April 1, 2009
Fritz Hansen produced some of the 20th century’s most iconic pieces. Now the company turns to a new designer for fresh ideas on the 21st-century chair.
Fritz Hansen is virtually synonymous with Danish design. The manufacturer continues to produce some of the country’s most recognizable examples of midcentury Modernism—Arne Jacobsen’s classic Egg chairs, for instance—pieces that remain the core of the company’s business. But every year or two, it gambles on a relative newcomer in the hope of hitting upon that elusive 21st-century icon. This year that distinction belongs to the 36-year-old Japanese designer Hiromichi Konno and his futuristic Rin chair, which recently made its debut at the Stockholm Furniture Fair.
The design concept, Konno says, is conveyed in the name: Rin, loosely translated from Japanese, means “valiant” and “self-standing.” “It is like a flower,” Konno explains. “Because if you arrange just one, it has to rest on itself. It is not like a big, gorgeous bouquet, where things support each other.” With its softly curved seat perched atop a delicate yet solid base, the chair does resemble a kind of space-age tulip. But the deceptively simple organic form took several years of refining—and a little market research—to get right. Prototypes of the chair were featured in the company’s corporate magazine and displayed in showrooms throughout Europe to solicit feedback from potential customers. “From our point of view, it was something totally new because we used to be a fairly conservative company with a history that goes many centuries back,” says Jan Helleskov, Fritz Hansen’s global PR manager. “We had never asked the consumers, ‘What do you think about this mock-up?’”
The reception was mixed. “Most comments were positive,” Konno recalls. “But there were two negatives that I took particular note of: one was that it looked like a cartoon, and the other that there was too much Ross Lovegrove in it.” It just so happens that Konno, after studying product design at Umeå University, in Sweden, worked at Lovegrove’s London studio for three years. But the younger designer balks at the comparison: “Even while I was with him, I was told I could just be myself and design whatever came out of me, which I did.” (Konno helped create his mentor’s lithe, sculptural Go Chair, for Bernhardt Design.) “That was also the case this time.”
Following the chair’s soft launch, Konno altered the design slightly, reducing the number of holes in order to make the injection-molded shell easier to manufacture and to tone down what he describes as its “too-original image.” Whether the Rin becomes a bestseller for Fritz Hansen remains to be seen—Jacobsen’s 1955 Series 7 chair is still the company’s marquee product—but it’s fair to say that it probably won’t be one of those designs that define an era. And maybe that’s an unrealistic expectation anyway. “Designers are always being compared: ‘Is he the new Arne Jacobsen or Poul Kjaerholm?’” Helleskov says. “It’s like trying to form a band and calling it the Beatles, when there won’t be another Beatles.”