Finding a Home

­Up for grabs since 2003, Finn Juhl’s residence is now part of an unusual museum complex.

After acquiring the home of midcentury Danish designer Finn Juhl through a donation earlier this year, Ordrupgaard—a French Impressionist museum in a northern suburb of Copenhagen—found itself in possession of an unlikely collection of archi­tecture. The open-plan residence, built in 1942, had always sat next door, separated by a swath of greenery, but the title transfer officially made it part of an eclectic complex that includes the museum’s original building—a 1918 country estate—and a 2005 gestural extension by Zaha Hadid. Geography and institutional know-how may have made Ordrup­gaard a natural custodian, but, curatorially speaking, the match seems like a bit of a stretch.

A one-story white “L” made of modest ­materials—all that were available during the World War II German occupation—Juhl’s house is an example of the kind of functional Modernism that came to define midcentury Danish design. It features flexible space planning, with rooms that flow into one another and visually blur the line between inside and out. But more important, the house is a living archive of the designer’s work; though Juhl was trained as an architect, it was his sculptural furniture forms—inspired by contemporary art and native artifacts—that distinguished him.

“Nearly all of his furniture, from both the good and the bad periods, is in the house,” says Birgit Lyngbye Pedersen, the Ph.D. design student who bought the house and handed it over to the museum earlier this year after reading about it in a local paper. “Finn Juhl thought that he should make everything that goes into a house, but he never got that far. He made knives and forks and things, but only as prototypes.” Several of those prototypes are exhibited in the house, along with much of his art collection.

Juhl’s golden years were the 1940s and ’50s; by the 1960s, his reputation was in decline. After he died in 1989, his widow, Hanne Wilhelm Hansen, became a fierce guardian of his estate. Among the protective decisions she made was to transfer the production rights for his 2,000 or so designs to a single company, Hansen & Sørensen, and archive all of his drawings with the Danish Museum of Art and Design. “His legacy was very important to her,” says Preben Pontoppidan, the export director for One Collection—a name adopted last year to better promote Juhl’s work. “She wanted to see more action taken on all levels with his designs.” Wilhelm Hansen, who died in 2003, was no less careful with the house, willing it to the foundation that conducted the long-term publicity campaign resulting in the donation.

“It is fantastic for us to have this house as part of the museum complex,” director Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark says. “The old Ordrupgaard is a very rich private home from the time of the First World War. This is a sublime Danish home from the Second World War, so in that respect they go very well together.”

For Lyngbye Pedersen, who curated an inaugural show for the house’s opening in April, Ordrupgaard has a distinct advantage when it comes to telling the designer’s story. “Finn Juhl is part of the narrative from the 1950s about Danish modern design,” she says. “It’s as if when you show design from that period you can only do it one way, but Juhl didn’t make his furniture in the same way as Arne Jacobsen or Poul Kjaerholm. They made democratic furniture for the new welfare state, but he was inspired by art and sculpture. Somehow Ordrupgaard is free from the same stories of the 1950s—this is an opportunity to show his furniture as art.” But she also concedes that the acquisition represents a critical turning point for the museum. “With the Finn Juhl house and the Zaha Hadid building, now museum guests will not only be people interested in French Impressionism,” she says. “I hope that Ordrupgaard has the vision to show more design.”

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