October 1, 2007
Made to Last: The Chair by Hans Wegner
Hans Wegner’s midcentury classic suggests that quality craftsmanship may be the ultimate green strategy.
Danish master craftsman Hans Wegner believed that a chair should be made well enough to last at least 50 years. His iconic 1949 creation—called the Round Chair or, simply, the Chair—may be the ultimate expression of that philosophy. The clean wood design is stripped to its bare essentials, a sculptural semicircle resting on four tapered legs with a cane or leather seat suspended between them. The empty space that separates the back from the seat gives the piece an elegance and economy of form that results in greater comfort, not less. “The chair is designed so that you can move around in it,” says his daughter Marianne Wegner, an architect who has run his studio since the early 1990s. “It doesn’t restrict you. You have to move when you sit; the blood has to flow.”
Manufacturer PP Møbler now produces 11 of Wegner’s most famous designs, including the Chair, which has changed little since Wegner first conceived it. The joints are zigzag, further emphasizing the craftsmanship, and the arms are a bit truer in curvature to Wegner’s drawings than the pieces made by his original manufacturer, Johannes Hansen, which folded in 1990. PP Møbler often receives pieces from the early 1950s for repair. The second-generation owner of PP Møbler, Søren Holst Pedersen, points out an older Johannes Hansen studio version of the Chair that was sent in, noting the slight differences. Just a few millimeters off, he says, and it looks awkward.
In comparison to his fellow Danish Modern designers Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, and Verner Panton, Wegner was known for his dedication to wood and to the painstaking hours required to shape and sand each piece. In his youth Wegner was a sculptor, working with his favorite material, but stopped when he began his apprenticeship to a cabinetmaker. “Still, he really played with the wood,” Pedersen says. And the Chair, with its seamless sculptural curve of arms and back, is one of the most technically challenging of his creations. “With this one it’s as if he sat down and said, ‘Now, I am really going to make a chair!’” Wegner wanted the construction of each article to show in its design, a decision meant to enhance the user’s appreciation and to encourage the maintenance of each piece. Considering the Chair’s roughly $4,000 price, buyers would be well advised to take an active interest in its longevity.
The PP Møbler workshop is housed in a cozy building in Allerød, a residential suburb of Copenhagen. This is not an IKEA-style factory, stamping out thousands of products daily. Each unit of the Chair is worked on by at least five craftsmen and takes nearly 12 hours to complete. Only about 200 to 300 are finished per year; Marianne estimates that in 58 years a total of 20,000 pieces have been made. The process is a mix of sustainable practices and uncompromising technique.
According to Pedersen, the loggers the company works with only cut trees that are about to topple. Most of the wood is locally sourced Danish oak, though the Chair is also available in ash, cherry, or teak. The bottom six to eight meters of the trunk—the sturdiest and widest part—are cut and dried in preparation for shaping (the remainder is used as fuel to heat the workshop). Each tree yields about 50 seats—perhaps even less in the case of the Chair. “The arms are made from blocks of solid wood,” Marianne explains. “They’re not bent in any way. That would have been a way to save wood, but you lose something important too.” The surface is usually left unvarnished but finished with soap flakes, which makes it easier to maintain and helps it acquire a patina. “With soap, even if there’s a scratch, the wood will rise again,” Marianne says. It’s an aesthetic decision that contributes to the object’s longevity.
“That’s why it’s so important that the leadership be craftsmen,” Pedersen says of making these chairs in the labor-intensive way that Wegner intended. “You may not be making much money, but you gain something in the heart.” The 20 craftsmen at PP Møbler—some of whom have been working here for nearly 50 years—share a reverence for the material, which comes mostly from the forests of Southern Jutland, that separates them from workers on a factory line. “It is an old tradition here that when you cut down trees you replace them,” Pedersen says. The practice stems from the Napoleonic wars, when Britain attacked the Danish naval fleet unprovoked because it worried that neutral Denmark would ally with France; the entire fleet was destroyed in 1807. “But when King Frederick VI went back to his people and asked them to make more ships, they said, ‘We have no wood; we used all of it for those ships,’” Pedersen explains. “Then the king said, ‘You have to plant so I can build ships.’ Now it is up to us to take care of the wood and build beautiful pieces.”
Much of today’s Danish furniture is made from those trees, now nearly two centuries old. By the time Wegner died this January, at 92, he had designed around 300 chairs, nearly all exceptional for their craftsmanship and simplicity of form. The prolific designer was often quoted as saying, “The good chair is a task one is never done with.” As true as that may be, he also said, “A chair is only finished when someone sits in it.” For us, the sitters, that first contact with the chair is just the beginning of a lifetime relationship.
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