guide to the furniture of PP Møbler

 

This guide to the cabinetwork of PP Møbler was produced in 2016 and I was given a copy when I met their sales team at 3Daysof Design so I assume that it has been used mainly to promote the work of the company at trade fairs but is actually a well-written, general introduction to some of the best furniture made by cabinetmakers in Denmark.

It sets out a brief history of the company and discusses their work with different designers including Nanna Ditzel, Poul Kjærholm, Finn Juhl and Verner Panton but focuses on their important collaboration with Hans Wegner.

In a clear and straightforward way, it covers how timber for high-quality furniture is cut and prepared and how both traditional and new techniques are used together in the workshops to make the production of these major pieces possible and how new technology has been used to drive forward new designs and new approaches.

There is a useful introduction to the main species of timber they work with - oak, ash, maple and cherry - including a brief descriptions of grain and appearance and notes about how and why the different woods are used in the production of their furniture. The company has its own woodland and in this book they make some important points about the management of trees and about sustainability. When areas of woodland are felled and then replanted, a number of trees are left to protect new saplings. Those older and larger 'shelter tree' in a woodland have a longer growth period and when they, in turn, are felled, they are the source for much thicker planks - up to 5" thick - that are used for larger or more complex and important parts of chairs like the shaped backs. Pieces are cut to shape immediately the timber is delivered to the workshop but are then left for up to two years to condition. Complicated back and arm rests, that have to be made from several pieces that are joined, are cut from the same length of timber - as mirror shapes - so that colour and grain match across the back and for tables the leaves, for an individual table, are cut from the same tree for the same reason.

In the book there is a section or catalogue where each of the chairs has a short history of the design with an explanation of technical details that are specific or important to that piece. There are line drawings for each of their  chairs; easy chairs; chaise long; benches and a stool and tables or desks and there are even useful plans to show the arrangement of chairs around each of the tables with and without additional leaves.

Although relatively short, the book even covers maintenance of the furniture - explaining why certain finishes are applied with advice about how the wood can be cleaned and explains why a patina, developed over the years, is important as it makes each piece personal to the owner.

It is crucial that companies produce this sort of publication to engage customers but also, as schools cut back on teaching arts and crafts and as fewer people have the time or space to do woodwork themselves, it can't be assumed now that a potential buyer will know enough about wood and the techniques used in making furniture to understand why something was made in a certain way; see how a design reflects and respects the different characteristics of the trees used or understand why that has to be reflected in the price tag. Few buyers have the time or the inclination to become experts on cabinetmaking before they buy a chair but actually the more information they have then the more discerning they can be.

Books like this are also a way to give customers important information about sustainability. It may have been said by someone else somewhere else but there is a brilliant line in this book that I have not come across before … that a piece of furniture “should endure the time it takes for a new tree to grow.”

Much of this material and a good collection of photographs can also be found on the PP Møbler web site … including historic images of the workshops, images of the modern workshop equipment, with press photographs of the furniture produced and an explanation of techniques such as compression bending and the computer-programmed milling and cutting developed by the company.

PP Møbler

 
 
 

side by side

The Chair by Hans Wegner 1949

NV44 by Finn Juhl 1944

The Chair

Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
cabinetmakers Johannes Hansen, PP Møbler

now made in oak, ash, cherry or walnut
leather or cane

height: 76 cm
width: 63 cm
depth: 52 cm
height of seat: 44 cm

NV44

Finn Juhl (1912-1989)
cabinetmaker Niels Vodder

Cuban mahogany rosewood and leather

initially only 12 examples produced

height: 73 cm
width: 60 cm
depth: 52 cm
height of seat: 47 cm

 
 

Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl were almost the same age and The Chair, designed by Wegner, and the NV44, by Juhl, were designed and made a few years apart, in the late 1940s.

Both chairs are in wood, with a back rest in wood that is shaped and twisted to continue round into wood arm rests and both chairs are of a high quality - both made by highly-skilled cabinet makers - so, ostensibly, the chairs are of the same type.*

But clearly they are distinctly different - even if It is difficult to pin down and describe those differences - because once you have seen the chairs it would be difficult to mistake one for the other.

If you showed both chairs to someone who knows nothing about Danish design history and asked them to give a date to the chairs, my guess would be that some people, but relatively few, would suggest the 1940s. Many would see the chair by Juhl as more traditional or more old fashioned and might push its date back - back in the century or even wonder if it was older - whereas many would be surprised that the chair by Wegner is now nearly 70 years old and might hazard a guess for its date as being in the 1960s or possibly even more recent.

The NV44 by Finn Juhl is more sculptural, more dramatic - with a stronger sense of movement - so the back rail or back rest is shaped and twisted but there is a sense that the wood is still under tension and the arms are pulled outwards and the uprights are twisted out to support the arms to form a cup shape for the person sitting in the chair.

There are stretchers but not between the back and front legs - as in a conventional design - but, as they run from the back legs, they are tilted down and inwards to the centre of a deep stretcher between the front legs and that stretcher itself is curved but, surely, curved the wrong way because an arch supports and spreads weight, taking the load down and out to the ground, but a reverse arch, as here, creates the impression that the uprights are or could move together at the top. It creates a dynamic where the front of the seat itself seems almost as if it is slung between the front legs.

Obviously the arms and back rest on Wegner's design have also been cut to shape and twisted but, despite that manipulation, they seem natural and at rest. The legs of the chair are reduced down as much as possible by being tapered - that's why the Wegner chair is elegant - but the seat and the centre part of the leg, where the rails of the seat are joined, are strong enough and those joins, fixing the seat rail into the legs, are precisely cut and strong enough that stretchers were omitted completely.

The seat on Wegner's chair is slightly hollowed, to make it look and be more comfortable and it is wide and open - uncluttered - so it looks as if there is room to move around, however large you are, and the outward splay of the legs makes the chair, despite those elegant tapered legs, look stable, the chair standing square, calm and somehow self contained.

So is the chair by Juhl tense? If you prefer the chair designed by Finn Juhl then you might argue that the NV44 is more organic, voluptuous or sensual, and the lines and silhouette of the chair by Wegner not more pure but more mechanical.

 

Certainly the chairs could not have been more different commercially.

Finn Juhl was not concerned with commercial success or compromise and here one suspects that Niels Vodder, the cabinetmakers, had to work hard to realise the design. It was presumably the complexity and the cost of the work that explains why, initially, only 12 chairs were produced.

In contrast, it's known that Hans Wegner collaborated closely with the cabinetmakers who used their skill and their experience, as he himself said, "cutting the elements down to the bare essentials" so together, they produced a chair that is not just rational but, from that process of simplification, it meant that, if not exactly made on a factory production line, the chair could be produced in relatively large numbers. 

The NV44 by Juhl has much more conventional upholstery with the leather taken over the frame of the seat and that meant it needed a good upholsterer with real skill - look at the piping on the edge of the leather where it is taken around the uprights supporting the back and arms - and the work could only be done on the fully finished chair.

With the leather version of The Chair by Wegner, the leather seat and upholstery were over a separate frame that was dropped into place when the chair was assembled so seat and frame could be made independently.

But also the design of the frame of the seat on The Chair meant that it could be in cane … in fact the first chairs were all with cane seats and the leather covered version was introduced later.

That, in part, explains the success of The Chair which is still in production, made now by PP Møbler.

And it is not just the choice of seat because The Chair was one of the first chairs where the same design could be customised to take on a different character if the customer chose a different type of wood or different finishes for the wood so it takes on a different character in different settings. Not just a very beautiful chair but a bit of a chameleon.

 

note: *

ostensibly similar because in their classification of chair types at Designmuseum Danmark, the chair by Juhl is a Chinese Chair and Wegner's chair a Round Arm or Klismos Chair.

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. 

L1240373.jpg
 

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.”

 

Chairs at Designmuseum Danmark

 
 

looking at chairs to left or right or above or below you can see how a shape or type of chair evolves or how a form can be re-interpreted in a different material

At Designmuseum Danmark there is a relatively new display of their collection of modern chairs where the chairs are arranged by type rather than by designer or by displaying the chairs in chronological order. 

The museum typography for their chairs is one good and clear way of putting the chairs into fairly distinct groups where each group is defined by a form or shape and by the style of a chair … the form of the chair, techniques of working with a material and details of construction and style, being closely interrelated.

Most of the chairs date from the 20th century and were made by Danish cabinetmakers or Danish manufacturers although several older chairs and some chairs from outside Denmark are included where they provide evidence for how or why or when a specific Danish design evolved or if they are relevant evidence from a specific or wider social or historic context.

Most of the chairs are made in wood but there are chairs in metal tube, metal wire and even plastic so there are interesting examples where closely-related designs - in terms of style and shape - can be seen in tube-metal alongside a version in bent-wood although obviously the techniques and the details of construction are very different.

The main groups, defined by the museum, are Folding chairs and stools; Easy chairs - so generally lower and wider chairs - and Windsor chairs - with vertical spindles across the back to support the top rail or, in taller chairs, a head rest. Chippendale chairs have a sturdy frame of square-set legs, usually with stretchers between the legs, and a relatively low back and when they have arms these are housed into the uprights of the back. There is a group derived from Shaker chairs, from America - often with horizontal slats across the back. Chinese chairs and steambent chairs, are similar to the Chippendale Chairs but are distinct in terms of the sitting position which is more upright and more formal and generally the top of the back rail sweeps round into arm rests as a single rather than separate pieces. Round arm chairs and Klismos chairs also have curved and relatively low back rests that continue round into arm rests - with The Chair by Hans Wegner perhaps the most famous Danish example. A Klismos or Klismos Chair is a distinct classical or Greek type with short curved back rest across the top of the back uprights that are usually tapered and splay out down to the floor in a curve. Shell chairs include chairs in moulded or shaped plywood, moulded plastic or metal with shapes that provide, usually in one piece, the support for the seat and back without a framework, and are usually on a separate frame of legs or on a pedestal, that can be made from a different material to the shell, although there are shell chairs where seat, back and support are all moulded. The final group are Cantilever chairs where normally there is a strong base on the floor and some form of support for the front of the seat but no legs or support under the back of the seat - an interesting but not a common type in Denmark. 

chair by PV Jensen Klint c1910

armchair by Kaare Klint 1922

JH505 the Cow Horn Chair by Hans Wegner 1952

Ant shell chair by Arne Jacobsen 1951

EKC12 in tubular steel by Poul Kjærholm 1962

PK15 by Poul Kjærholm 1978

all in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

The study and analysis of chair designs from different periods has been an important part of the training for designers in Danish schools of architecture and schools of design for a century. 

In the 1920s, the architect Kaare Klint was responsible for the conversion and the fittings of the buildings of an 18th-century hospital to form an appropriate exhibition space for the museum of Danish design - then called the Kunstindustrimuseet Danmark which emphasised the close relationship between design and production. Klint taught design in the museum where he encouraged architects and furniture designers to study and draw historic pieces and to study and appreciate cabinet making techniques even if most were not craftsmen themselves.

This division of chair types in the design museum is different from the groups set out by Nicolai de Gier and Stine Liv Buur in their important book Chairs' Tectonics where primary divisions are by material and then by the form and structure … so they look specifically at how the seat, back rest and support or legs are joined or fixed together and take that as the starting point for their classification of chair types.

Designer: Boris Berlin of ISKOS-BERLIN Copenhagen

Curator: Christian Holmsted Olesen.
Graphic design: Rasmus Koch Studio.
Light design: Jørgen Kjær/Cowi Light Design and Adalsteinn Stefansson.
Graphic design: Rasmus Koch Studio.

 

note:

this was posted initially on the 2 October but has been moved up to make a more-sensible introduction to the series of posts about chairs that were posted through October. The chairs were selected because they are important examples from major Danish designers but they also cover all the types of chair in the design museum typology.

These posts on chairs are also an experiment for this site in trying to present more photographs and slightly more information than is normal in a blog to highlight and analyse key features of each design. 

Selecting the category a Danish chair will take you to all the posts in the sequence in which they were posted and there is also a new time line to form an index to these posts:

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.

read more



 

Deckchair by Kaare Klint 1933

chair photographed at Designmuseum Danmark when it was part of a major exhibition on Kaare Klint

 

 

This is not exactly a recliner - you don't lie back in a horizontal or almost-horizontal position - but by having the foot rest raised level with the seat you are 'sitting with your feet up' to use a slightly old-fashioned English phrase that is more than a straight description of how someone is sitting but implies just a bit of pampering or self indulgence.

The chair looks as if it would be most appropriate for the deck of an ocean liner but when it was first shown at the Cabinetmakers' Guild Furniture Exhibition in 1933 it was described as suitable for a garden terrace.

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copper and Copenhagen buildings

 

Copper and the copper alloys of bronze and brass are amazing metals with a long history of use in Denmark for a wide range of uses including making domestic vessels; for coins; for making weapons, particularly ornate weapons for ceremonial use or to display status, and copper and bronze, because they are relatively easy to work, have been used in jewellery and in the decorative arts, particularly for cast sculpture. From the late medieval period onwards copper and bronze have also been used on a much larger scale in architecture, for covering and protecting the roofs of important buildings and, again, because the metals are durable but relatively easy to work and because they can be used as thin sheets that can be shaped and joined together, copper is particularly good for covering domes and spires where the metal layer can be supported by a strong formwork or framework.

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copper after Vesterport

government buildings between Christiansborg and the harbour in Copenhagen by Thomas Havning 1962-1967

 

In terms of style, Vesterport can hardly be said to have set a fashion as few buildings copied the use of copper cladding although through the 1930s and well into the 1950s many did have brass window and door frames and brass architectural fittings including handrails for staircases.

Superficially the government buildings in Copenhagen at Slotholmgade and Christians Brygge designed by Sven Eske Kristensen and Thomas Havning and built in the 1960s are reminiscent of Veserport. The blocks have the strong colour tone dominated by green and of course with the continuous lines of windows and very regular lines of panels divided by ribs forming a regular grid but only the roofs and certain fittings are copper or brass … the panels below the windows and vertical divisions between the panels are in a dark green polished stone or slate.

However, more recently, the offices and tower at Pakhusvej near Amerika Plads by Arkitema has facades in copper. It was completed in 2004 and although now darkening in colour there is no sign yet of a surface patina of verdigris which shows how slow the transition can be even though this building, opposite the terminal for ferries from Oslo, is subject to winds off the sea.

 

the main tower and a detail of the copper cladding at Amerika Plads by Arkitema 2004

 

Most recently the Axel Towers in the centre of Copenhagen, close to Tivoli, by Lundgaard and Tranberg and nearing completion have been faced in tombac- a copper zinc alloy -and again it will be interesting to watch as this prominent, building - close to the City Hall and very close to the SAS Hotel by Jacobsen and two blocks from Vesterport, changes the visual dynamics of the area as its colour changes.

 
 

Axel Towers, Copenhagen by Lundgaard and Tranberg ... work nearing complettion

Mindcraft16 ... Sølvgade Chair by Cecilie Manz

The Sølvgade Chair by Cecilie Manz - when seen alongside the other works in the Mindcraft16 exhibition - appears to be the most conventional piece because it is restrained, rather self-contained and certainly does not draw attention to itself. In contrast, many of the other pieces are deliberately flamboyant and deliberately controversial to push conventions and to challenge the visitor. 

However, the design of the chair goes in the other direction by taking the design of a chair back to basic principles it raises interesting and important questions about how designers and manufacturers should approach the production of a new chair. Why is that important? Well, a chair is perhaps the staple piece of furniture and usually has a major place or even an iconic place in the catalogues of the major Danish design companies. New chairs are launched at regular intervals and old designs are revived as a matter of pride in a well-known back catalogue. Most design buffs can reel off a list of classic chairs but would find it more difficult to name more than a couple of classic table designs or a couple of sofas.

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Mindcraft16 ... ceramics

Works by four ceramicists were selected to be included in the Mindcraft16 exhibition at Designmuseum Danmark.

They could hardly be more different showing four very different approaches to working with clay but all four makers are exploring what they can do with clay, testing boundaries and challenging preconceptions about ceramics. 

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Karina Noyons

 

Back in August, at the Kunsthåndværker Markedet - the craft market on Frue Plads in Copenhagen - one stall that immediately caught my attention was the work of the jewellery designer and goldsmith Karina Noyons. 

Her work is striking - simple but very clever and inventive - playing with strong geometric shapes but twisting them around so rings or bracelets are held out from the body. So for instance, by putting a square outside an inner circle of a ring. Here clearly is a designer's and a goldsmith’s skill that, to repeat something discussed regularly on this site, develops from experience and from working directly with a material, to understand what will and what will not achieve a desired result. What this jewellery also illustrates so well is that the simpler the piece then, as here, the more perfect the workmanship has to be … minimalism shows up any flaw and to misappropriate a much used phrase … less means more skill.

But above all, what I could see in the jewellery, is a fantastic and clearly justifiable self confidence that's combined with a really good sense of humour. That was obvious in the clever display that used illustrations by Rasmus Bregnhøi as a background for the jewellery with suggestions about how the more unusual or less conventional pieces could be worn.

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Karina Noyons

Rasmus Bregnhøi

 

the glassmaker Rick Gerner

 

In the Autumn there were two opportunities in Copenhagen to see the work of Rick Gerner: at northmodern he was one of eighteen young designers from Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi Designskolen (the Danish Royal Academy schools of design) who showed their work in an area called Talents and Schools and then, in September, graduate students from the Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi School of Ceramics and Glass on Bornholm showed their work in an exhibition, Silica Visions, at the Round Tower in Copenhagen.

Rick Gerner is from the Netherlands and started his design training there but began to question if his studies, and the approach to what he was doing, was right for him and right for what he wanted to achieve. He discovered glass making; realised that the very direct, hands-on approach of training within a craft discipline, rather than dealing with design as simply a stage in the production process, was what he really wanted to do and he transferred to Bornholm.

Understanding that, you can see in his work the enthusiasm and the determination of the convert … there is a focus and an intensity in his work but also the sense that he is testing and pushing the boundaries as he tries to understand the material he has chosen to work with.

He has gone back to basics; not just looking at glass itself as the raw material - looking at what can and cannot be done with molten glass in the process of making a glass vessel - but he has also analysed how he uses the tools needed to gather the glass; form it into shapes and crimp or cut or finish the vessels he has formed. He has made the tools he needed and for his graduation project he has photographed and analysed how he uses those tools. 

This is like a young writer exploring the sounds and rhythms of the words of their language or a professional musician finding what they feel to be exactly the right instrument for them to play and then exploring and experimenting and finding the limits of what they can do with the sound and with the strengths and the limits of that instrument. And, of course, all young craftsmen, learning their trade, test the boundaries and develop an understanding of what they can and cannot do with the materials they are working with - Rick Gerner is only unusual in that he has analysed and photographed and written about that process.

He works with a straightforward glass that has tones of green with slight variations in that colour - minerals and chemicals have to be added to make glass that is sharply clear or deeply coloured or to make it perform in different ways in its molten or finished state - and this basic quality gives his finished work a warmth with slight irregularities and slight inconsistencies that bring the pieces to life. It is the impurities that gives the glass the qualities that show it was made by hand and not formed and moulded in perfect regularity by a machine but it is also the irregularities in glass that give it its reflective qualities. 

Of course, perfectly consistent glass - with each piece produced being exactly the same as the first and the last - has distinct qualities and distinct benefits for certain work but the character and the qualities of the glass are different to the glass made by Rick Gerner. Surely, this is comparable to the differences between stoneware and porcelain in ceramics; between copper and steel in metalwork or between raw linen and fine cotton in textiles. That is not to make a judgement based on quality or intrinsic value but simply a distinction between different types of material that vary between a softer irregularity or a sharper and more consistent regularity. And it’s not to say that one is better and the other worse … just different. The individual materials have inherent qualities that the designer has to understand and exploit.

The shapes and forms in the glassware produced by Rick come directly from the methods and techniques of the production itself and so there are links back to the shapes and forms of decoration in ‘honest’ and straightforward glassware from the late medieval and the early modern period of the 16th and 17th century. Back to that period when the glassmakers of the Netherlands and the north German states and, further afield, in Bohemia, began to develop successful glass industries that produced everyday glassware for the table. But the forms and decoration developed by Rick Gerner are only similar because the material and the techniques he uses are much the same now as then but he is bringing to his craft his own tastes and his own distinctly contemporary eye. As said so often now on this web site, this is not about reproducing historic designs but about starting with well-established craft skills and taking them in a new direction that has to be appropriate and relevant to modern life and modern needs.

Rick Gerner

 

Søren Ulrich

Søren Ulrich was at northmodern in August to show his furniture along with a display of the large selection of high-quality carpentry and cabinet-making tools that he sells through his company.

His furniture is made with great attention to the character and grain of the timbers he uses and his work has, of course, the quality that you would expect from a hugely experienced and skilled craftsman.

The style of his furniture is interesting - not looking back to usual sources of inspiration in the ‘classical’ period of modern Danish design from the 1960s and 1970s but a step further back to look at vernacular furniture for inspiration … to the best of everyday Danish furniture … to the simple, practical, well-made furniture of farmhouses, and working homes and to the sort of furniture that must have filled the many apartments built in Copenhagen after 1870.

For the shapes of the backs to chairs or for the form or construction details of legs or frames - these pieces are reminiscent of furniture from 1900 or 1910. This is robust, well-made, long-lasting furniture that makes use of the best carpentry techniques, for forming frames and for finishing the pieces, but makes it relevant to a modern home rather than being simply a copy or reproduction.

Søren Ulrich

 

 

the carpentry tools:

Part of the display at northmodern included a section of the trunk from an oak tree that had been split down the middle and was used as a display surface for a selection of high-quality wood-working tools.

A friend with some woodland had offered Søren an oak that was about to be felled but he accepted on the condition that he could cut down the tree himself, using a traditional axe, wanting to take the timber through all the stages from the standing tree to the finished furniture … but, he confessed to me that, half way through cutting down the tree, he began to feel that maybe it was one of the toughest jobs he had ever undertaken.

 

Treen

 

The old English word for household items such as spoons and kitchen utensils that are made out of wood is TREEN … a word that also implies woodworking that was possibly undertaken outdoors, out in the woods, but was certainly the sort of task undertaken in the farm or village workshop.

At northmodern Søren Ulrich had a large squared-off block of timber that was standing upright as part of his display. It had a series of round holes drilled carefully and deliberately in a line just below the top.

While Søren was answering questions from someone else I stood looking at the block - curious and slightly perplexed. Given that there were a number of clamps on or near the block Søren must have thought I was either rather naive or even pretty thick when I asked what the holes were for. He took up one of the clamps and instead of a pad at the opposite end to the part that screwed in and out - the sort of clamp I have used - there was a prong or spike pointing horizontally out which was slotted into one of the holes and then the screw part tightened down to clamp a piece of wood … so in fact this block of timber was a transportable work bench to be used for carving.

 

Recently, Søren has made a range of wooden bowls and spoons and ladles and so on … treen. Some of these were in the display at northmodern with various pieces of wood showing the different stages of the production … the first a roughly-shaped piece of wood, the second after an initial work with a plane, the next marked out with the shape of the proposed implement in pencil. As, at that point, there was no one else wanting to speak to Søren, he picked up one of the marked out pieces and clamped it to the top of the bench and started deftly to form a spoon. 

It was hardly surprising that, as he worked, a crowd formed to watch but I tried to take photographs of the sequence.

Søren used a series of gauges and chisels to hollow out the shape, quickly swapping from one to the next, supporting the piece with a thumb as he cut down and round, using the angle of his body to lean into the cut, using body weight to provide the force but his hands to guide the cutting edge.

 

This must have been much like it would have been watching a village carpenter in the 19th century or the 18th century or the 17th or, in fact, any country carpenter back through the Middle Ages supplementing his income and using smaller pieces or off-cuts of wood between the jobs for local families making them benches or tables or chests.  

That’s not to say that the spoons and bowls and ladles made by Søren Ulrich are some sort of charming curiosity of a rural craft that is more part of a museum demonstration than anything else because the shapes and forms of his pieces are distinctly modern … just that they are very much part of a long and admirable tradition.

 

 

the finished work

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.