room … from a young couple moving into a small, new two-room apartment through to a wealthy middle-class family buying bookshelves and a desk by Klint or chairs for a large terrace or garden … so all designed with at least some idea of the space or the setting where the furniture would be used. Some designers went further. Poul Kjærholm designed with meticulous care the settings of his furniture in exhibitions and shop displays and Finn Juhl chose the colours against which his furniture was shown … producing drawings with colour wash of the room settings for the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition.


This first selection has focused on key chairs of the classic period of modern Danish furniture, so with just 60 not even, at this point, all the most famous chairs but a reasonable selection of different types of chair and different materials and a range of designers. One problem is that it panders to the idea that Danish designers focus on chairs and it reinforces a general misconception that somehow the only period of great design in Denmark was that so called Classic period of the 1950s and 1960s. So the next stage for this web site will be to look at recent chairs, since the turn of the century, and present them in a similar way … looking at form and construction and context … and possibly then to look at other types of Danish furniture in the same way … so sofas and tables might be next.

This should form a growing body of material with a chance to experiment with indexing and cross referencing and posts will be updated to add to entries if more information or better photographs become available or to add more links to archive drawings and historic images.

chair for the museum in Faaborg by Kaare Klint 1914

 
 

In many ways, for us now, this chair appears to be old fashioned - looking backward to earlier styles of furniture as a reinterpretation of an historic type of chair - but it can also be seen to mark or define the start of a distinctly modern approach to furniture design.

Faaborg is on the south coast of the island of Funen - just over 40 kilometres from Odense. A new museum there was founded in June 1910 to display the work of a group of artists known as the Funen painters and in 1912 it was the artists themselves who proposed Carl Petersen to design a new gallery that was to be built along one side of the summer home and garden of Mads Rasmussen … a wealthy businessman who had made his fortune through canned food.

Petersen was a leading figure in the architectural movement known as New Classicism. That might sound like yet another or simply the next revival of a historic style but in fact it was the architects of this group who instigated major changes as Danish architecture moved towards both Modernism and Functionalism. They included in their designs some of the features of classical architecture - so columns and cornices and mouldings inspired by classical buildings in Greece and Italy - but generally, and more important, they used an arrangement of identical rectangular windows across simple, regular and well proportioned facades that provided an appropriate sense of order to new buildings of greater and greater length that were designed to exploit new structural forms possible when using concrete and a beam and post construction that normally dictated equally spaced bays. It was architecture that was above all rational and essentially mathematical … essentially an intellectual exercise rather than to do with instinct or romanticism.

Kaare Klint joined Carl Petersen as an assistant in December 1913, as work on the new gallery started, and his first designs were for furniture for the archives - a room at the end of the sequence of galleries with wide doors onto the garden. Drawings are dated February 1914 with designs for a sofa, bookcases, a bureau and chairs.

The first working drawings for this chair for the main gallery are dated June 1914 and then a small model and a full-sized prototype were made.

The starting point for the design was a Danish form of chair known as a Klismos that had first appeared in the late 18th century and was derived from chairs that had been depicted on classical vases and sculpture. The distinctive features were legs that had a marked curve between the seat and the floor - almost as if the legs are splaying or sliding out at the ground under the weight of the person - and with the back legs continuing up above the seat as posts to support a very sharply curved back rest.

 

Klint designed a chair that was a distinct improvement on earlier designs and was certainly much lighter both in weight and appearance than many versions. In part this was because the chair was actually designed deliberately to be light so that it could be moved around the gallery by any visitor so they could sit down directly in front of a painting to study the work.

photographs taken at Designmuseum Danmark in the major exhibition from June 2014 through to October 2015 on the work of Kaare Klint

 

 

Kaare Klint (1888-1954)

made by N M Rasmussen, Rud. Rasmussen and N C Jensen Kjær

oak, cane, leather

 

height: 72cm

width: 56cm

depth: 57cm

height of seat: 43cm

 

The Faaborg chair is still in production and is now made by Carl Hansen & Son

 
 

Klint himself acknowledged that Petersen had suggested changes to the design of the chair and implied that the most serious discussions were about the way that the top of the back rest should or should not curve outwards.

Key dimensions of the chair fit within the system of the classical mathematical proportion known as a Golden Section or, by extension, Golden Rectangles so the overall radius of the arc of the back and the height from the ground to top of the seat rail are the same dimension and are directly related to the overall width of the front of the seat as a Golden proportion. Such a precise mathematical framework must surely have come from teaching by Petersen - by then a leading architect of the New Classical architecture movement in Denmark.

A model for the new chair was made but does not survive - lost in a fire - but there is a photograph of the model and it shows an earlier stage in the development of the design. In that model, Klint proposed that the back posts should be continued up above the line of the back rest with a higher parallel but shorter rail with a panel or plaque in the void between the two horizontal rails and that matched a tripartite subdivision of the front rail of the seat that, in an early version, broke forward for the centre third but in the final version was removed and replaced with a simple flat and flush line for the front rail of the chairs that were made for the museum.

There was another and more significant change. A full-sized prototype has front legs that curve outwards below the seat … not forward as was found with a Klismos type … but out to the sides and the back legs were vertical. In the final version the front legs are vertical and the back posts are splayed or curved out below the seat but because the posts are set at 45 degrees, on the arc of the back rest, the curve or splays run out at an angle. It is this detail of the construction that gives the chair a lighter and more elegant and stylish form where four straight and vertical legs could well have looked severe and actually too narrow and therefore, visually at least, potentially unstable.

The seat of the chair and the back rest and sides had split cane, in part to keep the chair as light as possible and, in part, to keep the chair visually as light and open as possible so that it did not form a too solid and dominant feature of the gallery. It has also been said that the back rail was kept simple and horizontal, rather than with a slope down the arm rest, so that again it did not draw the eye and distract from the paintings. For the same reason the wood of the frame was given a soft natural finish rather than the heavy varnished or dark polished finish more usual at that period.

 

Kaare Klint and Poul Henningsen were related by marriage and Klint gave Henningsen the important commission to design lighting for the Design Museum but that did not prevent a certain amount of banter from Henningsen.

There is a well-known photograph from 1927 in Kritisk Revy, the journal Henningsen published, where he is balancing a chair from Thonet on an outstretched hand.

In 1962 Henningsen explained that it was a comment on Klint and the Faaborg chair:  

"By making this chair five times as expensive, three times as heavy, half as comfortable, and a quarter as beautiful, an architect can very well win himself a name." He went on to say that he could not sit in the Faaborg chair "without becoming melancholy about the past. What pointed to the future in that chair was probably first and foremost thoroughly conceived and executed craftsmanship." 

In English that is said to be damning with faint praise but actually the point about thorough conception and execution is a key to not only the subsequent work by Klint himself but is an important way to understand and appreciate the quality of modern Danish furniture both in design and in production.

chair for Dansk Kunsthandel by Kaare Klint 1917

Designmuseum Danmark

 

 

In 1915 the furniture designed by Kaare Klint for the Faaborg Museum on Funen - along with drawings and even a section of tiled floor for the main gallery - were exhibited in Copenhagen in the Danish Museum of Art & Design that was then still in its original building on City Hall Square.

Clearly this was good marketing for Klint then went on to design a number of chairs of the Faaborg type for a number of important and influential clients in Copenhagen.

The original Faaborg Chair from 1914 has cane in the panels of the back and there was a rather heavier looking version of that chair, with solid panels in the back rest with a top rail that flares out in a more marked way, that was made by the cabinetmaker N M Rasmussen in 1916 for Aage Lunn and then in 1917 a version of the chair in Cuban mahogany was made for Dansk Kunsthandel in Copenhagen by N C Jensen Kjær.

This chair is much heavier and more robust than the chair for the Faaborg Museum with deeper pieces for the frame of the seat and the back rest has a much more pronounced outward curve to the lip or top rail. As with the Faaborg Chair, the front legs are tapered but vertical and the back legs are set at 45 degrees to the curve of the seat and back and are not just tapered but are also curved or flared outwards following the form of a Klismos chair.

All round, this is a much more robust chair. There is a third rail around the back above the cane seat but below the top of the cushion and the upper part of the leg does not cut in or reduce until it is above this point … in part meaning that the tenons of the rail are housed into mortices in the thickest part of the leg but also to link visually the cushion and the seat rail and create a series of closely related curved lines from the top rail down.

Another variation of the Faaborg Chair, with a fixed leather seat, was produced in the 1930s.

 

 

designed by Kaare Klint (1888-1954)

made by N C Jensen Kjær

Cuban mahogany, cane seat and leather cushion

height: 77cm

width: 53.5cm

depth: 62cm

height of seat: 46cm

chair for the Thorvaldsen Museum by Kaare Klint 1923

 

This chair was designed by Kaare Klint in 1923 for the office of the Thorvaldesn Museum in Copenhagen * and made by N C Jensen Kjær. In style, it looks back to the chair that Klint designed for the museum at Faaborg in 1914. 

Made in burl oak, the frame has a distinct, sharply-curved, and high back support. As with the chairs for the museum in Faaborg, both the front and back legs are continued up to support a curved and horizontal rail for a back rest and there are intermediate rails, half way between the seat and the top rail, but with the upper parts here filled with thin curved panels of wood held in channels in the frame - rather than the cane work of the Faaborg Chair.

However, the seat is cane and that supports a separate leather cushion - rather than giving the chair  full upholstery - so, as a consequence, the chair is lighter and the frame of the seat can be thinner. 

As with a traditional chair of the Klismos type, both the front and the back legs curve or flare slightly outwards to the floor to provide more stability but they also make the chair rather more elegant than if they were straight. The precision of the cabinetwork means that there is enough strength in the frame for cross stretchers between the legs to be unnecessary.

When seen from underneath, it is obvious that the carpentry, where the rails of the seat are joined into the leg of the Thorvaldsen chair, is more precise and stronger so the slightly crude blocks across the leg and frame on the underside of the seat to strengthen the join on the Faaborg chair can be omitted here.

Above the seat, the legs are made thinner with chamfers that reduce the cross section from square to octagonal and the rails are also chamfered on the outer side. Again, this seems to be a development or refinement of the Faaborg chair where the legs above the seat are just reduced in thickness on the inner face. This cutting back from a square cross-secyion of the frame makes the chair look less heavy but these thin chamfers also have a marked visual effect, with the different surfaces catching light in different ways so it is like a stronger line on a pencil drawing that reinforces an outline.

Kaare Klint is rationalising and refining his design although there is one change from the Faaborg chair that appears to be retrogressive … on the Faaborg Chair the back rail of the seat is curved, to follow the semi circle of the back rest, whereas here, on the chair for the Thorvaldsen Museum, the back rail of the seat is flat so this chair follows more closely the form of the historic Klismos type where the back support over sails the seat in a distinctive way when the chair is viewed from the side. 

But then, of course, the chair was for a major public building that dates from the 1840s so Klint may well have considered the slightly old-fashioned form more appropriate.

note:

 * In May 1914, after working with Carl Petersen in Faaborg, Klint married and travelled with his wife to Java for an extended trip and did not return to Copenhagen until the Spring of 1916. He worked first with the architect Povl Baumann and then with Carl Petersen again - on alterations to the Thorvaldsen Museum and work for the David Collection in Copenhagen - and when Petersen died in 1923, Klint continued with both projects.

chair photographed at Designmuseum Danmark

 

 

designed by Kaare Klint (1888-1954)

made by the cabinetmaker N C Jensen Kjær

height: 77.5cm

width: 53.5cm

depth: 59.5cm

height to seat: 49cm

 

Klismosstol / Klismos Chair by Kaj Gottlob 1921

 

Clearly this chair is not a modern chair - not by any stretch of the imagination - but it is important because it shows how styles and forms of furniture from the 19th century continued on well into the 20th century.

The chair was designed in 1921 for the Court House in Fredericksberg … the municipality immediately to the west of Copenhagen … so the commission was for furniture for a major civic building that itself dated from the 19th century and therefore, perhaps, more formal and more solid and more traditional furniture was appropriate but it also shows clearly that it is unwise to try and see the history of design in terms of a rapid and inevitable changing of the guard in a clear-cut way or even as something that everyone at the time just accepted as inevitable.

The chair appears to be old-fashioned to modern eyes and the design, taking the distinct form of a Klismos stole or classical type of chair, looks back to a style of chair made in Denmark from the late 18th century onwards but it would have been seen as perfectly acceptable to architects and designers of the New Classicism school that was strong if not dominant in Denmark from about 1915 and through to the 1930s.

Nor are architects or designers restricted to one style across their work. Born in 1887, Kaj Gottlob was just a year older than Kaare Klint and so, then in his early 30s, he can hardly be written off as an old man out of touch with new trends. He had travelled widely in Greece, Italy, France and North Africa and after teaching at the Technical School from 1915 and then at the Royal Academy Building School he was appointed as a professor at the Royal Academy in 1924. Although his furniture designs were generally in this style, he is acknowledged to be one of the leading architects of the Modernist Movement … by the late 1920s he was seen as a Functionalist - not a term you would use for this chair - and his most famous designs are probably for the two bridges over the harbour in Copenhagen with Knippelsbro that he designed in the 1930s and then Langebro that Gottlob designed after the War and that was completed in 1954.

 

a Klismos chair in Designmuseum Danmark from circa 1790 by N A Abildgaard (1743-1809)

detail of chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

Designed  by Kaj Gottlob (1887-1976)

made by Fritz Hansen Eftf

ash, cane seat, leather cushion

height: 76cm

width: 68cm

depth: 54.5cm

height of seat: 42cm

Klapstol / Folding Chair JH512 by Hans Wegner 1949

 

Although this is a folding chair it was not designed as a deckchair or even primarily for use outside but it was for a small apartment and was designed to be hung on the wall so it was out of the way until it was needed.

The cross bar below the seat is shaped and has curved cross struts to form a notch to keep the chair steady when it is hung over a single hook.

Deceptively simple with an open wooden frame for the seat and back, that are square and infilled with cane, and that cross over as an X shape when seen from the side. The back rest is concave and continues on down in a single curve to form the front legs of the chair and the seat running on down to form the back support is slightly convex.

Where the design is ingenious is in the way the structure, the precise alignment of the key parts of the frame and a hinge or pivot at the centre, allow the chair to fold flat and stay flat when it is hanging. The frame also has to allow for the cane to be taken down through slots at certain points, rather than around the whole frame, to accommodate handles and so on.

As with so many designs by Wegner it looks easy and simple when he has finished but take a step back to the beginning and try to design the same thing without any reference to his solution and you begin to see how he had such an amazing perception of three dimensional space. The impressive thing about any puzzle, say a complex crossword puzzle for example, is not that someone can solve it but the mind that created it.

 

The Folding Chair, made by Johannes Hansen, was shown in the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1949 and what now seems so incredible is that this chair was actually far from the star piece that year. In 1949 Wegner and Hansen presented to the public The Round Chair and the tripartite Shell Chair.

Børge Glabn in Arkitekten wrote:

Hans Wegner and Johannes Hansen "confront us with something altogether different; a classic simplicity both in analytical approach and in the synthesis of its practical application. …. The use of materials was clear and lucid, the fervour of the makers was evident in the craftsmanship, and the idea underlying the composition was clear and consistent." **

It is said by Christian Holmsted Olesen * that the Folding Chair is one of the designs by Wegner that was most plagiarised.

The Folding Chair is now made by PP Møbler

 

notes:

 * Hans J Wegner, by Christian Holmsted Olesen in Store Danske Designere, Lindhardt og Ringhof (2008)

 ** Dansk Møbelkunst Gennem 40 År 1947-1956, edited by Grete Jalk, Lindhardt og Ringhof, (2017) page 98

 
 

 

designed by Hans Wegner (1914-2007)

made by Johannes Hansen and then PP Møbler

teak, oak or ash and sjeneflet (cane)

 

height: 75cm

width: 61cm

depth: 74cm

height of front edge of seat: 39cm

length when folded: 99cm