PK22 by Poul Kjærholm 1955

 

Danish furniture from the second half of the 20th century is generally and more immediately associated by most people with wood and, as a consequence, with cabinetmaking or at least with wood-working techniques of the highest quality but actually metal work and engineering were important in the evolution of Danish design and, even in wood, many designs, particularly designs that pushed boundaries, experimented with structure and with joining or joinery that is actually engineering but engineering in wood rather than metal.

The furniture designed by Poul Kjærholm displays the purest and most refined engineering in metal. 

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PK24 / ECK24 by Poul Kjærholm 1965

photographed at Designmuseum Danmark in 2015 in their exhibition 'Reclining'

 

This has to be one of the most elegant recliners and one of the most stripped down and spare. It is simply a frame in sprung steel covered with a taut skin of woven cane and supported on the thinnest possible steel frame. 

There is a separate frame of steel that folds under the centre section of the seat - running parallel to the cane work but separated from it by spacers. This forms what looks like a sledge or from the side runners that rest on a simple frame … a third rectangle in flat steel strip but with the ends bent upwards but at an angle to form a cradle.

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Poul Kjærholm

 

Although the book was first published in 1999 it is still available. Images in the book and the typography and layout make this an important book in its own right but the format, with a number of independent essays provides an important overview of the life and work of the designer and insights into his approach to design and his work as they knew or worked with Poul Kjærholm.

The foreword to the book is by Jørn Utzon who taught Kjærholm and then there are five essays or chapters and an interview by Axel Thygesen and Arne Karlsen with Poul Kjærholm from 1963. 

There is a biographical resumé and a full list of works arranged chronologically - including proposals that were not put into production.

Erik Krogh in the first essay Architect and Furniture Designer identifies an important and intriguing division in the furniture designs between the sculptural forms, such as the extraordinary chair made of two shells,  and the disciplined and restrained architectural pieces that reduce chairs to a series of flat planes. Ulf Hård af Segerstad in the essay Poul Kjærholm - An Architect, Not a Designer reinforces this view and Christoffer Harlang in Lightness and Weight puts the works by Kjærholm within the context of Danish architecture in the 1950s and 1960s.

The control of space is discussed further in the section on Exhibitions and Special Spaces by Nils Fagerholt that includes photographs of a room setting for the Museum of Applied Arts in Trondheim from 1952, the displays of his own work that Kjærholm designed in galleries and showrooms in Copenhagen and exhibitions in Milan, Montreal and Paris where his furniture was set out, generally, within a grid defined by large photographs that formed screens and by simple large rugs and by a precise use of lines of pendant lights to reinforce the division of larger space into smaller simple and clearly defined areas.

An important essay by Ole Palsby - Setting a Standard - explores the role of Ejvind Kold- Christensen in the development, manufacture and promotion of the designs from Kjærholm.

Photographs of the furniture by Keld Helmer-Petersen form a large central section of the book. He produced record photographs for Kjærholm and they also worked together on several of the exhibitions which included black-and-white enlargements of landscape and urban views by the photographer.*

Poul Kjærholm, edited by Christoffer Harlang, Keld Helmer-Petersen and Krestine Kjærholm, Arkitektens Forlag (1999)

 

notes:

 * Keld Helmer-Petersen (1920-2013) was a pioneer of colour in art photography in Denmark

It might be useful to reproduce here the numbering system that Kjærholm devised for the furniture that he designed between 1948 and 1980:

Small chairs without arm rests PK 0-9

Small chairs with arm rests PK 10-19

Easy chairs without arm rests PK 20-29

Easy chairs with arm rests PK 30-39

High tables PK 40-59

Low (sofa) tables PK 60-79

Day beds PK 80-89

Folding stools PK 90-99

Stool PK 33 does not fit the system

 

exhibition of furniture by Poul Kjærholm at Rue Faubourg St. Honoré in Paris 1965

 

PK 9 / EKC 9 by Poul Kjærholm 1961

Poul Kjærholm was in his early 30s when he designed this chair but it is remarkably self-assured … there is clarity in the concept  and a simplicity in the shape so that even today, nearly sixty years later, the chair seems to be free of conventions or styles and free of forms from the past.

This was not a matter of just stripping away decoration or just simplifying shapes and nor was it just a rationalisation to explore what is essential for a chair but, in the design of the PK9, Kjærholm re-assessed the relationship between function and the support and structure of a chair and combined that with a highly-developed awareness of shape and space. 

His self confidence was more than justified: Kjærholm graduated in 1952 and from 1955 taught furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Through the 1950s he produced a number of experimental and innovative designs - a chair with one leg, a shell chair like an open clam - with two curved pieces of aluminium bolted together - a wire chair shaped like a great swoosh and these were followed by a series of chairs and tables that went into production - including the low easy chair PK22, a side chair PK 1 and a glass and steel table PK61. In 1958 he was awarded the Lunning Prize - then the most prestigious award for design in Scandinavia - and in 1960 he designed Denmark's pavilion for the Triennial in Milan.

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PK9 in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 

Folding Stools

Folding or Propeller Stool. First drawing by a student of Kaare Klint in 1930 and first prototype made in 1956

Stool PK91 designed by Poul Kjærholm in 1961 and made by E Kold Christensen

 

Foldestole / Folding Chairs and stools

In the display of chairs at Designmuseum Danmark, they are grouped by type and the first group, on the chart of the museum typography of Danish Chairs in the introduction, and the first section as you go through to the main display are stools. Not just stools but specifically folding stools. Initially this seems slightly odd - simply because stools are not, by definition, chairs. But actually this does make several important points that a visitor - with only a general understanding of furniture history - might not have thought about.

It is stating the obvious here that a stool is not a chair because a stool does not have a back to lean against and, to complete this statement of the obvious, a bench is not a stool  … although, by an extension of logic, a bench might be seen as a series of stools in line because, again, generally, a bench does not have a back …. generally because in England, for instance, a park bench will often have a back.

Stools and benches in the early history of the home were much much more common than chairs because chairs were and are much more difficult to make … leaning back in a chair means that a lot of stress and pressure is placed on the frame of the chair and in order for the chair to be comfortable - so someone wants to lean back - the back has to be set at an angle, rather than perpendicular, and given at least some shaping and has to reflect the proportions of the person sitting down so, again to state the obvious, if a chair has a head rest it has to be at the right height to be behind the head.

To make a stool is generally much easier and much cheaper. They just have to have three legs (or more) and a surface to sit on that is generally flat and generally raised around 40cm from the ground. So early homes - and particularly the homes of poorer families - would have benches and stools and possibly no chairs or at most one or two chairs that would have been considered to be prize possessions.

This point that chairs are or, at least, were, until the beginning of the 20th century, special items of furniture explains in part why chair design and the making of good chairs was given such attention. Most of the chairs in the exhibition are valuable because they have survived but also most were expensive when they were first made. So part of the point of the exhibition is to show how designers and manufacturers in Denmark worked through the 20th century to produce not just better and better chairs - in terms of construction and comfort - but also chairs that ordinary families can afford to buy. So now, most homes have chairs rather than stools.

But the stools shown in the design museum are of a specific and less common form with X-shaped frames that fold so this makes another important point for they show designers and cabinetmakers in Denmark trying out ideas and testing materials so, at the very beginning of the display, you see how important ingenuity is in the work of Danish cabinetmakers and for the design of good furniture in Denmark.

PK 15 Poul Kjærholm 1979

chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 

A chair in compressed beech that has a more traditional bentwood form and is interesting because it echoes and almost mimics the earlier chair in metal tube, the PK 12, that was designed by Kjærholm in 1962.

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PK12 by Poul Kjærholm 1962

More than his contemporaries, the designer Poul Kjærholm worked with metal, rather than wood, and generally with flat strips of solid steel that were either kept straight to form frames for chairs or table or bent to shape as the support or for the runners of chairs but with the PK12 made by Kold Chistensen they used steel tubing bent to form the legs and back of the chair in a style that echoes deliberately the form and character of bentwood chairs. 

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PK25 by Poul Kjærholm 1951

 

Poul Kjærholm designed some of the most beautiful and most striking chairs of the modern period of Danish design.

At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a cabinet maker in his home town of Hjørring in Jutland but moved to Copenhagen in 1948 where he continued his training at the Kunsthåndværkerskolen - the School of Arts and Crafts - that was then based at Kunstindustrimuseet - now Designmuseum Danmark. 

It was Hans Wegner who introduced him to the industrial design of Germany and introduced him to to Ejvind Kold Christensen, who was then establishing a company that would go on to manufacture pieces by both Wegner and then Kjærholm. 

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photographed at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

variations on a theme …

 

Here, a juxtaposition of chairs on display at Designmuseum Danmark shows how a designer can return to a shape or, in this example, rework a design in different materials that have different qualities and dictate very different manufacturing techniques.

Shown together are a bentwood chair from the early 20th century - an arm chair from the Austrian company Thonet from 1904 - alongside two chairs from the third quarter of the century by the Danish designer Poul Kjærholm. 

Kjærholm's version of a bentwood chair PK15 is in beech and dates from 1978/1979, just before the designers death, and the steel and leather chair PK 12 was actually designed by him in 1964.

Both the classic Thonet chair and the version by Kjærholm use screws and bolts to fix the separate parts together and both use a bentwood hoop below the circular seat to give the legs strength and the chair some rigidity … in bentwood it’s not possible to use stretchers between the legs that are fixed in place with mortice and tenon joints as in a traditional chair frame.

The Austrian chair revels in the sharp curves that could be made with steamed and bent beech but Kjærholm refines and simplifies the curves to produce a design that is much more restrained although both chairs have long, high curved side arms - on the earlier Austrian chair swept back under and fixed to the side of the seat but on the Danish chair integral with the front legs. 

Both chairs have woven seats.

Again to strengthen the frame, the earlier chair takes the sweep of the back and the hoop of the back legs together. Kjærholm separates the two curves but has a small and simple spacer at the centre.

 
 

Initially, the steel chair appears to have the same shapes and curves as the later chair in beech but of course the metal dictates very different details in the construction. The strength of the metal tubing means that the hoop below the seat can be omitted completely as can the spacer at the back and the two curved sections of the inner loop of back legs and outer arch, with the front legs and the arms in a single piece, are attached to the rim of the seat by short stubs of metal with the parts welded together. The seat is not circular but rather like a distorted ellipse and the seat is a leather pad dropped into the seat rim rather than being woven.

A version of the PK 12 that was made by E Kold Christensen has the upper sweep of the back bound in leather, the strips plaited around the steel, and matching the leather of the seat. 

 

design classic: PK25 by Poul Kjærholm 1951

 

Poul Kjærholm designed some of the most beautiful and most striking of chairs of the modern period of Danish design.

At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a cabinet maker in his home town of Hjørring in Jutland but moved to Copenhagen in 1948 where he continued his training at the Kunsthåndværkerskolen - the School of Arts and Crafts - then based at the Kunstindustrimuseet - now Designmuseum Danmark. It was Hans Wegner who introduced him to the industrial design of Germany and to Ejvind Kold Christensen, then establishing a company that manufactured pieces by both Wegner and then Kjærholm. The younger designer moved across almost completely to using industrial materials rather than wood although he used natural materials, particularly leather, with amazing almost stark effects which emphasises the clean precise lines of the furniture that bring his designs closer to engineering and certainly a long way from the forms and techniques of cabinet making.

The PK25 was made from a sheet of steel that was cut and then shaped in a hydraulic press, and given a matt chrome finish and with a single length of sailing rope wrapped around for the seat and back.

furniture from Denmark in the 1950s and 1960s: Part 2

Spanish Chair by Børge Mogensen designed in 1958                  PK 22 by Poul Kjærholm designed in 1956

Three of the major furniture designers working after the War were the same age: Finn Juhl was born in 1912 and Børge Mogensen and Hans Wegner were exact contemporaries, both being born in 1914.

For an initial assessment of the furniture designed by Finn Juhl see the earlier posts below. 

Like Jacobsen, Børge Mogensen trained at the Department of Furniture Design. His Spanish Chair, designed in 1958, can be seen to have some characteristics in common with work by Juhl. For inspiration they both looked at designs that were clearly not Danish in origin and they both rethought the way that seats and back cushions in chairs were supported.

Mogensen’s Sofa, designed in 1962, is possibly his most popular piece and is still in production and has been much copied.

Sofa by Mogensen 

Mogensen died in 1972 but Hans Wegner had a long working life - and died in 2007. 

Wegner's Wishbone Chair, designed in 1950, is still in production through the company Carl Hansen and has seen a major rise in popularity in the last few years. It is typical of designs by Wegner, exploiting fully the potential of combining high-quality timber and the strength of carefully-made joints to make the chair strong but light. Here the back legs are carried up and curved forward above the seat to support the back rail and the side rails, linking the front and back legs, more usually round or at most tapered are here flattened to a narrow flattened oval to reduce the size of the tenon going into the leg so that the legs could be made thinner without weakening the joint.

The "Wishbone" Chair by Hans Wegner

Wegner had a fertile imagination and produced designs inspired by oriental or antique forms such as his Chinese Chair but, whatever the source of the idea at the start of the design process, furniture by Wegner is distinctly his own and his designs form an incredible and large body of work where you can see him returning again and again to ideas, shapes or technical details in the construction to refine or redefine them.

In contrast, the work of Poul Kjærholm could only be of the 20th Century. Born in 1929, he was the youngest of the group and with is death in 1980, had one of the shortest careers.

His furniture has a visual lightness, probably in reaction to the forms of furniture by designers like Finn Juhl, and he uses steel rather than wood to produce rectilinear but elegant forms - in part, in reaction to the curves and lines of chairs by Wegner and Borgensen. He aimed for a simplicity and a perfection that also takes his work leagues away from the earlier German and French experiments with metal for domestic furniture where they used tubular steel, usually with a chrome finish. Mogens Lassen had designed a chair in 1933 with a frame made from chromed metal tubing with a cane seat and back that owes much to the famous cantilevered chair designed by the German architect Mies van der Rohe but my general feeling is that neither this more-industrial form of construction nor the bentwood frames of the Thonet type of chair from Austria and Czechoslovakia,  popular in many parts of Europe from the mid 19th Century, were actually considered to be comfortable enough or appropriate in Denmark.

The PK22 designed by Kjærholm in 1956 owes a little to the Barcelona Chair designed by the German architect Mies Van der Rohe in 1929 but is much more elegant and much less monumental in its bulk. It is still produced with either a natural leather finish or with whicker for the seat and back.

All these Danish designers working in the 1950s and 1960s explored technical construction, either to make legs thinner but stronger or to remove the outer support for arms without them snapping when under the stress of people rising from the chair. They also experimented with upholstery to provide support for the body in different situations. Several of the designers produced folding chairs with wood frames and leather or canvas seats and backs.

They also responded to a very clear desire for change after the Second World War - a period marked by growing prosperity and new upward social mobility in western Europe. There was a general feeling that people wanted new homes and new styles for furnishing and decorating those homes. This was not furniture exclusively marketed for an established middle class - Co-op Denmark started producing inexpensive but well-made furniture in the 1940s and commissioned designs from major designers.

This was the period when pre-war attempts at mass production in factories rather than the production of small numbers of each design in cabinetmakers’ workshops became ubiquitous; a period when the importance of good design for industrial products was recognised and promoted to a much wider market ... it was a period when adverts with ever more sophisticated photographs appear in an increasingly large number of glossy magazines aimed at women. There was a wider interest in design and marketing became more and more important.

With the growing importance of the export market, this was also the first time that Danish designers produced furniture that could be dismantled or broken down to be packed for transport. Perhaps that might now be seen as one innovation too many!