an everyday chair

These chairs were designed by the Copenhagen City Architect's Office, about 1930, for use in school offices.

They are not exactly what would have been found in a kitchen in Vesterbro or at a table in an apartment in Islands Brygge but they are pine and they are painted and the designs are straightforward with a simple arrangement of stretchers to strengthen the framework of the legs and simple plain wood back rests that are either fixed across or fixed between the uprights of the back.

Dining table and chairs in birch designed by Viggo Sten Møller and made by Adolf Jørgensen for the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1929. The setting had a P.H. lamp over the table.

 

 
 

Over the last month or so, posts here have focused on a number of chairs from the 20th century that are design classics and all, in different ways, examples of new styles or examples of experiments with new forms and new manufacturing techniques. However, the problem is, this gives an impression that every Danish chair represents a point in time on a rapid, inevitable and ongoing progression of design innovations.

But if you look at photographs of homes from the 20th century or even photographs from the annual exhibition of the Cabinetmakers' Guild Furniture exhibitions that were held from 1927 through to 1966 - where craftsmen were actually competing to produce the latest and the best - you see a good number of strangely old-fashioned chairs and much of the best modern furniture was produced in small quantities or, in some cases, made only when commissioned and many of the designs would have been considered expensive, even at the time, so well beyond the budget of an ordinary working family.

Of course, for offices and schools and factories - let alone for ordinary families in ordinary homes in new apartments in the city in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s - and then on through the period of so-called classic Danish furniture in the 1950s and 1960s - Denmark actually had to produce ordinary chairs or, at least, chairs that were designed and made to be robust and affordable rather than being primarily award winning, memorable or collectable.

So part of the story of the development of modern design in Denmark is the story of designers trying to produce ordinary chairs that were well designed and well made.

One reason - perhaps the main reason - for the annual exhibition of the work of cabinetmakers was so that these craftsmen could show they could compete with the emerging furniture factories, so proposals from cabinetmakers were  "submitted for both cheap and somewhat more expensive furniture" for the exhibition.

For the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1929 Viggo Sten Møller and Hans Hansen designed furniture for a two-room apartment with a compact dining tables and chairs made by Adolf Jørgensen.

In 1932 Møller became the editor of the trade journal Nyt Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri and alongside technical articles he introduced pieces on colour schemes, lighting and textiles and from the architect Marinus Andersen he commissioned an article about furnishing a small apartment for a couple about to get married.

The cabinetmakers began to introduce a broader range of furniture so pieces specifically for children or in 1939 designs for a study for a student designed by Børge Mogensen and Aage Windeleff. In the exhibition in 1962 there was even a large kitchen designed Henning Jensen and Hanne and Torben Valeur that was made by Christensen & Larsen although it was clear that this would have been an exceptional and expensive project … so hardly a flat-pack job.

But it was not just cabinetmakers who were trying to improve the design of furniture that could be sold at a reasonable price. Around 1930, Magnus L Stephensen was asked to furnish two test apartments for a public housing scheme at Ryparken, designed by Povl Baumann, that was based on a budget that was realistic for a young working family but he found only one factory and one traditional workshop in the city who could provide furniture he considered good enough within that budget.

Dan-stol (left) from 1930 by Søren Hansen the grandson of the founder of Fritz Hansen

Bentwood chair model 234 (above) from Fritz Hansen by Magnus Stephensen (1903-1984)

 

Magnus Stephensen produced designs for the furniture makers Fritz Hansen.

Perhaps the first factory chair and, in some ways, one of the most popular everyday chair (in terms of the numbers produced) was the Café Chair in bent wood from the Viennese manufacturer Thonet that was designed in the middle of the 19th century. Methods of steam bending wood, rather like the development of plywood, had not been common in Denmark but from the 1920s Fritz Hansen realised the potential of both. The grandson of the founder of the Fritz Hansen designed a Dan-stole for the company in 1930 - a rationalisation and simplification of the Café Chair - and then Magnus Stephensen designed the chair Model 234 that combined a bent-wood frame with a more comfortable shaped and curved back rest in thin wood. DAN was a general term used for these chairs in steam-bent beech.

Co-op Denmark started to manufacture high quality but inexpensive furniture in 1940 with the architect and planner Steen Eiler Rasmussen providing advice as a consultant. He had curated an exhibition of applied art in 1932 to look at well-designed everyday objects. 

 

Chairs and a dining table designed by Børge Mogensen and made by the cabinetmaker Erhard Rasmussen in pear wood for the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1944. Very simple square frame with upholstered pad for seat and simple curve of thin wood for back support presumably screwed to back uprights with plugs over the fixing in contrasting wood. But note that the back supports are curved in section so not actually that basic and because the legs are relatively thin in section then tere are stretchers to strengthen the frame but, rather unusual, to front and back but not to the sides between the front and back legs.

 

Børge Mogensen was appointed to be head of the design department at FDB Møbler (Fællesforeningen for Danmarks Brugsforeninger or Commonwealth of Danish Confederations of Users …  part of the Danish COOP) and in 1944 he furnished a test apartment in their store on Frederiksborggade in Copenhagen. In the sitting room there was a pine table, an Ercol style chair and a version of an English Windsor Chair at a desk that was a wall unit with a front flap that dropped down as a surface for writing at and on the floor their was simple rush matting.

Rasmussen published an article in the magazine Andelsbladet to explain the work of this better furniture campaign. The apartment in the store had "realistic rooms and floors, walls, ceilings, doors and windows - all with the dimensions that are found in ordinary little homes." … and it was described as a 'housing laboratory.'

"The new furniture is so ordinary and direct that one would almost believe it had made itself. But this is a virtue. It is not seductive and overwhelming like the pieces we see in advertisements, but then there is also hope that people will not grow tired of them in the long run."

Several well known or established designers in that classic period - through the 1950s and 1960s - produced chairs that were priced for an ordinary buyer … so Hans Wegner, Poul Volther, Mogens Koch, Jørgen Bækmark along with Børge Mogensen all designed chairs for FDB Møbler.

 

J39 / Folkestolen / People's Chair designed in 1947 for FDB by Børge Mogensen

 

Now all the major design and furniture companies have a range of basic or straightforward but well-made chairs and the launch of a new chair can be a major event and some companies produce major classics designed in the 1950s and 1960s where the price can be kept low by the rationalisation of manufacturing methods or simply by the scale of production and making it possible to have a choice from dozens and dozens of different well-designed chairs that are well made and reasonably priced.

J48 designed by Poul Volther for FDB Møbler and still made for the Danish Coop. This is a good everyday chair but is also a sort of cross-over design inspired by simple country furniture but given a real sense of modern style with a choice of strong colours.

chair made in Copenhagen by Søren Ulrich … the style is reminiscent of chairs from the 1930s and 1940s and would be a good choice for a kitchen table or small dining room and appropriate for one of the apartments in the city dating from the early 20th century

 

Dansk Møbelkunst gennem 40 År

40 years of Danish Furniture Design - The Copenhagen Cabinet-makers’ Guild Exhibitions

In four volumes: 1927-1936, 1937-1946, 1947-1956 and 1957-1966

Compiled and edited by Greta Jalk - first published in 1987 and republished by Lindhart og Ringhof in 2017

 
 

a living room and study with furniture by the cabinetmaker Andersen & Bohm that was shown at the exhibition in 1928

these volumes of Dansk Møbelkunst Gennem 40 År are so important because they record just how and how quickly the work of the cabinet makers changed through even the first years of the exhibitions

This is a major reference work - not just for the history of modern Danish furniture design and the design of homes but these volumes, compiled by Greta Jalk, are also a record of social history - recording much about how Danish families lived or wanted to live through that period of massive changes in the middle of the 20th century - and indicate much about Danish business and the way that Danish design, through this period, was marketed.

There is a forward and a general introduction but otherwise the volumes are set out year by year with contemporary photographs of the furniture shown at each exhibition, along with some technical drawings. There are images of the covers of the exhibition catalogues - themselves giving an insight into Danish typography and graphic design through this period - and quotations from contemporary reviews of the furniture.

By the 1920s a widespread economic Depression across Europe was having a marked effect on the independent furniture makers and on the furniture trade in Copenhagen and to compound the problem, there was a clear change in the way people were living, so a change in what furniture they needed, with a growing number of people living in smaller apartments in the large number of new apartment blocks that were being built around the city.

 
 

Trade and craft guilds from the medieval period onwards had been formed to oversee the training of apprentices and to protect craftsmen and their work in their own cities - guilds were based in cities and towns - and to monitor and where necessary restrict competition. Usually the guilds also provided support for widows and retired craftsmen. Through the 19th century, in major historic cities in Europe, these craft guilds began to loose their relevance as methods of production, of all sorts of goods from glassware to furniture, moved from small workshops that served a district or a town or a city to larger and larger factories. So it is ironic that Denmark, producing now some of the best and most highly regarded modern furniture, does so because it’s old craft guilds survived longer than elsewhere and fought back and in the process adapted and changed. 

So the first Cabinetmakers’ Exhibition in 1927 was organised as a way of demonstrating the skills of the furniture makers in the city and to bolster sales or, rather, to revive flagging sales.

From consecutive years an unusual idea … a square card table and chairs with sharply-curved backs set on an angle so when they were pushed in they form a scallop arrangement. The table and chairs shown in 1960 had been designed by Kaare Klint in 1935 and examples of the same design in mahogany were shown in 1946 and 1948. This version in rosewood was produced to commemorate the work of Klint who died in 1954. Svend Eriiksen wrote that “The tradition established by Klint is tenacious and durable. It will take vigorous effort to keep it alive” and the critic from Jyllands Posten wrote of this furniture that “they still stand out as some of the finest pieces to have been made in this country.”

Exhibitions were held in different venues but at an early stage room settings rather than simple display stands were built. Clearly, the aim was to show people, particularly young couples, how they might furnish a new home and they encouraged people to see furniture made by cabinetmakers as not just for the wealthy upper middle classes but as a sensible source for well-made furniture for a broad range of families.

In the second year, in 1928, there was a crucial change when cabinetmakers began to collaborate with architects and furniture was shown that had been designed by Viggo Sten Møller and Kay Gottlob and a sideboard was shown that was designed by Kaare Klint that was made by the cabinetmaker Otto Meyer. 

That set a pattern and - to use a pun deliberately - that set the bench mark for the next forty years. These partnerships established an important precedence where designs and styles evolved - not just through discussion amongst the cabinetmakers but year on year as a response to what the market wanted.

This room from 1944 included Chair NV44 designed by Finn Juhl and made by Niels Vodder. The side table is interesting with an integral hot plate to keep food warm. Reviews were critical - one pointed out that “The table was a new and interesting kind of extension table; but it seemed as if its design was not really related to that of the other furniture”  and another thought “the curved chairs are nice to look at and comfortable - but the cost of making it.”

 

Obviously, this furniture can not be completely representative of all furniture made through this period and nor was it all successful. Some cabinet makers were more adventurous than others … some produced amazing pieces of furniture that were not widely appreciated while other designs went on to achieve commercial success and some pieces are still produced and sold today.

The photographs and drawings in these volumes show how the way of life in the city for many changed through this period so, for instance, large cupboards for storing 12 or more place settings for formal dining disappear and tables and dining chairs become more compact. There were few beds shown - presumably for the simple reason that people don’t buy beds too often - but towards the later years there was quite a bit of furniture for the garden or balcony.

from 1962 bar stools in rosewood designed by Mary Beatrice Bloch and beds in teak designed by the Icelandic designer Gunnar Magnusson made by Christensen and Larsen. The sofa chairs and combined dinning table work table are also in teak, designed by Steffen Syrach-Larsen and made by the cabinetmaker Gustav Bertelsen & Co.

 

What you see, above all through these 40 years, is how the shapes and styles of chairs and tables and cupboards become simpler visually so superfluous decoration of any kind disappears. 

That is not to suggest that the furniture compromised quality by becoming more basic so cheaper to produce. Actually the opposite. As clear form and shape become more and more important then there is nowhere for shoddy workmanship to hide. If there was any extravagance or bravado it was through using more expensive imported timbers such as walnut or teak but there was always a focus on quality of workmanship to demonstrate mastery of woodworking techniques. 

Nor is that an implication that the cabinetmakers were defensive or protectionist or reactionary because many of the pieces shown at the exhibition involved new methods of construction that required new machines and jigs and new ways of working with wood - many of the most adventurous designs by Hans Wegner or Finn Juhl would have been impossible to make without new techniques for shaping, bending and joining wood. Furniture makers were moving from the workbench to the idea of the larger workshop or factory where larger numbers of each piece could be made so these exhibitions were less and less about the one-off commission, although those must have been welcome, but more and more about the establishment of an outward-looking and successful furniture industry. 

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Chair designed by Jørgen Høvelskov and made by the cabinetmaker J H Johansens was shown in 1966.

One critic wrote “…The purpose in exhibiting at the cabinetmakers’ furniture exhibition is either to show furniture of supreme quality or or to suggest future solutions by means of experiments. There are one or two examples of these experiments such as the chair designed by Jørgen Høvelskov and made by Henning Jensen. It is intended to be very simple with a frame threaded with heavy cord, but unfortunately the total impression is anything but simple. The chair seems confused and unfinished, and it is correspondingly uncomfortable.”

 

the Red Chair type

 

Chippendale stole / Chippendale chairs

If asked to name an important early modern Danish chair, many people would probably suggest Chair 7 by Arne Jacobsen or possibly a chair by Poul Kjærholm. Probably no one would think of the Red Chair designed by Kaare Klint in the 1920s as the first truly modern Danish chair but surely that would be a valid claim? 

Now, of course, the Red Chair seems old-fashioned and slightly boring for current taste … so perhaps it appears to be in a bit of a design cul-de-sac … but through the 1930s and 1940s it was a common and popular type of chair.

It was the first chair where what we would recognise as 'modern' ideas of simplicity and structural clarity were essential to the design … by that I mean that Kaare Klint analysed what he considered to be the core requirements for a chair - worked out how that could be made and tried to express that rational approach in how the chair looked and he stripped away any unnecessary decoration. Essentially the idea of form following function and material.

Part of the problem for us now is that then he took the example of an 18th-century English design as his starting point and in part it is difficult to appreciate chairs of this type because, for modern tastes, they appear to be worthy but rather boring … possibly more suited now and possibly even then to an office or institution than to a home.

In fact the chair was designed for the design museum in 1927 and then in 1930 Klint produced a version of the chair with upholstered arms for the office of the Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning with a set of four smaller chairs for the Prime Minister's staff and a set of 12 chairs for his conference room.

A version of the Red Chair for the Thorvaldsen Museum were also produced by the same cabinet maker - Rud. Rasmussen - that was lighter, with cane seat and back, and for an office on Nørre Voldgade that was designed by Povl Baumann, Kaare Klint designed a chair that was a variation on the Red Chair with a front to the seat that is bowed out. It was a style of chair that went with the slightly severe classic revival taste of some architecture of the period.

So the Red Chair type was well designed , well made and sensible, strong - serious. Solicitors and bank managers in England in the 1950s and 1960s sat on chairs like this. After graduating - working first for the University of London and then for the Civil Service - I sat at a desk on chairs that were a variation of this … chairs with straight wood legs, side and cross stretchers, upholstered leather seat, wooden arms, one with a padded leather back rest and the other with a series of thin wood slats across the back. So it was a good chair for offices and serious public buildings.

the chair designed by Klint for the office of Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning

 

But it was also obvious that this style of chair, even if it was a little formal, had a place in a home.

In the first exhibition of the Cabinetmakers in 1927 there was a room setting with furniture by the cabinetmaker Anny Berntsen & Co. The dining chairs were relatively simple but well proportioned and well made in oak with upholstered square seats that tapered towards the narrower back and the back legs were curved out backwards and tapered so smaller in cross section at the floor than where the rails of the seat are joined. The back legs continued up to support a large square back rest with a gap between the seat and the back, where the frame is exposed, and the back was slightly wider than the uprights and rounded at the top corners so a variation on the Red Chair.

The dining table shown with those chairs was square and compact but appears to have had leaves so it could be extended and it looks as if the furniture, even at this early stage, was designed for a relatively small apartment.

A similar, rather restrained design of chair in elm was shown by Henrik Wörts in 1928.

At the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1929 there was another square table with straight, vertical - so un-tapered - legs and chairs in birch designed by Viggo Sten Møller and made by Jens Peter Jensen.  The chairs have straight legs but with stretchers only at each side - so not across the back or across the centre under the seat - and the back legs above the seat were tapered and angled back at the top to support a narrower back rest - so not as deep top to bottom as on the Red Chair.

These were shown in the room setting as a dining alcove and alongside a double wardrobe, and with a neat low book case on legs with shelves and a day bed with deep drawers underneath - so again the implication is that this furniture was designed for a small apartment. A drawing of the wardrobe shows hanging space on one side, with a hat shelf at the top, and the other half is divided by shelves but the drawing shows tableware and household linen on the shelves which suggest it might even have been for a single room apartment.* It would seem that Møller was suggesting that this good, well-made furniture was appropriate for even the smallest modern home.

this chair by Kaare Klint and made by Rud. Rasmussen was shown at the 1930 Cabinetmakers' Exhibition with a dining table designed by Rigmor Andersen

Another version was shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1930 along with a low cabinet on a stand with sliding doors with a series of deep shelves designed to take a large table setting of china and glassware.

And, in the exhibition in 1932, almost the same shape of chair by Jacob Kjær in Cuban mahogany was shown but possibly because the wood was exotic and expensive the upholstered back rest was replaced by a cross rail just above the seat and a straight top rail with four simple vertical rails grouped in the centre but this is basically the same shape and form and style of chair.

 

dining table and chairs designed by O Mølgaard-Nielsen and made by the cabinetmaker Jacob Kjær - shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1933

A version of the Red Chair was shown in 1933 with a set of furniture designed by Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen and described as appropriate for a three-room bungalow and a reviewer comments that the design owes much to Klint. What is interesting is that in that review of the furniture it was described as compact but the cupboard was designed to store china, glass and table linen with four sections with doors, two above two, but inside shallow trays on runners held table settings for twelve people. It implies that although the furniture was designed for a relatively modest home, the owners would probably want to be able to feed twelve people with a full set of matching china and tableware that was otherwise stored away in a well-designed piece of furniture.

All this shows that architects and the cabinet makers certainly did not see the Red Chair type as primarily an office or museum chair and by the 1940s the chair was being made in more exotic wood for middle-class buyers and was being made to look lighter and more modern.

At the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1941 there were a surprisingly large number of exhibitors and Børge Morgensen showed furniture in cherry wood that was made by the cabinetmaker Erbard Rasmussen for a two-room apartment.

A review by a journalist from Berlingske was not particularly kind:

“The furniture for the two-room flat with a kitchen-dining room, seems to have been made for dolls, a little too fragile for full-grown adults, but the style is very nice, clean and sober. It is reasonable to assume that the personal touch will be added by the young people themselves.”

The bedroom furniture for the exhibition apartment was by Kay Gottlob.

A chair by Henrik Wörts with cane back was shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1943 and the Red Chair type appears at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition through into the 1960s … in 1961 a chair by Gunnar Magnussen and made by Søren Horn was shown which had a cane seat and back and side stretchers and a central cross rail below the seat but by then the next generation of architects and designers were prominent and the Red Chair style became less and less  popular.

furniture for a two-room apartment designed by Børge Mogensen - made by Erhard Rasmussen and shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1941

 

At the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1941 there were a surprisingly large number of exhibitors and Børge Morgensen showed furniture in cherry wood that was made by the cabinetmaker Erbard Rasmussen for a two-room apartment.

A review by a journalist from Berlingske was not particularly kind:

“The furniture for the two-room flat with a kitchen-dining room, seems to have been made for dolls, a little too fragile for full-grown adults, but the style is very nice, clean and sober. It is reasonable to assume that the personal touch will be added by the young people themselves.”

The bedroom furniture for the exhibition apartment was by Kay Gottlob.

A chair by Henrik Wörts with cane back was shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1943 and the Red Chair type appears at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition through into the 1960s … in 1961 a chair by Gunnar Magnussen and made by Søren Horn was shown which had a cane seat and back and side stretchers and a central cross rail below the seat but by then the next generation of architects and designers were prominent and the Red Chair style became less and less  popular.

 

 

note:

* In Copenhagen the normal way to describe an apartment is without including the kitchen or the bathroom in the number of rooms … so a one-room apartment in the 1920s had a kitchen plus one room that combined living room and bedroom and there might have been a toilet or separate bathroom but in smaller and older apartments toilets might have been out on a landing or outside and shared and baths might have been at a communal bath house. A two room apartment would have had a living room and a separate bedroom plus a kitchen and probably a bathroom.

chair in Cuban mahogany designed by Erik Wörts. Made by the cabinetmaker Henrik Wörts, it was shown in the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition of 1943

 

Arm Chair by Børge Mogensen and Lis Ahlmann 1941

 

Through the 1930s and well into the 1940s furniture designers produced chairs that took as a starting point the square set frame of legs and stretchers and upholstered seat and back of the Chippendale type or 'Red Chair' type by Kaare Klint.

This example by Børge Mogensen and Lis Ahlmann dates from 1941 shows that, although more organic and rounded forms of chair by Finn Juhl or Hans Wegner dominate our view of post-war Danish chair design, this more traditional chair type has  a distinct place in the evolution of modern Danish chair design.

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