All the Danish chairs at the Designmuseum Danmark
Images courtesy of Designmuseum Danmark and MoMA
“The Danish Chair. An International Affair” is the new section of the permanent exhibition of the Designmuseum Danmark dedicated to chairs
The Danish Chair, a permanent exhibition at the Designmuseum Danmark
The design of chair in the 20th century
Mies van der Rohe once said that chairs are among the most difficult objects to design; since to create something which has to be at the same time light, strong, and comfortable entails so many problems and possible solutions that “It is almost easier to build a skyscraper than a chair”.
Perhaps that statement was a bot too extreme; yet, chairs are certainly among the most complex types of furniture because, more than others, their design requires to solve ergonomic, technical and structural issues.
That’s why we could somewhat tell the history of industrial design through the evolution of chairs from the mid-19th century to the end of the 20th century.
That history likely began in Vienna, in the workshop of a family of carpenter, where, the first Thonet chair no. 14 was produced in 1859.
Subverting the established concept of furniture, which from exclusive soon became popular (over 50 million pieces of the chair were sold between 1859 and 1930), the Thonet company started making its wood furniture though a steam-bending process, thus dropping expensive woodcarving works, and joining the few parts of which the chair was composed with simple screws.
Therefore, this history is largely based on those innovations which emerged during the transition between the 19th and 20th century, on the research on forms and craft techniques – developed for example by the Wiener Werkstatte and the Glasgow School -, and on the experimentation of new materials and manufacturing processes at the turn of the century.
An advertising poster of the Gebrüder Thonet company
If the Masters of Modernism, from the already mentioned Mies van der Rohe to Le Corbusier, fostered the success of chromed steel as a furniture material, Scandinavian designers revolutionized the design of wood chairs, as Alvar Aalto started doing in the ’30s with the bent plywood Paimio Chair.
Alvar and Aino Aalto, Paimio Chair, 1931, designed for the Paimio hospital in Finland; photo courtesy of MoMA – The Museum of Modern Art, New York
In the following decade, Aalto’s bentwood furniture greatly influenced the work of other designers, both in Europe and the United States, from Eero Saarinen to Charles and Ray Eames – who developed chairs with a structure made in metal, and seat and back made in bent plywood (Organic Chair, 1940, and LCW, 1945) -, to Denmark’s Arne Jacobsen, who firstly designed the Ant Chair (1952), made of a single plywood shell supported by three tubular steel legs, and then the famous Series 7.
Arne Jacobsen, Ant Chair, 1952
The Danish furniture industry, which greatly developed during the Fifties and Seventies, is highly recognized for the strict collaboration between designers and manufacturers, as well as for being the epitome of a long-lasting woodcarving culture, made of extreme attention to materials and the environment.
Among the best-known Danish designers is Hans Wegner, who designed some of the most interesting chairs of the time such as the exceptional CH24 Y (1949), evolution of an earlier project inspired by the chairs of the Ming dynasty, and the Flag Halyard (1950) composed of steel tubes and rope.
Hans Wegner, CH24 Y chair, 1949
Hans Wegner, Flag Halyard chair, 1950
The bentwood shell chairs designed by Saarinen, Eames e Jacobsen would influence the design of subsequent plastic chairs; with an intermediate passage marked by the use of fiberglass we see in the celebrated Chaise by the Eameses (1948), the first version of the Elephant stackable stool by Sori Yanagi (1954), and the Tulip chair by Saarinen (1955).
The advent of plastic polymers made the manufacturing of one-piece shells, initially modeled over a metal support, much easier, thus freeing designers to investigate new chair forms.
The possibilities offered by the introduction of new types of, increasingly lighter and stronger, polymeric materials would lead, in the late 1960s, to the creation of audacious one-piece chairs, such as the Panton Chair – lightweight, stackable, colored, and fluid-shaped -, designed by the Danish designer Verner Panton in 1960 and released on the market in 1967, after a long technical development.
Verner panton, Panton chair, 1967
The Danish Chair. An International Affair
Taking the cue from this fascinating history, in December 2016, the Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen has added a new thematic section to its permanent exhibition. The section, entitled The Danish Chair, An International Affair, focuses on how chair design has become an world-recognized hallmark of Denmark.
The Danish Chair, installation view; photo: Pernille Klemp
The new gallery has been conceived as a contemporary cabinet of curiosities, aimed to present at its best the evolution of this type of furniture during the 20th century.
The over 100 pieces on view are displayed in dedicated white boxes, arranged on three levels and slightly tilted toward the visitors to give the exhibits the best visibility.
Large sliding folders, reporting drawings and technical information about each object, are placed between the boxes.
The Danish Chair, installation view; photo: Pernille Klemp
Together with pieces dating back to the early 20th century, the exhibition features models from the “Golden Age” of Danish design, produced between 1920 and 1970, along with chairs from international manufacturers.
Among the pieces on view are the Metropolitan Chair, designed by Aksel Bender Madsen and Ejner Larsen in 1949, the Shell Chair (1963) and the bizarre hanger-chair Wallet (1953) both by Hans J. Wegner, the Ant Chair and the steel-and-plywood Series 7 by Arne Jacobsen (1955), the revolutionary plastic monocoque Panton chair conceived by Verner Panton in the Sixties, and the more recent Trinidad, designed by Nanna Ditzel in 1993.
Hans Wegner, Wallet chair, 1953
Hans Wegner, Shell chair, 1963
Nanna Ditzel, Trinidad chair, 1993
The Danish Chair, installation views; photo: Pernille Klemp
Image: Rasmus Koch Studio