28 October 2012

You Are What You Sit On

The Swedes may have given the world IKEA, but the Danes gave us all a place to sit.  Sure, chairs existed before the Danish design movement, but the idea of what a chair was or looked like was vastly different.  To be fair, it really started with the Germans.  Danish furniture makers were highly influenced by the Bauhaus school in Germany which, from 1919 - 1933, taught a revolutionary style of furniture design that mixed craftsmanship with fine arts, encouraging creativity, but also keeping human proportions, modern materials and technique top of mind.  The even greater 'gift' (I really hesitate to use that word) from Germany, when it comes to Danish furniture design, was World War II.  Denmark was relatively unscathed, the rest of Europe was looking for cheaper, simpler products and plywood construction became the start of a Danish empire on four legs.
It's amazing how little you think of designs that have become so mainstream they are simply the default.  For example, we have missed Q-Tips deeply since beginning this trip, never really realizing that "cotton swabs" are just not the same.  If I saw the above chair in a home, I might think "nice chairs."  Maybe.  If I saw it in a store, I would recognize that it's a perfect version of chair that I may want for my own home.  In a museum,  specifically Trapholt in Kolding, I realized that this chair is a work of art that didn't just always exist.  The fathers of Modern Danish chair design were (or worked closely with) cabinetmakers.  Lighter woods, function and simplicity, the idea that the piece would fit into the personal world of its owner all factored in.  Thoughtful craftsmanship was key.
Arne Jacobsen, Kaare Klint, Hans Wegner, Verner Panton led the wave of design, teaching and studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Art.  They were commissioned by hotels to make one-of-a-kind furniture.  Wegner's Round Chair became known simply as The Chair after it was used by Nixon and Kennedy in one of their historic, televised debates.   Jacobsen's The Egg and The Swan are icons of modern design and his stackable Ant Chair was so popular that it became Denmark's first industrially manufactured chair.  Above, Ant chairs fill Trapholt's museum cafe.
Finn Juhl was a little more radical than his Danish design contemporaries.  The Pelican Chair, strung up in a colorful array at Trapholt's exhibit commemorating what would have been Juhl's 100th birthday, was called "aesthetics in the worst possible sense of the word" when it debuted.  A great artist panned during his lifetime? Shocking.  What I found more shocking, though, was that this and other curvaceous and plush, colorful and space-age designs were created in the early 1940s.  Looks that I associate with the swinging 60s or the groovy 70s predated both by my entire lifespan.  Juhl may not be the most influential of the chair designers, but he is credited with bringing modern Danish design to America, where it gained instant popularity and still flies off the shelves.
The above Ball Chair was actually designed by a Finn (Eero Saarinen), but when you read the architect's account of his process, you see why Trapholt would include it in a retrospective about Danish design.  With all of its whimsy, uniqueness and its futuristic feel, the chair's dimensions were still based on the most functional of factors.  "Being the taller one of us, I sat... and my wife drew the course of my head on the wall,"  Saarinen explained.  From there, it was simple enough to make a ball "just remembering that the chair would have to fit through a doorway."  It's the art of making something completely logical look and feel imaginative.
The thing about chairs is that, more than any other piece of furniture design, it just won't catch on unless it's truly functional.  You can own a table and define its use by what it can handle.  Lamps, shelves, they serve functions, but there's really no wrong way to do them.  Chairs have to hold weight, they have to be comfortable, they have to fit the owner's taste and also their frame.  Imagine a world where chairs didn't stack or swivel, weren't light enough to move with one hand or inexpensive enough to buy in large matching sets.  Then, thank Denmark.  (with a shout-out to Germany, Finland and the US).

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