the danish chair - an international affair

 

chairs in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark in the display that was designed by Boris Berlin and completed in 2016

The Danish Chair an international affair,
by Christian Holmsted Olesen
Designmuseum Danmark with Strandberg Publishing 2018
layout and cover design: Rasmus Koch Studio

Designmuseum Danmark have just published a book about chairs in the collection of the museum. Most of the chairs are from the 20th century and most are Danish although there are several chairs that were made in the 19th century -  an English Windsor Chair, an American Shaker Chair and Chinese chairs - that have been included because their forms of construction influenced Danish designs - and there are some modern international designs including chairs from England, Italy, Austria, Germany and the USA that help to set the Danish furniture in a wider context.

Essentially, the book takes the form of a catalogue with separate entries for nine stools and for 104 chairs with each on a double-page spread although for 31 of these the entries continue over to a second double-page that is used for historic photographs of the chair or for reproductions of working drawings.

Descriptions for each chair are succinct with most of the entries just over a hundred words although several are shorter and only two of the chairs have a text that goes into a second paragraph.

This certainly gives the book a clear and tight discipline.

Because this is not a continuous narrative text, it reads more like good museum labels and that is appropriate as the book accompanies a new gallery for the collection of chairs in the museum that was designed by Boris Berlin and completed in 2016.

With a relatively unusual format - the book is 150 mm wide and 270 mm high - the initial impression is that this is a handbook or even a pocket guide but at 32 mm thick and printed on heavy, good-quality paper this is a hefty book so would need a large pocket.

Although it is tall and narrow,  the double spread of facing pages gives a good and attractive square format. My only criticism of the book is that several interesting historic photographs and illustrations that have been placed across two pages are broken and distorted by a tight gutter.

Christian Holmsted Olesen, the author of the book, is a curator at the museum and wrote a seminal book on the work of the Danish furniture designer Hans Wegner - Wegner - just one good chair that was published as the main catalogue for an exhibition at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014. His introduction here is short but wide ranging and puts chair design in the much wider context of Danish design in the 20th century.

His aim is to show "how the so-called Golden Age of Danish furniture design was shaped by the study and refinement of historical furniture types," so the chairs in the book are not presented chronologically or by country but grouped by type … by form of construction. Types here are slightly different from the categorisation of form types in the museum gallery - presumably to be less specifically Danish and slightly more obvious for the foreign reader. The most straightforward change is that Shaker chairs, Chinese chairs and steam-bent chairs and the Klismos type of chair and Round Arm chairs - all types specified in the museum display - have been re-arranged in the book and those groups given new names. There is a new category for "Peasant chairs" - here including the influential Shaker chair from the collection and the well-known Church Chair by Kaare Klint and the People's Chair by Børge Mogensen - and the rest are divided between Bentwood chairs and Frame chairs.

In the book the categories for form or type are:

Folding stools and chairs
Low easy chairs
Peasant chairs
Bentwood chairs
Frame chairs
English chairs
Windsor chairs
Shell chairs
Cantilever chairs

Each section is prefaced by a list of the specific chairs of that type or of that form along with the useful outline sketches that were developed for information panels in the exhibition.

The book concludes with profiles of nine prominent and influential Danish designers …. Kaare Klint, Mogens Koch, Ole Wanscher, Børge Mogensen, Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Kjærholm and Verner Panton.

Again, these are short accounts but authoritative - presumably for the general reader who wants more information for context - and finally there is a short but again useful list of recommended books for finding out more.

review of the museum chairs

  

Designmuseum Danmark
Strandberg Publishing
Rasmus Koch Studio

Pictograms used in the introduction to the exhibition for a diagram of the types of chair and to represent the specific chairs in each type are used here as stylish end papers to the book and then as a quick-reference index at the start of the section on a type or form of chair … here Low easy chairs. Most chairs have a double page spread - so here the Windsor Chair by Ole Wanscher from 1942.

There are historic drawings for some chairs - here the Y or Wishbone Chair by Hans Wegner and historic photographs including the assembly hall of Kvinderegensen in Copenhagen - the university hall of residence for women with the chair designed by Rigmor Andersen in 1931.

The last section of the book has short accounts of the lives and the training and work of nine designers “who shaped their field.”

 

Dansk Møbelkunst gennem 40 År

 
 

40 years of Danish Furniture Design - The Copenhagen Cabinet-makers’ Guild Exhibitions

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’ Tectonics

 

Chairs’ Tectonics
Nicolai de Gier and Stine Liv Buur
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture Publishers 2009

This book sets out to establish an acceptable and precise vocabulary so that it is possible to analyse, describe and discuss the design of a chair and, presumably by extension, to apply that same method of analysis to other areas of design. For many people, particularly those not involved professionally in the World of design, the first reaction could be that this is making something that is simple and straightforward unnecessarily complicated to justify an academics expertise - surely a chair is just a seat at the right height, on legs or a pedestal, with an upright to lean back against.

But in a way this is a bit like wine tasting. Initially everyone laughs at the phrases used but actually, if you want to remember a lot of wines, that might be different from each other in only very subtle ways, and you want to work out why you like one and not the other then it soon becomes obvious that an agreed and common vocabulary and a system of description is not just useful but crucial.

Another clear aim of the book is to emphasise a typology of chair forms … essentially the four main types of chair are here grouped by their construction: the “stick” chair (a chair constructed with a frame); the shell chair; the armrest chair and the “monolithic” chair. 

In addition the authors identify three major types of material in their classifications - wood, steel and plastic/composite - and, slightly more difficult to grasp, four modes of joining. This is because joining here is not used in the sense of linking or fixing together but “in forms of mutual relationship” … so here the four types of joining are connection through distance; connection through contact; connection through plaiting and connection through form. This actually begins to make sense once you look at the examples: connection through distance is where a secondary piece, often in a different material, links two major parts of the chair - so the rubber linking pieces used in the PK27 by Kjærholm that links the strut that forms the back and seat frame to the horizontal frame that includes the front and back leg of the chair and provides some give or flexibility to the finished chair. Joining by contact is the most obvious and would include wielding or bolting together separate parts. Plaiting is again more difficult to grasp at first because the image conjured up from the English word is hair but here it refers to a timber joint where each piece is cut back to form tenons that when pushed together form a whole apparently continuous piece .. for instance in the side and front rail of a chair seat. Connection by form is also interesting because although this basically covers moulded chairs, for instance in plastic, when you begin to look at a chair to undertake this sort of verbal analysis you realise that the interesting thing about moulding is that it can but doesn’t always blur the boundaries between one part and another … so in the famous Tulip Chair by Eero Saarien of 1955, where does the seat end and the pedestal start?

In wider use, the word tectonics is more often found in geology and means the study of thrust, slip and faults in the earth’s layers. However, it is clear why the word is used here for furniture because its origins in the Greek word tekton links it to artifice, joining and fabrication - as in the work of a carpenter - and then in the medieval period it was associated with the master builder and then the architect.

Tectonics are therefore the way “in which the chair’s individual parts are joined together.” The book does not discuss scale or proportion … in a very Danish way it is just assumed that those must and have to be related to the elements of the human body. Nor, of course, does it discuss pattern or texture though both can and do have a place in chair design.

In drawing together a range of chairs to analyse and discuss, the book examines a number of chairs designed between 1920 and 2008. It also looks at four distinct threads of north-European design in the 1920s that have become merged and therefore confused … here confused meaning mixed up rather than misunderstood. These threads are … the Danish tradition of style evolved from high levels of craftsmanship; the strong development of a national style in Finland that emerged from the technical exploitation of the native timber, birch; the German school that emerged from the Bauhaus with a preference for the technology of tubular steel and the Austrian development of steamed and bent timber, in a more organic style than Finland, which is exemplified by the chairs produced by Thonet.

Clearly one obvious benefit from looking at a chair in this way is that you begin to see what problems the designer was trying to resolve … whether that is problems of construction or details of style to give the final piece an integrity or consistency… and you can begin to see links between designs that appear to be disparate in date and style … so for instance the Faaborg Chair of 1914 by Kaare Klint and the PK11 of 1957 by Poul Kjærholm.

The deliberately restricted size of the book means that the authors raise a number of ideas but do not have space to discuss them. For instance in the introduction several extremely interesting ideas are raised including a suggestion that designers acquire an ability or skill from their training or education and their subsequent experience in their profession so that they modify and adapt the form or the shape or the details of a design without necessarily being able to explain or analyse what they are doing. There is also an implication that because many furniture designers in Denmark trained as architects they therefore have a different approach to proportions and spatial relationships. 

Another interesting but more complicated idea that the authors raise is to describe what they call the subjects “internal connections”: what has changed and continues to change - or evolve - is “the relationship between the chair and the space and the interrelationship among the many different activities the chair is supposed to support.”

One point I wanted to contest immediately was when they talked about symbolism and status they cited the Barcelona Chair of 1929 by Mies van der Rohe and and the PK 22 from 1955 by Poul Kjærholm and suggested they both look back to the Roman curule seat for magistrates. Yet curiously both the 20th-century chairs are low and informal … the sitter almost reclines. As far as I can see, their status comes from their clear expense and not from the posture of the sitter.

It is also interesting that the armrest chair is defined here as not only having arms but generally arms at the level of the top rail of the back. In England there has been a long tradition of constructing chairs with a high back, often high enough to support the back of the head, and then, of course, the arms have to be joined into the uprights of the back as well as being supported by a vertical at the front edge of the seat often, but not always, above the front legs.

The authors also talk about an instinctive response to materials … sight and touch … which helps to explain why some chairs make us want to touch them and walk round them and admire them as well as, or sometimes even instead of, making us want to sit in them. I don’t find the PK22 by Poul Kjaerholm particularly comfortable … for me, personally it is too low and I struggle a bit when I try to get up out of it … but I never tire of looking at it.

Photographs were taken specifically for the book. Many books on furniture only have space for a single rather general image of a piece but here, illustrating the way the authors analyse the chairs in detail, there are particularly good photographs of details … for instance the connection blocks or dampers used in chairs made from plywood and for shell chairs, particularly where there is a moulded-plastic seat and back.

Chairs’ Techtonics was published in 2009 so might not be easy to find in bookshops but it is well worth tracking down if you want to start talking about design in a more serious and in a more disciplined way.

Nicolai de Gier originally trained as a cabinetmaker but graduated from the School of Architecture of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and is now an associate professor, instructor and research academic at the School. 

Stine Liv Buur trained as an architect, was a research assistant at the Danish Centre for Design Research and at the time of writing the book was employed by Fritz Hansen.

 

Danish Furniture Design in the 20th Century

 
 

Danish Furniture Design in the 20th Century
Arne Karlsen
Dansk Møbelkunst 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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