mechanics in wood

the back and the arm rest of a Colonial Chair designed by Ole Wanscher in 1949


This is really a simple point about engineering in wood.

There are many factors that influenced modern Danish design and made the furniture of the period specific to the country and contributed to its success.

One key role was that of the cabinetmakers. Their work through the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s was not simply a matter of producing work of a high quality but their skills enabled designers to push materials - specifically their work with wood - in very new directions.

It was the close working relationship between the designers starting with Kaare Klint and his partnership with Rud. Rasmussen and then on of course through the collaboration between Hans Wegner with first Johannes Hansen and then the craftsmen of PP Møbler or Ole Wanscher working with A J Iversen or the work of Finn Juhl made by Niels Vodder.

This was not simply a matter of a maker realising a design: this was about being proud of a skill but having the confidence and the desire to push boundaries and that in fact was what was, essentially, at the heart of the apprenticeship and guild system … its DNA from the middle ages onwards. For cabinetmakers it was about taking the techniques of joining one piece of timber to another and adapting and improving and refining that, along with understanding what wood could and could not do, to make furniture that was, in terms of its mechanics viable.

It might seem inane or at best unnecessary to point out that, however beautiful or amazing the design looks, a chair fails, literally, if it collapses or if it is uncomfortable.

A chair by Finn Juhl shows the designer pushing the materials and the joiners skills to new limits. Other chairs by other designers from the classic period are more subtle but no less amazing. In the Colonial Chair by Ole Wanscher, designed in 1949, the turned posts of the back rest are just 30mm in diameter and the slats that support the cushion of the back rest are just 8mm thick and gently curved along a total length of 480mm but the slats are housed into the posts and the whole thing takes the weight of someone sitting in the chair and leaning back.


longer post and photographs of the Colonial Chair by Ole Wanscher


Chair J2991 by Ole Wanscher 1960

chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark


From the late 1930s and all the way through to the last Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1966, A J Iversen showed furniture designed by Ole Wanscher.

A number of variations were produced of chairs in this style, one with a deeper back rest and another with a bowed front to the seat. This form of chair remained popular through the 50s and 60s - with the back rest running round into the arm rests and the curve supported at the front by the front legs taken up as posts. This gives the frame of the chair structural integrity so, although the legs are relatively thin and certainly elegant, the construction is so precise that stretchers can be omitted.

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cane seat on the Colonial Chair by Ole Wanscher



The Colonial Chair was designed by Ole Wanscher in 1949 and was made by the cabinetmaker P Jeppesen. The chair has leather cushions that are supported across the back by very thin slats that were inspired by Shaker chairs made in the United States from the middle of the 19th century. However, the seat is cane woven over a simple frame that drops down onto battens on the inner bottom edge of the seat rails.

There is a relatively-simple grid or open basket weave pattern, rather than the traditional honeycomb formed by canes taken across the seat diagonally as the cane work is simply support for the cushion.

The chair is amazingly light with the frame reduced to the thinnest dimensions possible.


For a longer post on the Colonial Chair

Ladderback Chair by Ole Wanscher 1946

Ladderback Chair from 1946 by Ole Wanscher in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark


This is a strange hybrid design that proves just how difficult it can be to place a chair into a rational typography but it is also a very good example of how a new design can use some earlier features but combine those forms or technical details of construction with new ideas to create what should be seen as a transitional form.

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upholstered chairs by Hans Wegner

Windsor Chair from 1947 with simple loose cushions. The in-cut ring around the top of the back post and the loop on the top corner of the back cushion link this chair to work by Borge Mogensen and also the Colonial Chair that was designed by Ole Wanscher in 1949.


Looking at a large number of chairs that were designed by Hans Wegner, would suggest that he was not interested, primarily, in upholstery but with form and construction: he designed few fully upholstered pieces apart from a cuple large armchairs - including the Papa Chair of 1951 and the Wing Chair of 1960. 

Papa Chair 1951

Wing Chair 1960


For desk chairs or dining chairs, padded upholstery was usually simply a loose cushion as with the Windsor Chair of 1947 or was a shaped seat in plywood that was then padded and covered with material or leather - a form he used for the H55 and the CH88 that were both designed in 1955. 

The H55 - a trial design not put into production -and the CH88 also from 1955 but only produced by Carl Hansen since 2014. Details of the seat cushion of the CH88

One of the variations of the Chinese chair design. There is a marked contrast between the stark, simple, thin leather-covered cushion without piping or nails and the deceptively simple but actually highly sophisticated carpentry of the frame of the chair ... note the swan-neck curve of the vertical support of the arm inset from the end of the curved back rail at the top and half-lapped over the side rail of the seat. The shape of the upright support and the curve of the wide but elegant splat of the back are very closely related to the design of the Y or Wishbone Chair.



There are odd exceptions … chairs that had more conventional upholstery ... but these are generally early including the Lattice Chair of 1942 and there was a desk chair with arms that was exhibited at the Cabinetmakers Guild Exhibition of 1944 with the seat cover fixed with brass upholstery nails showing he understood and could do, if he wanted to, what Kaare Klint taught. However, many of the later chairs had either a plain wood or plywood seat and the majority of his chairs have a curved or shaped solid wood back rest. The most common alternative was to form an open frame for the seat or the seat and the back and use interwoven cane or paper cord to provide the support for a person sitting in the chair.

A Lattice Chair from 1942 with details of the more conventional form of upholstered seat. Note the beautiful detail of the shoulder just below the top of the leg that takes the mortice of the front rail of the seat.


For the most extreme example of the opposite approach to design of upholstered chairs from a contemporary designer then you need only to think of the Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen that is, apart from its pedestal, 100% upholstery. Or at least everything you see is upholstery because none of the underlying construction is visible … you don’t even know what materials are used for the internal structure.

An Egg Chair designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1959


Wegner did experiment with much more extreme or at least unusual types of chair that were wide and low and almost cocoon the sitter but primarily play games with the frame - both the Halyard Chair of 1950 and the Circle Chair from 1986 have a large open frame, with the Halyard Chair in metal and with the Circle Chair a hoop of bent wood, strung with rope and then with cushions for comfort or with the Tub Chair of 1954 he played with the adjustable back angle of a deck chair but used for what appears at first to be a conventional upholstered chair.

Halyard Chair from 1950

Circle Chair 1986

Tub Chair 1954 - perhaps the most tailored and curiously, given its wide and flat shape, the most elegant pieces of upholstery designed by Wegner

Tub Chair - detail of the mechanism to alter the angle of the back. The handle-like loop in wood is also the reinforcement for the hinge point of the back and the metal loop is used to help lift the cross bar clear of the metal pegs to lower and raise the back


design classic: PJ149 by Ole Wanscher 1949


The PJ149, also known as the Colonial Chair, was designed by Ole Wanscher (1903-1985) and was made by P Jeppesen Møbelfabrik from 1949 onwards. The company later changed its name to PJ Furniture A/S.

Wanscher came from Copenhagen, from a well-established, middle-class, academic family … his father was the art historian Vilhelm Wanscher. Initially Wanscher trained as an architect, first at technical school and then at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, but moved almost exclusively to furniture design. In the 1920s he worked in the office of Kaare Klint and it was Wanscher who produced the first drawings for Klint for the Red Chair for the Danish Museum of Art and Design. For Klint, as part of that project, he produced detail drawings of a Chippendale chair in the collection of the museum and the influence of 18th-century English chairs with arms and the inspiration of more vernacular English ladder-backed chairs can be seen in the design for Jeppesen.

The chair is remarkably light, with the cross-section of the legs and stretchers reduced to the minimum but the chair retains strength through the careful design and position of mortice and tenon joints. Where the arm meets the back post it is swept up which not only makes the profile much more elegant but allows for a thin but tall tenon, to compensate, and the front post of the arm is taken down across the side frame of the seat to be housed into the rail between the front and back leg. This reinforces the side and provides extra strength where most needed … when standing up people instinctively put their hands down over the ends of the arm rests and push up meaning that the end of the arm takes all the weight. The vertical post is expanded below and behind the side rail of the seat without appearing to compromise the slenderness of the frame.

Despite its appearance of refined elegance, the chair is carefully designed for commercial production: the woven cane seat is on a frame that is constructed independently and then dropped in when the chair is finished or assembled.

Slender slats of the ladder back and the separate covered cushion for the seat and back also mean that not only does the chair appear to be lighter and simpler but it avoids a separate and, for many chairs, a complex stage of traditional fixed upholstery. 

Features such as the turned tops of the front legs and the back uprights and the simple loops of leather over the uprights holding the back cushion in place show how every detail of the design of the chair was refined.

Colonial chairs in the Library/Meeting room of the hotel, SP34, in Copenhagen


The Colonial Chair is still in production - made for Carl Hansen & Son and in their catalogue as OW149.


  • maximum width: 650 mm
  • overall height: 850 mm
  • height to front edge of seat: frame 360 mm / cushion 440 mm
  • overall from front to back: 685 mm

furniture from Denmark in the first half of the 20th century

Chair for the Faaborg Museum by Kaare Klint 1914

Easy chair by Ole Wanscher 1949

The most influential figure for Danish furniture design in the early 20th century was Kaare Klint who was born in 1888 and died in 1954. He trained as an architect and taught at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the School of Arts , Crafts and Design.

Many of his designs do appear now to be rather old-fashioned and appear to look backwards to a tradition of cabinet making that depended on expensive woods and high levels of craftsmanship but he was one of the first Danish designers to simplify and rationalise the form and style of pieces of furniture, stripping away unnecessary decoration.

He looked to furniture from other periods, not to copy, but to take their construction details as a starting point for new designs - he studied Shaker furniture from America, English furniture from the 18th century, particularly the form of chair known generally as a Windsor chair, to assess how back rails and leg rails actually worked, and he looked at traditional craftsmanship from what is now generally called the vernacular  tradition - so he looked at simple unpretentious furniture made for farmhouses. 

He also measured tables and storage furniture systematically in the first moves towards functionalism. For instance he determined the average size of plates and glasses to design compact and practical storage when he designed a buffet or cabinet for household china that was shown at the Cabinetmakers’ Guild of Furniture Exhibition in 1928. Drawers were subdivided and graded in height to take specific plates or glasses so that the cabinet could hold everything for 12 place settings.

Cabinet for china by Kaare Klint 1928

It was also at this period that Danish designers began to strip away superfluous decoration: for instance pattern or decoration now came directly from the techniques for cutting the timber and from the intrinsic patterns of cane work or woven tape in the back or seat of chairs. In 1938 Mogens Koch designed an armchair in Cuban Mahogany with a seat and back formed with narrow strips of leather in a basket weave. The decoration, if it can be described as such, comes from the texture of the woven leather, the quality and colour of the wood and the domed finish on the top of the front legs and the expansion of the wood at the end of the arm to form a semi collar to strengthen the joint where the arm is attached to the upright of the back.  

Detail of cane work on the seat of a Round Chair by Hans Wegner 1949

Detail of cane work on the seat of a Round Chair by Hans Wegner 1949

As a teacher, Klint emphasised the importance, in the early stages of training, of measuring, understanding and drawing carefully examples of good well-designed furniture from older cabinet makers. 

Mogens Koch, born in 1898, died in 1992. His Wall System for storage, designed in 1928, is a very good example of the focus on simple, practical, useful furniture and is still produced by Carl Hansen. The basic units are 76 cm by 76 cm and 27.5 cm deep. Outer panels of the unit are remarkably thin, just 10 mm thick, with finely-cut dovetail joints at the corners, and by having fixed, rather than moveable, internal divisions their thickness could be reduced to just 8 mm. The basic box was divided into two halves and then each of these divided into 3 parts but the box could be set either way so with either three rows by two for smaller books or two rows of taller books each divided into three sections. There are separate plinths if the boxes were stacked together on the floor or they can be wall mounted and there are additional doors and boxes with narrower divisions. All-in-all about as flexible and as elegant a storage system as possible.

Shelving system by Mogens Koch 1928

Ole Wanscher was born in 1903 and died in 1985. The son of an art historian, he trained as an architect and worked first in the office of Kaare Klint before setting up an independent office. He taught furniture design at the School of Arts, Crafts and Design. 

Of all these mid-century designers, his chairs appear to be more conservative, looking back to the classic designs of the 19th century with elegant but masculine forms that are possibly more suitable for the library or the office but his move towards pared down frames and his use of  runners in some pieces rather than bottom rails to link and strengthen the frame of the legs have a very modern feel and appear to have inspired later designs from Finn Juhl and Børge Morgensen.

Wanscher Rocking Chair 1951.jpg