Hans J. Wegner’s outsized legacy

The Making of an Icon

By Gretta Louw

Earlier this month a monographic exhibition of legendary Danish designer Hans J. Wegner opened at Vitra Design Museum, showcasing the wealth of landmark designs for which he is responsible. The Peacock Chair (1947), the Wishbone Chair (1950), the Round Chair (1950); this list goes on. We couldn’t resist the timely opportunity to dive into Wegner’s legacy to reexamine what it is that has cemented his cult status.

Born in Tønder in southern Denmark—his father a cobbler—Wegner came from surprisingly humble circumstances. He was on track to follow in his father's tradesman footsteps when, in his early teens, he entered into an apprenticeship with a local cabinetmaker. It quickly became apparent, however, that the young Wegner had an unusual affinity for designing in wood. After completing his army service, he moved to Copenhagen to attend the School of Arts and Crafts. There he found a vibrant, burgeoning design scene, and, through the annual Carpenters' Guild Furniture Exhibits, he joined a creative circle that included outstanding designers like Finn Juhl, Johannes Hansen, A.J. Iversen, and Kaare Klint—the father of Danish modernist furniture design.

Wegner got his first big break in 1940 when he moved to Aarhus—Denmark’s second largest city, located on the Jutland peninsula—and began working with architect-designers Erik Møller, Flemming Lassen, and Arne Jacobsen. Jacobsen had been commissioned to design and oversee the construction of Aarhus’s new city hall. The Rådhus, as it was called, was subsequently completed in 1941 at the height of the Second World War; a rather incredible feat for a city that was under Nazi occupation. Wegner matched Jacobsen’s intense focus and attention to detail, and together they designed nearly every piece of furniture in the building.

Despite the war and occupation, this period was extremely productive for Wegner as he worked to cement his reputation among Scandinavian modernists. The J16 Rocking Chair (1940), Wegner’s first piece to go into mass production, was part of the early campaigns led by Børge Mogensen to popularize the new modernist ideology. In 1944, Wegner designed the first of a series of chairs inspired by relics from the Chinese Ming dynasty; the China Chairs exemplify Wegner’s expressive approach to wood craftsmanship, his exceptional understanding of joinery, and his uncanny talent for what became known as “sculptural functionalism.” In this branch of the modernist movement, the focus was on the aesthetic convergence of form and function; it presupposed that the best designs are also great sculptures. The iconic, flowing lines of the Wishbone Chair—part of the China Chairs series and an excellent example of sculptural functionalism—resulted from a technique for steam bending solid wood that was quite revolutionary for the time. The piece went on to become one of the most successful designs of Wegner’s career; it has been in continuous production by Carl Hansen & Søn since 1950.

The piece that is most often heralded as securing Wegner’s place in the design pantheon, however, is the Round Chair. Indicative of Wegner’s immense influence on furniture design, the design has become known simply as The Chair. Speaking about this piece, Wagner is said to have proclaimed that “a chair is to have no backside; it should be beautiful from all angles.” The curves of the backrest and crescent-shaped armrests are a wonder of woodwork and joinery. The American magazine Interiors featured The Chair on its cover in 1950, calling it “the world’s most beautiful chair,” and the Museum of Modern Art exhibited it in the popular Good Design program of 1951-52. It was also famously used in the televised presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. A flurry of accolades, awards, and orders followed into the 1960s, the era when Scandinavian design, and Danish modernism in particular, well and truly hit the big time internationally.

Over the course of his extremely prolific career, spanning the entire second half of the 20th century, Wegner designed upward of 500 chairs. He seemed limitless in his imagination, which he employed to mold his material not only to his will but also to the changing times. It’s astounding to think that only a decade lay between the Valet Chair (1953), which inherently belonged to an earlier, more formal age in which gentlemen wore impeccable three-piece suits, and the Three Legged Shell Chair (1963), an incredibly futuristic, streamlined piece of furniture for the Space Age. Indeed the Three Legged Shell Chair was so ahead of its time that it received only a lukewarm reception when it debuted at the Carpenters' Guild Furniture Exhibits, and production was limited to a small run. The piece finally received its due when it was re-released by Carl Hansen & Son in 1998.

It was the Ox Chair (1960), though, that was reportedly the designer’s favorite among his creations. The leather and chromed steel armchair and ottoman playfully referred to Picasso’s obsession with bulls in his artwork and was Wagner’s way of demonstrating that modernist design did not always need to be so “dreadfully serious,” as he put it.

Wegner’s work is represented in most of the world’s major design collections, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Die Neue Sammlung in Munich and the Centre Pompidou in Paris—and, of course, the Vitra Design Museum. On top of the many awards that Wegner received during his career, his life’s work and significance to design history has been recognized with an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London and the 8th International Design Award in 1997; as well he was made an honorary member of the Royal Danish Academy for the Fine Arts in 1995. In 1993, a museum dedicated to Wegner’s work was opened in his hometown of Tønder.

These honors aside, given Wegner’s long-standing passion for creation, it seems likely that what would have meant the most to this giant of Danish design was the immense, ongoing popularity of his designs. The continuing, robust market for his work is a true testament to its quality, timelessness, and functionality. Not only does the sheer breadth and variation of Wegner’s oeuvre mean that there’s something in his back catalogue to suit most design lovers’ tastes, it’s also abundantly clear that the perfectionism his aesthetics and workmanship will simply never go out of style.

Hans J. Wegner: Designing Danish Modern is on view at Vitra Schaudepot, on the Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein, until June 3, 2018

  • Text by

    • Gretta Louw

      Gretta Louw

      A South-African born Australian currently based in Germany, Gretta is a globetrotting multi-disciplinary artist and language lover. She holds a degree in Psychology, and has seriously avant garde leanings.

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