For the 110th anniversary of renowned furniture manufacturer Carl Hansen & Søn, eight new colors of the Wishbone Chair were released. It was for good reason this particular chair was chosen to represent the brand on this commemorative event. It was one of its most successful pieces, created by one of its most revered designers – Hans Wegner. The Wishbone Chair represents the essence of modernity and Wegner’s lifelong organic functionalist style. Perhaps his most well-known design, the Wishbone Chair is among over 500 chairs he designed throughout his long-established career.
From Apprentice to Master
Furniture designer Hans Wegner is one of the greatest names of Danish modern design. Born in 1914 as the son of a shoemaker in Tønder, his career began as apprentice to Master cabinetmaker H. F. Stahlberg. During these early years, Wegner developed a fondness for working with wood. It was a preoccupation that would extend throughout his lifetime. He continued his formal education at the Danish School of Arts and Crafts, later completing his architectural studies in Copenhagen.
His first significant engagement as a designer was under Arne Jacobsen and Eric Møller, who were designing the new city hall of Aarhus. Hans Wegner was tasked with designing the furniture as well as parts of the interior. The city hall was a prime example of Gesamtkunstwerk – a German term meaning “total work of art” or “universal artwork” – with all the interior elements and furnishings custom made specifically for the building. The city hall project was the product of a close partnership between the three designers. The finished pieces of furniture were more likely a result of a collaborative effort between Wegner and his superiors rather than his independent vision. Nevertheless, the project represented a promising beginning of his career. Even in the earliest stage, his affinity for wood and a rudimentary, stripped-back approach to design was evident. This was something he would continue to explore throughout his lifetime.
Hans Wegner – the Chair Designer
After working for Jacobsen for several years, Hans Wegner founded his own company in 1943. He instilled his combined knowledge of craftsmanship and formal education in the field of design into his work, making the most of the hard circumstances of the times. The Second World War had created a shortage of building materials, forcing designers to be creative with even the most limited of resources. It resulted in minimal quantities of materials being used thoughtfully and carefully. The post-war period brought a newfound global appreciation for innovative Scandinavian design. Designers like Arne Jacobsen, Eero Arnio and Alvar Aalto were at the forefront of this functional and minimalist style. Wegner greatly contributed to the popularization of Scandinavian modern design, mainly through his chair designs for which he remains most famous.
A Hans Wegner Chair is much more than a chair. It is a representation of Scandinavian post-war living as well as the unison of meticulous craftsmanship and new industrial means. It is the face of groundbreaking innovation overcoming the hardships of war and driving society forward with a new, democratic, modern style.
Within his newly-established practice, Wegner designed a series of chairs inspired by 17th century Ming dynasty chairs. Chinese design has been an unwavering source of inspiration for many prominent European designers, not least for the harmonious spiritual values it embodies. The most successful pieces of the series were the China Chair, produced by Fritz Hansen and the Wishbone Chair created for Carl Hansen & Søn several years later. The more traditional China chair was launched alongside a modern chair design for the series. Both of these were produced in collaboration with manufacturer Fritz Hansen. The modern chair wasn’t as commercially successful and was subsequently discontinued. However, Carl Hansen & Søn showed interest in continuing production of the chair, which led to a lasting partnership between the designer and manufacturer. It was during this partnership that Wegner designed his revered Wishbone chair – his most appreciated and successful design.
What Makes a Chair?
In an interview with Architectural Digest, designers were asked to explain what makes the Wishbone Chair so special. Brad Ascalon, a designer for Carl Hansen & Søn summarized the essence of the lasting impact of the Wishbone and Scandinavian modern design as a whole.
“Midcentury Danish modernism has always made a huge impact on me and my own design work in that it strives to whisper. It doesn’t scream for attention. It doesn’t even ask for it. But attention is given to it nonetheless because of its subtlety, its focus on craftsmanship and quality, its unapologetic simplicity and elegance. The classic pieces of that era, and in particular the Wishbone chair, are reduced to all that is necessary and with little or no extraneous details.“
The celebrated pared-down approach was characteristic of pretty much all of Hans Wegner’s work, in keeping with the style of the times. In 1949, he created the Round Chair for Johannes Hansen. The design incorporated elements explored in his Chinese inspired series, including the continuous armrest-backrest feature. However, this time he reduced the notion of a chair to an even simpler form, which represented the essence of his lifelong design philosophy.
The Round Chair was the epitome of the honesty of Danish mid-century design. At the same time, it was the embodiment of Wegner’s signature style combining organic forms with stark functionality. In short, it represented the archetype of the chair in its purest and simplest form. The Round Chair was the seat of choice for the first-ever TV election debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. After that, it simply came to be known as The Chair.
An Eternal Exploration of Form
Despite the main concept of Hans Wegner’s work being firmly rooted in the functionality and simplicity of modern design characterized by truth to materials, he dedicated a great deal of time to extensive exploration of form. His innovative and artistic flair was expressed in much of his work.
The piece which most boldly encompassed this aspect of his design process is the Ox Chair. It was a chair widely considered to be his personal favorite. Wegner famously said: “We must take care that everything doesn’t get so dreadfully serious. We must play – but we must play seriously.” The sculptural upholstered lounge chair “with horns” was allegedly inspired by Picasso and has won many awards. Originally designed in 1960, the manufacturing process was too complex for its time. It was put into successful production only decades later.
The Shell Chair, the Danish take on Charles and Ray Eames, was a radically modern design. Launched in 1963, it is the ultimate expression of Wegner’s organic design approach and stands as one of his most iconic chairs. However, the popularity of the Scandinavian modern movement petered out around this time. Despite being applauded by critics, the Shell Chair didn’t sell. It received (belated) success in the nineties, winning numerous design awards.
Hans Wegner Revisited
With a return to popularity of Scandinavian design in the past few decades, the innovative ideas of the pioneers of the movement, including Wegner himself, are being revisited today by many prominent designers like Jasper Morrison and Konstantin Grcic to name a few. The functional, minimalist nature of the style brilliantly serves the nomadic nature of contemporary living, making it very a relevant solution to pressing design issues today.
Hans Wegner’s work is an impressive illustration of the complexity and variation of archetypal themes, and of the sheer immensity of the possibilities of design. A chair – as defined by Hans himself – comprises of “four legs, a seat and combined top rail and armrest”. Yet he spent his entire career redefining the form of a chair, no less than 500 times, in search of the perfect manifestation of his ideas, which according to him didn’t exist.
“The good chair is a task one is never completely done with.” This just goes to show that sometimes the simplest of designs have a lifetime of research and exploration behind it; that sometimes even the simplest definitions can be materialized in an infinite number of ways. Although Hans J. Wegner stands among the great names of Danish modernism, he was indisputably the Master of the Chair.