1. Who gets the credit for starting Danish Modern?
The person who’s considered the grandfather of the style is Kaare Klint, who lived and worked in the early part of the 20th century. He was one of the founders of the furniture school at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 1924. He was a very charismatic guy, so that’s part of the reason why he gets so much credit, but he also produced very detailed studies about proportions and forms and so forth.
His belief was that form had been perfected throughout history, and that there was no need to reinvent it. He thought that the basic proportions of a chair, for example, had already been refined, and he opposed what some of his European counterparts were trying to do in the Bauhaus movement. Rather than reinventing the chair, he believed we could add modernity to it in terms of line, and then eventually materials, although he was essentially a traditionalist on the materials side of things, too.
Klint influenced a whole school of people that we know from the mid-century, sometimes in direct ways and sometimes in more rebellious ways. Anybody who is anything in the Danish design world was either a follower of the Kaare Klint philosophy or completely rejected it and attempted their own sort of thing, albeit with that sort of Danish understatement and sensibility of clean lines.
Klint’s designs appear very traditional-looking to our modern eye, and some are even a little clunky. That was refined by his successors, Ole Wanscher, Børge Mogensen, and some others. Poul Kjærholm was another; he worked in steel, marble, glass, and industrial materials.
You also have Arne Jacobsen, who paired industrial processes with organic innovative forms. Some of Jacobsen’s pieces, although very iconic, are the least comfortable to use. That went against one of the tenets of the Kaare Klint school—that design shouldn’t be design just for its own sake but should fulfill the human need for comfort and utility.
Other big names in Danish Modern design are Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, and Nanna Ditzel, who was one of the few women working during the period.
Some studied at the Academy, but other notable designers like Arne Jacobsen didn’t. The interesting thing is that many of them, like Jacobsen, trained to be architects. As a result, their furniture has an architectural quality to it. The result was often entire environments that were modernistic inside and out.
2. How was Danish Modern connected to traditional cabinetmaking in Denmark?
It came out of the roots of the Kaare Klint school and the big cabinetmakers of the day. To a certain extent, even the production houses in Denmark at the time were relatively small scale. So there was a respect for the importance of quality to all of them.
During that period there were annual cabinetmaker exhibitions. Those shows were the centerpieces of discussion about design and the interrelationship between designers and production houses. Fritz Hansen, for example, was considered more of a cabinetmaker up until the ’50s when he participated in the exhibition. The exhibitions were very important right up to about 1966. Everybody showed up to see the latest new thing. The pieces on view were the iPhones and iPods of their day. It was such a creative period, perhaps never to be repeated.
3. Are certain designers known for specific innovations or styles?
Arne Jacobsen is very much associated with the Ant Chair and organic styles. Finn Juhl is also known for a very organic design sensibility, but he used much more traditional materials. They each had their own kind of interpretation and views on the world and have particular, individualistic looks.
Another important designer was Verner Panton, who was really more ’60s-oriented in terms of the plastics and the wild designs that we think of from that period. He is sort of iconic in that whole ’60s plastic realm.
4. What were the key materials used in Danish Modern?
Teak was the biggest. It’s a lovely wood, yet it has a bad reputation with some folks. It became associated with poor quality, but there are wonderful pieces of craftsmanship in teak. European oak was probably second. I’m not quite sure where rosewood falls into that, but rosewood was always the upgrade. It was the expensive version of anything. In terms of woods, those were the three big ones. And then people like Jacobsen and others also added steel to the mix.
5. What besides furniture did these designers produce?
There are plenty of examples of architecture by these guys. Arne Jacobsen’s work in Oxford, for example, was important, and one of his most famous projects was the Royal SAS Hotel in Copenhagen, which was entirely his design. There’s still a room there that’s completely fitted out in the period. The lobby, too, has been redone in that era.
But the real focus of Danish design, the object that had the longest-lasting influence, was the chair. The cabinet piece was important because designers set in place the foundations for industrial design and large-scale mass production by standardizing the different sizes of cabinets according to usage, but the chair was the fundamental form.
A chair is the hardest thing to design because it’s got to be comfortable even though people are made in all different sizes, shapes, and forms. What’s comfortable to me may not be comfortable to you, but there are some defining proportions that help to determine whether it’s comfortable or not.
The physics of the chair are also important because if you don’t get it right, the thing can collapse on you. In fact Mies van der Rohe once said that designing a chair was much more difficult than designing a skyscraper. That’s got to be somewhat of an exaggeration, but the important thing is it’s a much more technical subject than we might realise.
Arne Jacobsen was really much more about form than he was about comfort, and he probably would admit that, to a certain extent, if he were still around today. But most of the Danish designers really cared about comfort, so it’s rare that you sit in a Danish chair from the period and are uncomfortable.
6. What were some of the most notable chair designs associated with the movement?
The Ant Chair and the Egg Chair, both by Jacobsen, are at the top of the list. The number of Ant Chairs sold is in the millions. There’s the Chieftain Chair by Finn Juhl that the Japanese, in particular, love. They have singlehandedly driven up the price of those chairs. And Hans Wegner made the Wishbone Chair, which had a Y shape, and the Round Chair, which some people call simply The Chair.
Another would be the Barcelona Chair from 1930, designed by Kaare Klint. It happened to have the same name as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair because the two men exhibited at the same show in Barcelona. Both won an award for design even though they’re very different pieces—Klint’s is a dining chair, van der Rohe’s is more of an easy chair. Most people would agree that the Mies version was not so successful in terms of comfort. It is more suited to the lobby of a building, where it makes a strong design statement, than as something you’d want to sit on for very long.
An interesting aside about the Bauhaus movement in particular, and the field in general, is that they had this idealistic view of the common man and industrial processes. The reality was that many of their designs were very high end and very expensive. For example, the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Chair was always very expensive. So the Bauhaus designers weren’t quite as successful as they wanted to be about reinventing design in a way that the world could afford.
7. How did the designers balance comfort with aesthetics?
Klint believed that the comfort or utility of a piece defined the form, and that you approached it in that order: If you first made sure that a piece of furniture was comfortable, its form would arise from that.
As a result, most Danish Modern furniture is unembellished. That’s why it appeals to people who like things pure and simple, and why it doesn’t appeal to those who like things much more ornate. There is just a rawness to the form itself. It goes back to Klint’s concept that the form had been perfected throughout the centuries, so there were already classic shapes that appealed to most people.
8. Who bought Danish Modern? Was it accessible to the middle class?
That’s still a subject of some contention today in Denmark, especially when you talk to curators at the museums. They’re dismissive of the designers who were only producing pieces for the high end of the market and really don’t have much regard for them.
The postwar era ushered in suburban expansion and the growth of families. Being modern during that period was a good thing, and people wanted to embrace all that technology had to offer. The furniture was very solid, well made, and family-friendly. That’s why It’s always a little amusing when people consider it “adult” furniture. It was always designed to live among people, to fit in with everything that was going on in a household.
9. Was 1970 the end of the period? What happened around that time?
As with anything, competition came into play and much of the competition was cheap. The other thing that happened was that the design as a movement was coming to a natural end. Technology was changing the focus because you had these new plastics, the colorful ’60s and ’70s sort of furniture.
So stylistically things were changing and were less conservative. The baby boomers were coming of age and had their own design philosophy and way of looking at the world. Their aesthetic was even less traditional than some of the mid-century designs that were available.
Also, raw material prices had gone up. Rosewood, for example, was pretty much deforested, so other materials were substituted. At the same time, the quality of goods was declining because everything was all about cost. It was no longer about the originality and innovativeness of the design and the processes. So it just came to a natural end for a multitude of reasons.
The style was totally neglected in the ’80s. Then, in the 21st century, people started rediscovering it. People of the generation that grew up with it can sometimes have a really negative reaction like, “God, that stuff.” For others, though, it’s like reliving their childhood—they get very excited about it. Often they still have some pieces in their homes from the period.
10. What trends are prevalent among collectors right now?
People are becoming more and more selective because they’re more knowledgeable. 5 or 10 years ago, you could pick up almost anything cheaply, but that’s changed. Who’s buying, how they’re buying, and what their expectations are has shifted. Premiums are placed on the work of well-known designers, especially when the material is unique. There’s an increased professionalism in terms of the market.
That said, the everyday design pieces are much more affordable than they used to be just a few years ago. There are some wonderful buys out there in terms of cabinetmakers who are not well known but who did tremendous work during that time. People who really love design and quality but are not so focused on a famous name have great buying ability because there’s less competition.
The majority of buyers are not in the collector category at all. They’re people who like furniture but who are really seeking comfort, as well as something special, something different. They don’t necessarily want to have houses full of Danish Modern. Nowadays, eclecticism is big and purity is not necessarily as important as it once was.