Thinking about chairs

Posted by on Oct 8, 2014 in Blog | 2 Comments

 

Chair designed by Vidar Malmstein

Chair designed by Vidar Malmstein

I’ve been thinking about chairs a lot recently. This is partly because I am developing a course based around making a copy of a chair designed by the Swedish furniture maker Vidar Malmstein. The design is similar to a traditional jointed chair; one could almost say it’s a Swedish minimal take on Chippendale. The result is a very elegant chair with subtle curves and angles which provide a real challenge to the hand maker. Not only do the curves and angles require some thought and planning to achieve crisply, but the beauty of the chair can be greatly enhanced by careful alignment of the grain on the curved parts, something that can set it aside from machine produced work. It’s this mixture of complexity that makes the chair a good challenge for my most advanced students.

Unfortunately, measured drawings of the chair are not available. It is made often by students at the College of the Redwoods(CR) in the US, but the college is reluctant to part with any details. During my research I have found Craig Johnston’s blog at Studio Tupla in Minnisota to be useful  . A former English student at the CR, Mike Tysoe, has also been very helpful. The original germ of the idea was planted by Malcolm Harwood who attended my veneering and laminating course.
The complexity of the chair means that it is difficult to teach in a course of set length as each student will need to work at their own speed. I think the way round this is to run the course  over a series of weekends with students doing “homework” in their own workshops in between. I’ll keep you posted about my progress with this.
Another reason why I’ve been thinking about chairs is that last week, by lucky coincidence, I was on holiday in Denmark when a major exhibition of the work of Hans Wegner was held at the Danish Museum of Art and Design in Copenhagen.
Whilst Malmstein’s design sits within the Scandinavian tradition, the godfather of Scandinavian chair design must be Hans Wegner. In the decades after the war Wegner was at the forefront of the group of designers who made Danish Design a byword for classy minimalism. The exhibition traces his development from training as a cabinet maker, then as a designer at The Danish School of Design and Technology under Kaare Klint and finally the evolution of his design vocabulary in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
Four themes stand out:

  •  Development of traditional designs.

Wegner liked to distil traditional designs to create something modern but which still seemed true to the original. In the peacock chair he took the English Windsor chair and reworked it into something altogether more throne like. It’s also much more comfortable than any traditional Windsor chair. Interestingly Wegner said that the swelling in the back spindles that gave rise to its name were not created for aesthetic reasons, but to make it more comfortable, so the spindles would not dig into the shoulder blades. He did a similar thing with Shaker chairs, which I must admit look good but are not terribly comfortable.

He went further afield than Europe for his wishbone chair, one of my favourites. This developed through a number of syntheses from looking at Chinese chair design. He took the shaping of the back and crafted it down to its essence.

Peacock chair

Peacock chair, a whole new take on the Windsor.

chinese chair

Chinese chair.

  •  Respect for the material.

Visiting the exhibition I was struck by how “woody” his pieces are. They are very tactile, in fact I was told off for touching some of them! Wood lends itself to Wegner’s very organic designs. The sinuous curves and almost bone shaped back crests could, I suppose, be done in plastic or metal, but the warmth and the grain patterns of oak and ash are a perfect complement.

That’s all very well, but wood can be a right pain to joint! However Wegner turns the joints to his advantage by including them in the aesthetic of the design. Which brings us to the next theme.

  •  A maker’s approach.

Wegner was a very skilled cabinet maker as well as a designer. This meant he had an understanding of how wood works, for instance how the grain will behave when shaping a piece and how joints will hold in different situations and how they will look when cut into. He used this knowledge to good effect especially when designing the crest rails for his chairs, as seen in his round chair (which came to be known as “The Chair”)

The round chair was used in the Kennedy/Nixon televison debate in 1960.

The round chair was used in the Kennedy/Nixon televison debate in 1960.

I think this is a quality that some contemporary designers lack. The material is not important to them, perhaps because they only have experience of design, not of working the material they are using. To Wegner the material and the construction processes determined by the material were central, He said that when he met a design problem he would often think back to what he would have done at his work bench:

“I think more like a craftsman. And when I have doubts, I say to myself:what would you do if you were standing there with the materials? That’s why, when I have doubts, I also go to the workshop….. So I say: What would you do as a craftsman…. when you are standing with the materials in your hand?”

Not so easy if, like many contemporary designers, you have never been near a work bench!

  •  Appreciation of function.

I sat in all the chairs you could sit in at the exhibition and I don’t think there was an uncomfortable one there. So although he had a minimalist approach he knew what a chair was for, to support you comfortably in a variety of postures (he was quite keen on slouching!). It’s astonishing that a chair with such a thin back as the Chinese chair can be so comfortable. But comfort isn’t the only consideration; he designed the elbow chair so it would provide arm support at the dining table but also fit close to the table when not in use.

Elbow chair by Hans Wegner

Elbow chairs.

It was the combination of these factors which made Wegner such a good designer and why so many of his designs are still in production.

One final thought. I find Wegner’s designs uplifting, they have a certain charm and lightness of touch. This possibly comes from his playful approach to design,  “We must take care that everything doesn’t get so dreadfully serious. We must play – but we must play seriously”. A sound approach to design, and life!

The exhibition runs until 2nd November but if you can’t make it to Copenhagen, then there is an excellent book to accompany the exhibition “Just One Good Chair” by Christian Holmstedt Olesen.

If you like what you've read or know someone who would,
please help me spread the word by using the buttons below

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Thankyou, Chris.

 

2 Comments

  1. Jason Winder
    8th January 2015

    Excellent blog Chris!
    Wegner has always been one of my all time favourites. It’s nice to be reminded of his approach, and his brilliant quotes.

    Hope you’re well.

    Reply
    • admin
      admin
      9th January 2015

      Hi Jason. Thanks for the comment. The Olesen book is well worth reading, gives a real insight into how Wegner worked.
      Drop in for a chat if you are ever passing.

      Reply

Leave a Reply