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

 

 

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.

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Trinidad Chair by Nanna Ditzel 1993

Trinidad Chair in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Chair 3103 by Arne Jacobsen 1955

 

This 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. 

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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.

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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

Now, in many ways, 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 should 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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.

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