Back to the Future: An Abbreviated Danish Design Compendium

by Jessica


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Our new, Australian-born, Swedish-based blogger, Jessica, took on the sizable task of tackling the Danish design legacy. This yielded an interesting outsider's view of our design history that's heavy on the chairs and generous with the time travel.

Functionalism, minimalism and an endless assortment of chairs, chairs, chairs. Welcome to the celebrated, often fastidious and eternally aesthetic world of Danish design. With a hefty load of plutonium and the flux capacitator good to go, we’re heading off on a fleeting journey through time to catch a glimpse of eight iconic pieces of Danish design, chairs aplenty. “If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour, you're gonna see some serious shit.”

First stop is 1949, the year self-taught furniture designer Finn Juhl created “The Chieftain Chair”. Unlike that of his contemporaries, Juhl’s works hinted towards the sculptural with more emphasis on form and less on function, a visionary approach that led him to become the first modern Danish designer to gain international recognition.

When King Frederick IX sat in the chair during the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild exhibition, a journalist labelled it the “King’s chair”. Thinking this sounded pretentious, Juhl remarked “you had better call it the chieftain’s chair”. The name stuck, as did Juhl’s presence in the realm of contemporary design.

1949 was a busy year for chairs it seems, with the release of “The Chair” by Hans J. Wegner, Denmark’s most prolific designer to date. It quickly gained a following when it was featured on the cover of the American Interiors Magazine who described it as “the world’s most beautiful chair”, and rose to superstardom after being used to seat none other than Nixon and Kennedy in a televised political debate in 1960.

Speaking of superstardom, let’s skip back to 1932 to the humble carpentry workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, the birthplace of LEGO. After having lost a good deal of business during The Great Depression, Christiansen began making wooden toys and selling them from his workshop. Just two years later he named his company LEGO, which, for all you non-Danes, comes from the Danish words “leg godt” meaning “play well”, marking the beginning of the LEGO empire

Rewind to 1926, when architect, author and self-taught inventor Poul Henningsen bestowed “The PH Lamp” on the world. As blinding electric globes rapidly replaced the soft glow of petroleum lamps, Henningsen set out to design an electric lamp with the same soft, relaxing qualities as its petroleum forbearers. Ingeniously created out of several concentric shades, “The PH Lamp” obscures the light source and only emits reflected light, resulting in the cosiest of glows.

Fast forward to 1952 and meet the legendary architect and furniture designer Arne Jacobsen, the creator of “The Ant Chair”. Concerned with modern materials and innovative production techniques, Jacobsen created this elegant, stackable gem for the canteen of a Danish pharmaceutical company. While only 300 were ordered, they paved the way for the production of their four-legged sibling, “The 7 Chair” which went on to sell more than five million copies worldwide.

While we’re back on the topic of chairs, let’s skip ahead a couple of years to 1960 to witness the release of the “Panton Chair” by the enfant terrible of Danish furniture design, Verner Panton. Described by Poul Henningsen as “stubborn and forever young”, Panton broke the traditional Danish designer mould by experimenting with bold colours and futuristic shapes. His vision of creating a chair from a single piece of plastic was realised with the “Panton Chair” which became an instant hit with its sleek shape and bright colours.

"Maybe you weren't ready for that ... but your kids are going to love it”

With the mention of sleek design, it would be pure folly not to zoom on through to 1973 to celebrate the opening of The Sydney Opera House on behalf of its designer, Jørn Utzon. After having won a highly competitive design contest in 1957, Utzon set forth to create one of the most iconic pieces of architecture in history. Sadly, due to bureaucratic interference, Utzon resigned, left Australia and never returned to see his masterpiece in its completed form.

Now for a penultimate trip to 1963 take a peek at one last, you guessed it, chair! Referred to as a fine example of “the strong weaker sex” by a critic at the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Exhibition, architect and furniture designer Grete Jalk managed to cast the “GJ Chair” out of just two pieces of moulded plywood. Only 300 of these babies were originally produced, although like so many other iconic Danish designs its virtues have since been recognised and production has now resumed.

And for our final destination, 2012! With most of the aforementioned designs still popular and in production today, it’s plain to see the trailblazing, somewhat chair-shaped mark Denmark has left on the international design scene. “Great Scott”!