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For Good Form Less Is More

5 minute read

Soon after Kasper Salto started his career as a furniture designer, he happened to be on the set of a photo shoot. Relaxing during a break, he picked up a light filter and began scrunching the plastic to make various shapes. Intrigued, Salto realized the filter could be curved in two directions at once. After three months experimentation with wood in a workshop, the plastic filter inspired the Runner chair, a wood and steel classic that is already a best seller.

Salto, who has won five design awards for his chair, says his initial training as a cabinetmaker rather than a designer has a lot to do with the success of his projects. “It would be much easier in plastic, but plastic is not a typical Danish material,” he says. “I have my roots in the Danish tradition of wooden furniture. It’s a bigger challenge to me.” So Salto made a prototype chair in the woodshop, then produced a design from which it could be manufactured.

Since the 1920s, Denmark has led the world in the design and production of furniture with beautifully clean lines that is devoid of decoration and some-times uncomfortably utilitarian. Salto calls it the “less is more” approach that was championed by the Bauhaus school of architects in Germany in the 1920s.
According to Erik Krogh, a professor at the Danish School of Design, Danish furniture emerged thanks to the innovative work of Kaare Klint, a cabinetmaker who started putting Danish furniture on display at world exhibitions. “Up to my generation, we trained as cabinetmakers, and the attitude of a craftsman is important,” Krogh says. “We have a close relationship with our material: wood.”

Some outside factors have influenced Danish furniture design as well. During World War II, the country imported almost no wood, so that cabinetmakers had to switch from traditional dark woods like mahogany to Denmark’s native beech trees — these blond woods remain very much in favor today.

Another technological breakthrough occurred when Klint began playing around with wood lamination — a sandwich of thin pieces glued together — that the British had developed for airplanes in response to a lack of aluminum. The result is shapes that can be twisted and turned like plastic and yet remain sturdy.
“Danish designers try to make their ideas suitable for industrial production,” says Krogh. “It’s something to do with our mentality that we don’t like to do things that are very ornate.” Krogh claims his own first: he used what is called precompressed wood, a process invented in Denmark, to make strong, durable furniture with plenty of graceful curves.

Incredible as it may seem, many of the classic designs from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s are still in production at the Fritz Hansen furniture company (www.fritzhansen.com), based in the Copenhagen suburb of Allerod. The firm manufactures about 200,000 chairs a year from original designs. Klint’s original Church chair, designed in 1936, still enjoys robust sales. “We believe in timeless products that will never go out of fashion,” says Torben Holme Nielsen, the firm’s marketing director. “We don’t add on anything that is not necessary. No extras.” Not many of these classics will find their way into your home, though; they are designed to be stackable and are intended for corporate buyers for use in cafeterias or classrooms.

Among the better-known of Fritz Hansen’s designers was Arne Jacobsen. While building the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen in 1956, he had a hard time finding suitable furniture for the project. So he designed the Egg and Swan chairs. Both use artificial foam for the interior and, most dramatically, neither chair has a single straight line. More than 40 years old, the chairs are so outlandish that they still find their way into rock videos and onto fashion magazine covers. Jacobsen, who died in 1971, also designed his own cafeteria-style chair, called the Series 7, which has a feminine tapered waist.

Another designer whose works are still fashionable is Poul Kjærholm. A version of his PK22 chair — a wedge of black leather supported by chromium-plated legs — resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “I try to show that classics are still going strong and can be combined with very modern lighting,” says Kjærholm’s son Thomas, who operates a furniture store dedicated to Denmark’s classic designs and sells furniture worldwide through his website (www.kjaerholms.dk). “My father has been dead 20 years, but interest in his designs is increasing all the time, even a 40-year-old design like the PK22.”

According to Krogh, the Danish tradition of designers starting out as cabinetmakers has been going out of fashion recently. Now potential designers generally go directly from high school to design school, where they are taught basic concepts from the outset. “I still feel we are building on the cabinetmaker tradition, with a close relationship to the material,” says Krogh. “We’re also trying to find new expressions such as form and aesthetic aspects.”

But such changes are not uniformly welcomed. “I’d like to keep a traditional way of seeing a chair,” says Copenhagen designer Salto. “I want to make furniture as tools.” If the last 50 years is anything to judge by, that formula is a global winner.

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