Famous Furniture: Hans J. Wegner's "The Chair"Comments (0)
This article is from Issue 94 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Hans J. Wegner rose from humble beginnings in a small town in Denmark to worldwide renown as one of the most important Danish Modern designers. In a career spanning nearly a half-century, he designed tables, breakfronts—and some 500 chairs.
Born in 1914, the son of a cobbler, Wegner began a three-year apprenticeship with a local cabinetmaker when he turned fourteen. He made his first chair at age fifteen. A few years after that, he attended the School of Arts and Crafts, in Copenhagen. There, he was able to rub shoulders with many established designers—including Kaare Klint, regarded as the father of modern Danish design.
Wegner began designing chairs for commercial production during World War II. Some of them are well known and still in production, including an early design based on a chair from the Ming Dynasty, and a Windsor called the Peacock Chair, which features an outsized back. But his most successful design by far is known as the PP 503, the Round Chair, or simply “The Chair.”
- Sustainably grown 200-year-old trees provide the wood for The Chair’s back and armrests.
- Wegner’s career took off in the early 1940s, when he helped design all the furniture for a new city hall in Aarhus, Denmark—while the Nazis occupied the town.
- The Chair was featured on a postage stamp in 1991, a rare honor.
Wegner debuted the piece at the 1949 Cabinetmaker’s Guild Exhibition in Copenhagen, but it drew little attention. That changed when America greeted the chair. In 1950, it made the cover of Interiors magazine, which crowned it “The world’s most beautiful chair.” The accompanying article noted that Wegner, “devotes himself to perfecting the shape and scale of the parts. The top rail, a complicated collection of twisted curves and joints, was wrestled into quiet obedience. The sturdy legs are tapered just enough to seem muscular rather than overfed, and the seat dips slightly to look willing but not seductive.”
Two years later, the chair was featured in the Good Design exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and soon found its way into the museum’s permanent collection. It became one of the most desirable pieces of furniture in the country and helped drive an increase in the export of Danish furniture to the U.S. While Americans dubbed Wegner’s piece “The Chair,” he preferred to call it the “Round Chair.”
The Chair is at once both simple and complex. It consists of four legs, four rails, and a piece combining the backrest and arms. But that’s like saying a bottle of Beaujolais is just old grape juice. The turned legs taper subtly and gracefully at each end and splay outward toward the floor, while the chair’s near-vertical backrest flows organically into the horizontal arms. This component is by far the most complex part of the chair. Sometimes likened to the propeller on an old airplane, it consists of three pieces connected with large finger joints. Blanks for the backrest and arms are roughed out of fresh-cut slabs 5" thick, which are left to season for one to two years. A CNC machine then cuts the finger joints and performs the initial shaping. A great deal of handwork follows to refine the shape with rasps and spokeshaves before sanding the assembly smooth.
Wegner enjoyed a longstanding relationship with PP Møbler, the Danish cabinetmaking firm that manufactures many of his chairs. There are two versions of The Chair, one with a cane seat (PP501 in the Møbler catalog) and one with a thin upholstered seat (PP503). Wegner made the original chair in oak. Today, Møbler makes it in oak, ash, cherry, and walnut. Finishes include oil, lacquer, and a treatment with soap flakes.
Wegner, who died in February 2007, once said of The Chair and its Danish roots: “The objective was to make things as simply and correctly as possible, to show what we could create with our hands and try to make the wood come alive, give it soul and vitality, and to get things to appear so natural that they could only be made by us.”
Resolved: Chair a Hit at First Debate
These days, our presidential debates often feature elaborate patriotic scenery, with lecterns apparently borrowed from the Starship Enterprise. However, the first nationally televised presidential debate, on September 26, 1960, was a much different affair. Broadcast from a Chicago studio, the set featured a plain backdrop, a small desk for the moderator, simple lecterns perched atop thin poles, and PP503 chairs for John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
Kennedy, who requested the chairs to help alleviate his chronic back pain, seemed much more at ease. Nixon hunched forward stiffly in his seat, looking like a wayward teenager awaiting punishment from the principal. The 70 million people watching saw a tanned, confident Kennedy and a pale, sweaty Nixon, prompting Kennedy’s fortunes to rise and Nixon’s to sink. On election day, more than half of those polled said the debate had influenced their vote.
The debate also brought new notoriety to The Chair. If Kennedy was the star who won the debate, that piece of furniture was clearly his costar.
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