When is a chair not a chair? When it’s a work of art that you can sit on. From arrow foots and back splats, to fauteuils (chairs with open sides) and bergères, (with closed sides), there’s an essential guide to Danish avant-garde chairs just waiting to be discovered on the K11 MUSEA furniture tour.
The K11 MUSEA furniture collection and tour tells the story of the Danish modern movement’s development in the mid 20th century via some of its most iconic works.
Witness Finn Juhl. The Danish architect, as well as interior and industrial designer, helped introduce the notion of Danish Modern to America. Juhl treated chairs like individual art pieces, working in the manner of a sculptor as he pursued the beauty of volume, shape, and expressiveness in what he crafted. Such an approach, seen in his Egyptian chair, Chieftain chair, and Japan chairs, was innovative in the 1940s and 50s. Eighty years after Juhl first presented his surreal Pelican Chair—which detractors called a “tired walrus”—the soft and organic shape still feels almost like a body holding a body, or one beckoning you to oblige its welcoming offer. It’s certainly possible to descry the influence of Jean Arp, the abstract sculptor of whom Juhl was a big fan. Similarly, one can detect the influence of Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore in Juhl’s 46 Sofa (1946), in the organic curve of the back and armrest of this hand-sewn, two-person, upholstered object.
But if Juhl’s Pelican design was a walrus, eleven years later fellow designer Hans Wegner’s wingback Papa Bear Chair (1950), also known as the Teddy Bear chair because of its two outstretched arms like “great bear paws embracing you from behind,” became a Danish modern hit. Wegner, a leading figure of the Scandinavian movement, worked alongside Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller in the 1940s and 50s. He designed more than 500 chairs over the course of his long career, although few of them have the anthropomorphic qualities that the Papa Bear Chair does.
In K11 MUSEA you can see a selection of Wegner’s other pieces. Notably, the Valet Chair (1953) offers an ingenious way to hang a man’s suit. The three-legged creation features a backrest that doubles as a coat hanger; a seat that flips up to form a trouser rail; and a hidden storage space. Danish King Frederik IX was so partial to the design that he ordered ten. In addition, the Folding Chair JH512 (1949), lightweight and designed to be hung on the wall when not in use, and the Flag Halyard Chair (1950), in metal, rope and sheepskin, are Wegner’s homage to Modernist masters such as Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe.
Kaare Klint is often heralded as the father of modern Danish design. He helped establish the Department of Furniture Design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1924, and as professor inspired the likes of Hans J. Wegner, Mogens Koch, Arne Jacobsen, and Poul Kjærholm. His Safari Chair (1933) is often described as one of the first do-it-yourself, high-design pieces. Klint was inspired to create a lightweight, portable armchair by an English officer’s chair that he saw in an African travel guide. He is also renowned for the English Chair (1932); framed in mahogany and inlaid with a rosewood veneer, the chair features a removable cushion upholstered with leather from Niger.
And then there’s the remarkable Nanna Ditzel, the only woman in the group. K11 MUSEA has a fine array of her work. The Love Seat Sofa (1949) is extraordinarily rare—one of only ten samples made in 1949. The curvy, conjoined seatback of this charming, compact, and bijou sofa is reminiscent of a heart, and of two units becoming one. High Chair (1955), in Oregon pine, is supremely popular among design enthusiasts. It remains the blueprint for many highchairs today: a leather T-strap can be attached to the chair for holding younger babies, or a solid wooden bar for older children.
Ditzel’s Oda Lounge Chair (1956) is named in honour of Japanese design professor Noritsugu Oda, who has researched Danish design extensively. The chair also became known as the Nursing Chair due to the comfort of its wide, cocoon-like backrest and inlaid teak armrests. Finally, there’s Lulu Cradle (1963), named after the designer’s daughter. The Lulu is crafted from beech wood and rocks smoothly on its axis. All of Ditzel’s grandchildren slept in this cradle, and their names are lovingly marked on small stickers underneath.
One final chair worth getting to know is Frits Henningsen’s Signature Chair (1954), a masterclass in simplicity and sophistication, and also the final piece of furniture the esteemed designer produced. Distinguished by the soft curves of its elegant oak or walnut frame, fewer than twenty were produced, making it a rare collector’s piece.
Just like the K11 MUSEA furniture narrative is a rare tour. Following it, you will never look at a chair in the same way again.