Finn Juhl

by Radmila Durasinovic

Finn Juhl

Finn Juhl was the father of Danish Modern, notable modernist architect and furniture designer. Initially receiving strong backlash for his early designs like the Pelican chair, Juhl went on to become a prominent international figure of the twentieth century. The story of the pioneer of Danish design is synonymous with that of modernism. What started out as a Salon des Refusés  – exhibition of rejects – became a widely celebrated movement throughout the world. Finn Juhl, too, rose above his early critics and extended beyond his Danish roots into timelessness with designs that are as popular in the twenty-first century as they were in their heyday.  

Finn Juhl was born in Frederiksberg in 1912. As a child, he showed a strong interest in the fine arts and initially wanted to become an art historian. However, under the thumb of his authoritarian father, Finn was swayed towards architecture. He enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen in 1930 just as modernism was gaining momentum. He studied under architect Kay Fisker, a leading proponent of functionalism, whose views no doubt influenced Juhl’s creative direction from a young age.

While he was a student, he began working for Vilhelm Lauritzen Arkitekter, where he stayed on for the next ten years. At the studio, he was responsible for much of the design of the Danish Broadcasting House, a major project at the time. Because of his busy schedule and involvement in many projects, Juhl never actually finished his studies. Nevertheless, he was a talented designer, receiving the C. F. Hansen prize for young architects in 1943. 

Towards a Modern Era 

In 1945, Juhl left Vilhelm Lauritzen Arkitekter to pursue an independent career. He set up his own design practice in Copenhagen which focused on furniture and interiors. Juhl had already made his debut on the furniture scene in the late thirties with his chair designs. At the time, Denmark had yet to be consumed by industrialization and the focus was still very much on craftsmanship. Juhl’s chairs were produced in small quantities and mostly presented at Guild Exhibitions. These shows were integral to the success of Danish Modern, with young designers exhibiting their avant-garde furniture in hopes of setting Danish design on a modern path free from historical styles and ornamentation. In removing the superfluous, the focus was then placed on good workmanship and quality materials, as well as new manufacturing techniques.

Although seemingly simple with its clean lines and form, much of modernist furniture would have been impossible to make with traditional methods. The Guild Exhibitions became focused on the establishment of a successful furniture industry, merging good design and craftsmanship with new technologies. Juhl was a regular at the exhibitions over the course of twenty-four years, earning a total of fourteen awards for his modern contributions.

A key design of Finn Juhl’s early career was the Pelican chair, first produced in 1940. So ahead of its time it was virtually offensive, the Pelican garnered a harsh reaction from critics. Referred to as a ‘tired walrus’ and ‘ugly duckling’, the chair was greatly unpopular which led to it being forgotten until 2001, when it was relaunched by One Collection (now the House of Finn Juhl).

The Pelican chair perhaps most clearly displays Juhl’s main source of inspiration: art, namely surrealism and cubism. Organic and highly sculptural, it exposes Juhl’s mindset when it came to design. Rather than constructing, he shaped his furniture like a sculptor, emphasizing the pliable qualities of wood. Finn Juhl centered his designs around the human body, which is also evident in the Pelican’s comfortable, figure-hugging design. Today, the Pelican chair is one of the most popular designs sold by the company dedicated to keeping Juhl’s legacy alive

Modern Furniture Icons

The Model 45 chair is one of Finn Juhl’s most iconic designs. The chair gives the illusion of a floating leather body, balanced by its sturdy legs and armrests. The freeing of the seat and backrest from the wooden frame soon became the distinctive feature of his work. This act of liberation was in keeping with Juhl’s design philosophy and his artistic approach to creating furniture. At the time, the Model 45 chair marked a break with traditional styles, becoming the perfect ‘easy chair’. 

“Art has always been my main source of inspiration. I am fascinated by shapes which defy gravity and create visual lightness.” Finn Juhl

Another particularly eminent design was the Chieftain chair, inspired by the furniture of ancient Egypt. Despite being a functionalist at heart, foreign cultures often featured in Juhl’s work. He would reference, for example, African or tribal art in his designs. These expressive gestures, grounded in his love of art – especially the abstract and organic – often clashed with functionalist doctrine. But it was Juhl’s unrestrained approach to the fundamental principles of functionalism which set him apart and made him great.

The Chieftain chair was exotic and expressive in form and monumental in proportions. Fit for a chief, it was a new experiment for Juhl after creating a series of ‘handy’ chairs. When it was introduced in 1949, it attracted plenty of attention – both positive and negative. Architect and critic, Odd Brockmann, compared the chair to “four failed omelets that were hung on a rack”. This however, didn’t phase Juhl, who responded to the remark by admitting “that as an omelet, it was terribly useless”. It’s this kind of lightheartedness and willingness to accept criticism which enabled Juhl to rise above the indoctrinated in design and explore new forms and techniques, for which he remains remembered. 

Danish Design in the US

Finn Juhl’s first commission for the USA was the interior design for the Trusteeship Council Chamber at the UN headquarters in New York. It was 1951 and Finn Juhl was still a relatively young architect faced with an immense task. The chamber was a spectacular example of Gesamtkunstwerk, encompassing all aspects of the design process into a cohesive whole. A warm atmosphere evoked by the wood paneling, and a great sense of comfort characterizes the chamber. Juhl not only designed the furniture, but considered all of the details in delivering Danish craftsmanship and a modern sensibility to the UN. Today the space is named the Finn Juhl Chamber after its renowned designer.

In 2011, it underwent major renovations by duo Kasper Salto & Thomas Sigsgaard, who were tasked with returning the space to its former glory.  The success of Juhl’s original design sparked great interest for Danish design in the US, and practically created Danish Modern. The exposure he gained from the project led to future collaborations with the US furniture industry, taking Danish design to an international level. 

Through art, Juhl liberated himself from the confines of functionalism to incorporate sculptural and organic forms into modern design. At the core, functionality dictated Juhl’s soft, light-weight furniture, while art as his muse brought personality into his designs. 

Finn Juhl Revisited

For the Pelican chair’s 75th anniversary, Onecollection released a special artwork edition in collaboration with Domicileculture. The upholstered body of the Pelican became a canvas for Asger Jorn’s drawing Macbeth. It unites two remarkable figures of Danish culture in a bold, monochromatic homage. The playful, fluid lines of the drawing complement the proud Pelican. In the twenty-first century, the Pelican was finally able to spread its wings and shed new light on its fascinating creator. A piece of art within art as the perfect encapsulation of all Juhl stood for in his life’s work. 

Featured image: Finn Juhl. [Public domain]

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