Celebrating a Master - 100 years Hans J. Wegner, 1914-2007
Hans J. Wegner was born in 1914 in Tønder, Denmark. The son of a shoemaker, he began work at the age of 17 as an apprentice to carpenter H. F. Stahlberg.
At the age of 20 he moved to Copenhagen to study at the institution now known as The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design but back then it went by the more modest title of The Artisan College. Here he studied from 1936 -1938 and later became a tutor, teaching for seven years at the institution. He then furthered his studies and became a qualified architect. In 1940 Wegner was hired as an assistant to Arne Jacobsen, who together with Erik Møller, worked on the Aarhus town hall. It was also in 1940 that Wegner began to work with master carpenter Johannes Hansen, a man who played a significant role in bringing modern design to the Danish public. The then Copenhagen Industrial Art Museum (now Design Museum Denmark) purchased the first Wegner chair already in 1942.
With a background as a skilled cabinetmaker, Hans Wegner had a fondness for working with wood and had a special talent for using the characteristics of the material to create surprising, sculptural lines. The Danish word for design is ‘formgiving’, which translated literally means ‘giving shape’. Looking at Wegner’s furniture, one understands the true meaning of the expression.
Much of his early work consisted of ‘stripping old chairs of their outer style and letting them appear in their pure construction’.
Wegner opened his own design studio in 1943. By 1944 he had already designed his ‘China Chair’, inspired by the Chinese Emperor's thrones.
In 1960 Wegner’s name became internationally known when John F. Kennedy was interviewed in ‘The Chair’, named as such after the interview against Nixon in the now famous presidential debate battle. This chair started an international surge for Wegner’s furniture, and is still in production through PP Møbler.
Despite ‘The Chair’ being dubbed ‘the most beautiful chair in the world’ by Interiors Magazine in 1950, Wegner still worked to outdo it with new designs. For example, his dramatically different and adventurous Flag Halyard chair was inspired by a trip to the beach, during which he traced its outline in the sand, and voilà, we have an eccentric masterpiece.
A chair is regarded as the epitome of a designer’s portfolio. Wegner designed over 500 chairs throughout his lifetime for a number of different companies. One of Wegner’s most iconic chairs is the Wishbone Chair, designed in 1949, which Carl Hansen & Søn have manufactured since 1950 and still produce today to great success. Wegner’s designs are timeless classics and one of the most popular easy chairs to date is the incredibly comfortable CH25, again produced through Carl Hansen and Søn.
Carl Hansen and Søn have also taken up the production of what must be the world’s most stylish desk. The stripped down design and meticulous execution is homage to quality in every detail and a praise to purity in form and execution. Furniture simply does not get better than this. A timeless masterpiece to be admired and the perfect example of how a pleasing form and perfect production stands out, leading the way for generations to come.
Wegner’s love of timber formed the basis of his work, which although modern, lacked the cold functionalism of the modernist school. Wegner believed that functionalism on its own was not enough, each piece needed to speak visually and ergonomically. His work displays a pared-down purity that comes from the use of beautiful materials and simple joinery. For him, the Danish style was “a continual process of purification”. His designs were as fine as possible, without compromising their structural strength.
Wegner was one of the most influential forces behind the Danish modern movement, inspiring new ways to furnish homes and buildings in the 1950s and 60s. His designs never failed; they’re still relevant today and will undoubtedly continue to stand the test of time. His sense for detail and ergonomic accuracy is a source of constant admiration.
Wegner has received a number of prizes and recognitions. Amongst other things, he is an honorary member of The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and has received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London. He was also the first ever recipient of the Lunning Prize and received the 8th International Design Award in Osaka, Japan. His works are exhibited at major international museums including MoMA in New York and Die Neue Sammlung in Munich.
Wegner's work was the product of the Danish Furniture School - while also representing a break from it because of his free, artistic mode of expression. Founded by Professor Kaare Klint in the 1920s, the Danish Furniture School set out to build on traditions. Historic furniture from different cultures and eras, was studied, refined, and adapted to contemporary needs. A hallmark of Danish design is the desire to perfect the very best work found in other cultures and eras. The history of Danish design is like the history of Danish politics – defined not by revolution, but by evolution. This pragmatic, humanistic and democratic thinking is seen throughout every aspect of Danish society, and it is in this context that the characteristically clean lines of Danish products should be understood.
For Wegner, designing furniture was a form of creative play. "We must take care," he once said, "that everything doesn't get so dreadfully serious. We must play, but play seriously."
This play took place not just on the drafting board but also - and most importantly - in the workshop. Wegner was an expert craftsman and produced nearly all his own prototypes, revealing how a hands-on approach to physical materials is deeply important in any field of design. His playfulness was most visible in his later designs, like the Ox Chair, which came with its own pair of horns.
"The chair does not exist," a philosophical Wegner once said, channeling Plato's musings on the ideal "form of chair" versus the imperfect "imitations" upon which we all sit. "The good chair is a task one is never completely done with."
Many famous contemporary designers such as Jasper Morrison, Naoto Fukasawa, Tadeo Ando, and Konstantin Grcic, all cite Wegner for inspiration. His designs are still strikingly relevant and coveted after decades. It looks like the world won't be done with Wegner's chairs anytime soon.
Hans J. Wegner died in Denmark in January 2007 at the age of 92. His contributions to Danish design are as follows: a master carpenter first and a designer second, perfectly finished joints and exquisite forms. He had deep respect for the wood and its character and an everlasting curiosity for good material. He gave modernism an organic, natural softness. Hans Wegner is considered ‘the master chair maker’, designing more than 500 chairs during his lifetime, something he has never been surpassed in.