CH28 Savbukstol / Sawbuck Chair by Hans Wegner 1951

 Through the 1930s and 1940s and on into the 1950s, designer experimented with not just different materials, so here shaped plywood, but also looked for new and unconventional forms of construction.

Here, Hans Wegner seems to have been inspired by the carpenters sawbuck … what is called in England a saw horse or sometimes simply a trestle. This was a straightforward and usually light bench, often made quickly and crudely with available timber with a length of squared-off wood as a top bar and simple supports at each end - either just two pieces of wood fixed and angled out to form an inverted V or, if it had to support more weight, then cross bars were added between the legs to form an A at each end. These were used on their own or with a pair to support a length of wood as it was sawn or cut to length or two of these could be used together with planks set across to form a temporary table or even a platform when painting a ceiling or hanging wallpaper.

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CH07 - the two-part shell chair by Hans Wegner 1963

early versions of the chair shown at the exhibition on the work of Hans Wegner at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014

 

 Sometimes good design is about designing something better and sometimes it's about designing something different and, without doubt, it was the exploration of what many could see as unconventional styles and forms that drove forward Danish design through the 1960s and 1970s.

This shell chair by Hans Wegner, designed in 1963, could certainly not be described as conventional as it was one of his most sculptural but one of his most starkly simple designs.

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3208 Lilien / The Lily by Arne Jacobsen 1970

Chair 3208 in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 3108 - an early version of the chair - was designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1961 but The Lily - or at least a first version of The Lily without arms - was shown at the Scandinavian Furniture Fair in Copenhagen in 1969 and the final form with arms was shown at the furniture fair the following year. The chair was also known as Mågen or The Sea Gull.

Clearly the Lily is related to the other shell chairs in plywood that Jacobsen designed - including The Ant from 1952 and the Series 7 chairs from1955 - but the Lily has a more marked shape with a much narrower waist between the seat and the back that was there to make possible a more pronounced curve of the shell. Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum, in their book on the work of Jacobsen, suggest that this created so much tension in the shell that up to 75% that were made had to be rejected.

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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

 

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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NV45 / FJ45 by Finn Juhl 1945

Chair NV45 was shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1945 - with other furniture including a desk and sofa designed by Finn Juhl and made by Niels Vodder - in a room setting that was described as a ‘room for a managing director.’

Obviously this was not cheap furniture … a review in Berlingske Tidende noted that the furniture was designed for a deluxe office and added that not only had it been awarded first prize but had been sold in advance to an American customer.

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photographed at Galleri Feldt at Nordre Toldbod in Copenhagen

 
 

Karmstol by Edvard Thomsen 1930

This chair, designed in 1930 by Edvard Thomsen (1884-1980) is interesting because it has features that suggest that its design is transitional … in part looking back to the style of older chairs that were an interpretation of classical forms and historic styles but in part the chair incorporates modern ideas and modern joinery.

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chair by Edvard Thomsen in Designmuseum Danmark

the Shaker rocking chair in the collection at Designmuseum Danmark

 

Designmuseum Danmark gives this rocking chair from the United States a prominent place in the introduction at the entrance to their gallery of modern Danish chairs and so, by implication, an important place in the story of Danish furniture in the second half of the 20th century. There are obvious links with the style and form of chairs designed by Ole Wanscher, Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen and others in the 1940s and 1950s but I did not appreciate the complicated history of this chair or understand its direct influence until I read the account set out by Gorm Harkær in his monograph on Kaare Klint that was published in 2010.

In 1919 Kaare Klint took over the teaching of technical drawing for cabinetmakers at the Technical Society's school. His approach to furniture design was clearly set out in his programme where he states that the school "will not try to teach you to perform so-called beautiful specious Drawings where the whole room is reflected in the Furniture Polish: we will try to teach you to draw accurate and realistic line drawings. We will not try to teach you to draw Artworks in different Styles, but try to show you the beauty that lies in the perfect simple Design and Usability."

 
RP00074A.jpg

In the collection of Designmuseum Danmark but not currently on display… copy of a Shaker rocking chair made in beech by Rud. Rasmussen in 1942. The catalogue entry RP00074 gives the designer as Kaare Klint. Note the elongated vase-shaped turning at the top of the front legs above the seat that copies the form of the chair owned by Einar Utzon-Frank and drawn by O Brøndum Christensen in 1927 rather than the pronounced taper or thinning down of the upper part of the front leg on the Shaker chair purchased by the museum in 1935

In 1924 Klint was appointed an assistant professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, in the newly-established Department of Furniture Design, where, again, he emphasised the importance of measuring and drawing good examples of historic furniture and that took up much of the first year of the course. In 1927 Klint described these drawings as "the beginning of an archive of furniture studies." *

The Department of Furniture Design was based in the Danish Museum of Art & Design - now Designmuseum Danmark - and students made carefully-measured drawings of a number of key pieces in the collection including a chair by the 18th-century English furniture maker Thomas Chippendale which then formed a starting point for the design of several modern chairs.

The Danish sculptor Einar Utzon-Frank, who also taught at the Royal Academy, owned a rocking chair that was described as "in the American Colonial style" and that chair was surveyed in 1927 by O Brøndum Christensen. A precisely-measured drawing of a Shaker chair at a scale of 1:5 and photographs taken of the chair in 1928 survive. **

Then, in 1935, in an auction, the museum bought this Shaker Rocking chair, very close to the form of the chair owned by Utzon-Frank and it was recorded in the acquisition index as A32/1935 where it is described as a shawl-back rocker with a cushion rail … that is the thin turned, slightly curved bar that runs across the back at the top of the back posts of the back rest of the chair.

In 1937 Edward and Faith Andrews published Shaker Furniture and, after a copy of that book was acquired by the museum library in 1941, it appears that Kaare Klint began a correspondence with American museums about Shaker furniture. ***

The following year, in 1942, Rud. Rasmussens Snedkerier - the cabinetmakers who worked closely with Kaare Klint and made much of the furniture that he designed - made a copy of the Utzon-Frank chair. They appear to have used the survey drawing by O Brøndum Christensen because the upper part of the front legs of the Rud. Rasmussen chair - with an elongated, turned, baluster shape above the seat rail - matches the Utzon-Frank chair rather than the chair owned by the museum that has long, elegant tapering or thinning down of the front leg between the seat rail and where it is housed into the underside of the arm rest.

Also in 1942, Kaare Klint produced designs for a number of chairs in a Shaker-style for FDB - the Danish Co-op - who had just set up a new office for furniture design. Two chairs, one with arms and one without, given the numbers J20 and J21, were made as prototypes by Fritz Hansen Eftf although in the end they were not put into production. ****

the chair designed for FDB - photographed in the exhibition on the work of Kaare Klint at Designmuseum Danmanrk

 

The original rocking chairs were made in workshops at one of the Shaker communities in America and, from their design, probably at Mount Lebanon where the settlement had been established in 1787 and continued right through until 1947. The religious movement of the Shakers had originated in England but many of the group emigrated to America from the north west - particularly from Lancashire - in search of a more tolerant place to practice their nonconformist beliefs. They took with them ideas and styles and local carpentry techniques which influenced the buildings they constructed and the furniture and panelling and fittings that they made in the settlements they established. Then, having built themselves farm houses, schools and chapels, and because the religious settlements were rural and generally self sufficient and relatively isolated - so by nature closed or inward looking - then these styles and designs became rather fixed. In fact, rocking chairs of this design appear in auction house sale catalogues where some are given a late date of manufacture - some examples dating from early in the 20th century.

So although Klint was not exactly admiring a contemporary chair nor was he inspired by a chair that was particularly old but nor, and perhaps more important, was it a Danish style or from a Danish tradition.

In England, architects and designers of the Arts and Crafts movement responded to what they saw as the poor quality of design of furniture and factory-made household goods as the industrial revolution in England evolved. They looked for inspiration to what they appreciated as a the better craftsmanship of traditional oak furniture of the 17th century and artisan furniture, such as Windsor chairs and cottage chairs, of the 18th century.

However, the important difference between England and Denmark by the 1920s was that, apart from expensive workshop furniture made for companies like Liberties or Heal's, most traditional cabinetmakers' had long disappeared but in Copenhagen the workshops and the skills of cabinetmakers had survived and, even if they felt threatened by factory production, were trying hard to adapt to a very different society and were trying to make furniture for a different customer.

So for Klint it was more about the survival of cabinetmakers' skills rather than revival and the Shaker chair was, for him, an example of a design that he considered to be so good that it would be difficult or impossible to improve. Wasn't that why the rocking chair was one of the few copies made by Rud. Rasmussen rather than a unique and specific design from Klint?

He must have admired the honesty and modesty of the Shaker chairs: they were straightforward and what decoration there was derived from the form and from the joinery and the techniques of the assembly … qualities that inspired the Church Chair by Klint from 1936, with the Shaker-style ladder back and thin turned stretchers and inspired the designs for FDB. Perhaps the only thing that is surprising is that the man who designed some of the most rational storage furniture from the period - with large pieces of furniture with cupboards and a series of drawers - was not, it would seem, inspired by the fitted cupboards and chests of drawers that are some of the best proportioned and most beautiful pieces that were produced by the Shakers.

 

 

notes:

 *  Gorm Harkær, Kaare Klint, in two volumes by Klintiana (2010) page 635

 ** drawing RR model no. 6356 reproduced by Gorm Harkær on page 637 and the photographs page 637

 *** page 367

**** Gorm Harkær reproduces the drawings and photographs of the two prototypes on pages 640 and 641

 

Architects and furniture designers of the Arts and Crafts movement in England reacted to what was seen by some as the poor quality of design that was on display in the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and the poor design of manufactured goods in the second half of the 19th century. A leading proponent for a return to the quality of hand-made furniture and household goods and textiles was William Morris. The Art Workers' Guild was founded in 1884 and the architect and designer C R Ashbee founded the Guild and School of Handicraft in London in 1888 that moved to Chipping Camden in 1902.

There were comparable Arts and Crafts movements in the Netherlands and Germany and Austria but all, in reality, producing expensive furniture for a wealthy middle class … closer in character to the style of furniture in Denmark by Gottlieb Bindesbøll and his contemporaries rather than the work of Danish designers in the 20th century.

Webbing

the woven seat of the Shaker chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 

 

In 1942, when the cabinetmakers Rud. Rasmussem made a close copy of a Shaker rocking chair, the webbing for the seat, imitating the original, was woven by Lis Ahlmann but the chair did not go into production and, just two years later, when Hans Wegner designed a rather more free interpretation of the Shaker rocking chair to be made for FDB - the Danish Co-op - paper cord was used for the seat.

webbing on traditional upholstery - both chairs  in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

Red Chair by Kaare Klint

Chair by Børge Mogensen

 

 

Webbing had been used as the support for traditional upholstery through the late 19th and early 20th century as the first layer that was stretched and fixed over the seat frame to support some form of padding that was then covered with fabric or leather.

Webbing was used on its own for the seats of some Danish chairs in the 1920s and 1930s - one good example being the chairs designed by Edvard Thomsen for the Søndermarken crematorium in 1927 - but as paper cord became popular in the 1940s, linen or canvas webbing became much less common.

Hans Wegner used webbing for the seat and back of the Pincer Chair from 1956 and the recliner JH613 (above) and the designer Finn Østergaard, who graduated from the Furniture Department of the School of Arts and Craft in 1975, produced a range of armchairs and high-backed chairs with woven webbing across the seat and back.

Generally, webbing works best with a square or a rectangular seat … it can be difficult to keep the tension even and webbing does stretch more than paper cord with use … and, certainly, webbing cannot be used with the complex joinery of many of the chairs designed by Hans Wegner whereas he could take cord across curved seat frames or around spindles or down through slots that were cut to take the cord around arm supports or the mortices and thin splats of chair backs.

Webbing was used more widely in other Scandinavian countries and by several prominent designers … so in Sweden, by Bruno Mathsson (below) and in Finland by Alvar Aalto.

detail of the webbing on a bentwood chair by Alvar Aalto

Chair 406

 

The traditional Shaker webbing - unbleached and a deep cream or buff colour - looks good with Danish oak so it is a pity that it has not been used more often as an alternative to cord for more straightforward dining chairs.

 

Shaker style webbing bought from America to recover a chair and photographed on the seat of a Wishbone Chair

 

J16 Gyngestol / Rocking Chair by Hans Wegner 1944

Hans Wegner designed a number of rocking chairs that were inspired by the 19th-century Shaker rocking chair in the collection at the design museum in Copenhagen. He copied the simple, straight, turned legs that are bird-mouthed over the shaped and distinctive rockers and he copied the vertical and distinctly upright and high back posts of the chair.

However, in this version, he combined those distinct elements with the vertical rails of the back and a deeper head rest that were inspired by traditional Windsor chairs from England.

With Børge Mogensen - who he knew from the School of Arts and Crafts - Wegner was commissioned by Frederik Nielsen of the Danish Cooperative Union (FDB) to design a range of good, well-made furniture to be sold at a reasonable price that could be afforded by couples and young families living in smaller houses or two and three-room apartments. 

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chairs and pews for Søndermarkens Krematorium by Edvard Thomsen circa 1927

 

 

Edvard Thomsen (1884-1980) was an important figure through the 1920s and 1930s in that period when what we would now recognise as modern architecture emerged.

His work as an architect is generally classified, in terms of style, as New Classicism.

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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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cantilevered chair by Mogens Lassen 1933

Mogens Lassen was just a year older than his brother Fleming and both were at school with Arne Jacobsen. All three became architects and designers and Fleming Lassen worked in partnership with Jacobsen on several major projects in the late 1920s and through the 1930s including working together on the House of the Future … an exhibition entry from 1929 … and the Library at Nyborg and the town hall at Søllerød. 

Both Mogens and Fleming Lassen travelled widely but it was the buildings by Mogens, particularly the villas he designed, and his furniture that were closer to is generally recognised as the International style of the 1930s. Mogens Lassen studied in France and was offered but turned down a post in the studio of Le Corbusier and returned to Denmark where he established his own design studio in 1935.

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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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Deck Chair JH524 / pp524 by Hans Wegner 1958

 

Hans Wegner designed this elegant and simple recliner or deck chair in wood in 1958. 

There are two main sections … a long frame for the seat is gently curved in a convex arc that rests on the ground at the back but is raised off the ground by short tapered legs towards the front. 

Inset from the back is a frame for the back rest that is fixed to the seat frame with metal pivots on each side and held in one of four possible angles by a bar of metal hinged to the back rest and held at the bottom on sprogs on the seat frame … a mechanism similar to that on the Tub Chair also by Wegner and designed in 1954.

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