A casual ruler surrounded by his three-and four-legged subjects: Hans Jørgensen Wegner, the "King of the chairs." All fig. from the discussed book © Hatje Cantz
One chair wasn’t enough for him
by Thomas Wagner
Sep 19, 2014
On photographs he has a modest demeanor, almost a little inconspicuous. And then you come across a shot showing a swimming pool with a small stand, and high up in the air a man, his body taut, his arms outstretched, diving from the high board. One of the reasons, or so the accompanying text reads, why Hans J. Wegner “became one of the epoch-defining 20th-century Danish designers was that he never feared diving into deep water. Although what he learned at college was Danish Functionalism, which tenaciously clung to its dogmas, he never shied away from experimentation or from exhibiting his creations to solicit reactions.” In the foreword we find the laconic assertion: “Wegner was probably the world’s most productive furniture designer.” Which is true if one bears in mind that his estate contains in excess of 3,500 furniture designs. About 500 of his ideas went into production.
A weighty tome it is indeed that Christian Holmsted Olesen has dedicated to the great Hans Jørgensen Wegner (1914 to 2007) on the occasion of the centenary of his birth. The result will quite simply become the standard reference work. The very design breathes the spirit of sound craftsmanship: a coarse cloth cover, with the name “Wegner” embossed on it in upper case letters, and beneath it in lower case the title “just one good chair” and silhouettes of some of Wegner’s best-known chairs. Only after a close study of the book will you notice that Wegner’s inner bond to craftsmanship was certainly not all there is to say about his work, as it is precisely not all there is to say about him, because it was certainly not just sheer craftsmanship that explains the enduring success of the furniture by this exceptional designer who spent his life seeking the perfect furniture item.
You swiftly notice when reading that this is not the first book Olesen has written about Wegner. He is very skillful from the outset, as regards structuring the extensive material. In the first 90-odd pages Olesen serves up a matter-of-fact, intelligent and precisely argued introductory sketch of Wegner’s oeuvre. The chapter is entitled “From Danish traditionalist to international Modernist” and follows the stages in Wegner’s life as well as the leaps and bounds of his oeuvre. The influence and importance of other people, institutions, schools and companies on Wegner becomes clear here.
In the subsequent second section “Types of furniture and leitmotifs” documentary stock of Wegner’s furniture is taken, with the items being placed in their historical context – from his spokeback and China chair through his shell and folding chairs and recliners to his upholstered furniture, tables, and untypically for him, storage items. This comprehensive history of his oeuvre is illustrated exclusively with photos from the time when the respective items were created (thanks to the archives in Wegner’s office) and by means of reproductions of original sketches and working designs. And as regards an analytical ability, a careful consideration of details and intelligent restraint, it is repeatedly Wegner’s own statements that provide important information on his thinking and his methodology – they’re either embedded in a text or emphasized in their own right.
“If only you could design one single good chair in the course of your life, but precisely that isn’t possible.” Hans J. Wegner, 1952
It is his chairs that made Wegner famous. He is considered the “King of Chairs”, as he was truly obsessed with the idea of designing at least one perfect chair. Convinced that there is nothing that cannot be improved on, he designed his furniture on the basis of an incredibly sensitive feel for the material, the structure and the use. And his pronounced crafts skills simply formed the context within which Wegner was able to grow his talent as a designer and an experimental artist. Essentially, and this becomes ever more clear as the book unfolds, he was a skeptic idealist, a neo-Platonist who from an early date stringently scrutinized things to establish their essence, but initially abided by the strict rules of functionalism such as Kaare Klint had advocated.
“The chair is the item closest to people’s hearts. It can be given a personal expression.” Hans J. Wegner
Whatever he set his mind on, Wegner never lost his inquisitive nature and his joy in experimenting. That is one of the reasons why his organic Modernism never insists on being dogmatic, making it quite distinct from the output of some of his peers, including Kaare Klint, Poul Kjærholm, Børge Mogensen, and Finn Juhl. It’s simple: Wegner’s designs are geometrical, constructive and organic at the same time. However, and this is likewise an anti-dogmatic characteristic, if we consider his complete oeuvre it soon becomes clear that Wegner always had some unforeseen twists and surprises up his sleeve; he was a master of variation on a theme, leaping from one furniture type to another. He knew that the chair someone is sitting on reflects their status and power, yet this did not discourage him from designing individual pieces, chairs for everyone, in which form and function, just as experience and ornamentation, meld together into some superior entity. Still today it is truly delightful to experience Wegner’s furniture side by side with the rational look-and-feel of the modern glass architecture alternative. Notwithstanding the undeniable reasoning behind their design, Wegner’s chairs are never reserved, yet despite their solid demeanor they exude extravagance, luxury, indeed splendor. Take, for example, the “Peacock Chair” that marks the start of Wegner’s “themed series”, the first in his “animal furniture” range. Mind you, as the volume reveals it was others, and not Wegner, who looked to peacocks, cows, bulls, oxen, bears and dolphins in search of inspiration to name their designs.
“Even a chair whose design turns out to be most unsuccessful has not been made in vain. I appreciate those as development stages.” Hans J. Wegner
The breakthrough of the Danish furniture industry came in 1949 – and it was a breakthrough for Wegner, too. The market was crying out for handmade furniture and the trade show hosted once a year in the fall by Denmark’s Carpenters Guild to spotlight the latest production, attracted interest also in the United States. The accompanying several-page article in a 1950s issue of “Interiors” magazine also presented Wegner’s “Round Chair”. Labeled JH 501, it would become his most famous design; Americans simply and admiringly call it “The Chair”. It had its grand moment in the 1960 presidential election campaign when it provided seating for John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the first-ever TV debate. Wegner would have been impressed.
“The idea of ‘the perfect chair’ is nonsense. This one chair simply doesn’t exist. I can feel it moving further away the more I work on it. Perhaps it’s just my imagination. But you cannot make something so definitive. Only those who have not understood the essence of what it’s all about can do so. For my part I believe there is always room for improvement – even using just four straight bars ...” Hans J. Wegner, 1992
Wegner being Wegner, he knew perfectly well that it was appropriate and indeed important to strive for ultimate perfection, but that the result would never be fully commensurate with the idea. Which makes his approach to tradition appear all the more modern. In fact, quoting Olesen, he worked consistently on “improving the human side to the seating device”, not only taking up traditional typologies such as farmhouse chairs, Chinese chairs and Windsor chairs, but subjecting them to a thorough purification process. In other words, despite referencing traditional furniture Wegner never felt compelled to adopt the quite static seating posture along with the type. Indeed, his chairs became wider, comfier, and the likes of the “Oxchair” (1960), Wegner’s favorite comfy chair, he paved the way for the relaxed, reclining seating position that would ultimately manifest itself in Pop design’s seating ensembles. Just as Wegner’s structural elements and joints are never purely evolved for aesthetic appeal – but squarely based on pragmatic reasoning.
Wegner succeeded in finding an expression for a variant of Modernism in which the impact of ongoing rationalization seems to have been toned down. A Modernism that did not need to break radically with tradition to stand its own, but which nurtures anything but marginal improvements simply by examining the tried-and-true again and again. Wegner knew that the realization changes the idea and that one should not get too bogged down in preliminary definitions. He also upheld his desire to design at least “one good chair”. It was a combination that enabled him repeatedly to return to his starting point, to start again and retain his flexibility. Often, and not just in the early days, he experimented in a workshop, revisited what he had achieved and thus elaborated new approaches and solutions.
Following the traces of Chinese chairs: Wegner "Wishbone Chair" CH24 1950 is also called the "Wishbone Chair“.
Sometimes Wegner's chairs are simple and extravagant: The two-piece shell chair from 1963.
Casual chair to lounge: Wegner's "flag halyard chair" GE225 from 1950 does not require a lot of carpenter work, but a lot of manual work. The seating surface must be covered with 250 meters flags cord.
Designers in conversation: Hans J. Wegner and Charles Eames at the opening of Wegner's retrospective in New York, 1959.
This is how legends grow: John F. Kennedy in the TV debate with Richard Nixon on Wegner's "roundness chair" CH503, the Americans call it "The Chair".
Pending surfaces: The "Three-piece shell chair" from 1949 proves that Wegner understands both the technology and the design language to handle brilliantly.
The cover indicates solid craftsmanship.