Dansk Møbelkunst at northmodern

The 1950s and 1960s are often described as the Golden Age or as the Classic period for Danish furniture design. That’s useful to help spotlight the importance of works from this period or even as a way of making us concentrate and focus a critical eye because it is lazy to simply accept a label of greatness, applied by someone else, without trying to see why or how a designer or a design is important. But then there are also several problems with the perpetration of such a view … the view that a certain period was great … which seems to imply that other periods were not. When I have told people here in Denmark that I moved to Copenhagen to write about architecture and design then the too-common response is something along the lines of … “you should have been here in the 60s or 70s … now that’s when the Danes really knew how to design furniture.” That’s actually slightly shocking, when it’s said by Danes, and of course it writes off all the superb furniture designed and made in Denmark in the 1920s and 1930s - the vital precursors of that Classic period - and not only disregards all the good Danish furniture from the 19th century, or the 18th century and earlier but also, of course, blatantly ignores all the amazing furniture designed and made now by young Danish companies. 

But somehow more insidious is the grumble from some young designers themselves about all the well-established manufacturers simply reproducing the ‘old’ designs, living off a back catalogue, and not giving the current cohort an opportunity. That is in part simply a generational grumble that looks back, through the obvious successes, to what they assume must have been an easier time when, in reality, if you read about the way that Hans Wegner or Arne Jacobsen, for example, worked, then they too were having to work very hard to build reputations; they too were trying and not always succeeding in getting a commission or having to fight to get a design made in the way they wanted.

Dansk Møbelkunst is a major dealer in these great works of the great designers and cabinet makers of the 20th century and at northmodern they showed an amazing selection of masterpieces … examples of the very best of furniture from the 20th century. Here it was possible to look closely at and marvel at the details of workmanship and the small details of careful and precise design in these pieces and to see not just the quality of this furniture but to see the ways that the designers and the makers of the pieces played with ideas; tried different solutions to recurring problems or simply revelled in the possibilities they could see in the materials themselves. 



Above all, the display of these classic pieces of 20th-century design provided a broad and solid context for current design and production and, of course, they set a standard. New designs can be as good and some will be better if judged by the standards and expectations of our own period … not exactly on the shoulders of giants and all that but more about building on and being part of a very strong heritage.


experts on the web

Dansk Møbelkunst, with showrooms in Copenhagen and Paris, deal in major examples of Danish furniture and decorative arts, of the highest quality and specifically from the period from 1920 through to 1970. 

They have produced a number of outstanding publications on Danish furniture design and monographs on a number of Danish designers including Jacobsen, Klint, Kjærholm and Wegner.

Their web site is a good source of information where they profile pieces of furniture that are currently in their show rooms but their blog also includes assessments of important historic buildings in Denmark where they are associated with major designers from the 20th century or have important schemes of decoration.



People who deal professionally with furniture or ceramics or glass build up a considerable expertise in part because they are actually handling and examining and assessing an amazing number of items. More and more, this expertise is published by them on web sites and blogs and can provide important and interesting insights for the general reader. There is now so much material out there, available on the web, that occasionally pointers or suggestions might be useful.

1934 are an English company who also deal in 20th century furniture. They have an accessible style of writing on their site and have good photographs of pieces that have not been scrubbed clean and lost their patina … the pieces they sell may seem more realistic if your budget does not stretch to museum quality works. They also write general pieces about the period … for instance a good article on the Frankfurt Kitchen.



OEN  imports into England and sells mainly Japanese ceramics and wood wares but also a selection of books and some glassware and some metalwork. Looking through the site reveals just how close Danish and Japanese design can be, in terms of aesthetics and in the way natural materials are appreciated and their characteristics and qualities exploited with such care by real craftsmen makers. The photographs, particularly the high-quality photographs of details of the works themselves, and the growing number of videos on the site of makers working are particularly informative and revealing. 

Danish Furniture Design in the 20th Century

Danish Furniture Design in the 20th Century by Arne Karlsen was written in the early 1990s but was reprinted by Dansk Møbelkunst in 2007 with two volumes in a boxed set. 

These volumes are the best assessment of modern Danish furniture available in English and are beautifully illustrated with historic photographs and new photographs of surviving pieces. Many of the photographs of some of the best pieces in museums and public buildings in Copenhagen appear to have been taken specifically for the book. Full-page photographs are set out facing reproductions of original presentation or technical drawings. 

Karlsen was an architect who worked with Mogens Koch, to whom the volumes are dedicated, and he approaches the subject through his hands-on experience as a furniture designer. The volumes provide a very readable and a very good broad chronological overview but what makes them invaluable is the addition of detailed and critical assessments of the most important and influential examples of chairs, tables and storage furniture produced through the century. 

By discussing Danish furniture in a chronological sequence it is clear that the style of these well-made and sophisticated pieces evolved, in part, following fashion but more obviously through a rational evolution of construction techniques as the designers took forms and woods that they understood and then experimented with tried-and-tested cabinet-making techniques to push the form of their designs forward.

Of course this reinforces the importance of training or, with some of the architects who were essentially self taught when they moved across to furniture design, the book shows clearly the importance of understanding the skills of the cabinetmaker and exploiting that understanding to develop new forms - to push to new levels the form of, for instance, chair legs and chair arms without making them weak or difficult to reproduce. 

These designers also experimented with new materials that meant, of course, they had to work with new techniques for construction: in the middle of the century, they experimented with laminating and steam molding timber to create complex curved shapes for seats and chair backs, and by the 1950s, began to explore the possibilities of using molded plastic.

The century saw important changes in the way high quality furniture was made - at first by cabinet makers in independent workshops at the beginning of the century, producing individual pieces for prosperous middle-class customers, through the rise of the new furniture stores, catering to an increasingly prosperous lower middle class, and then, in the second half of the century, the need to produce well-made simple furniture, using new industrial manufacturing, to provide cheap but well-designed furniture for an increasingly prosperous working class.

The book provides some social and political context for the design of Danish furniture. Karlsen explores, through the century, a general and rapid change in life style that meant that new and different types of furniture were needed. After the First World War ordinary people were acquiring more possessions and this accelerated after the Second War. These were changes that required new forms of furniture or at least furniture that was adapted to new consumer technology and that technology advanced rapidly through the 1950s and 1960s: people no longer needed storage simply for tableware and clothes - they needed storage or display space for televisions, tape recorders and record players.

Although the first edition of the book was written in 1990 one paragraph seems to resonate a quarter of a century later. Arne Karlsen wrote:

“In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the foundation for high-quality manufacture was eroded slowly but surely. This was not because people had less money to spend, but because life at home changed, and people changed their purchasing priorities accordingly. Even conservatively orientated families adopted new life styles. For example, the television set and stereo system increasingly rule out a family meal at the dinner table and laid claim to available capital. Furniture was no longer the most important furnishing in the family home. Furniture was not what people bought first; it had to wait until all the electronic equipment had been acquired. And since this equipment had to be continually updated, more and more rarely was there money left over for good-quality furniture. Furniture became discount goods.”

Perhaps, as we assess the long-term consequences of our economic recession and we worry more about our need to use natural resources with more care, we may decide that cheap furniture pandering to our demand for the novel or the fashionable might not be quite so easy to justify and perhaps returning to the idea of investing in well-designed and solidly-made furniture that has a much longer life span might be a good option.