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Poul Kjaerholm is an essential figure in the history of twentieth century design. His is a chapter of dualism: between craftsmanship and industry, art and engineering, nature and man. Yet through his exceptional work, these distinct elements are united into one. In his preferred use of steel over wood, Kjaerholm stood alone among his Danish Modern peers, but ultimately showed the world a different take on exquisite Scandinavian design. Often described as ‘modest in means, but rich in expression’, his minimalist furniture remains a classic of mid-century design.
Poul Kjaerholm was born in 1929 in the small Danish town of Østervrå. He struggled in school until he found his natural talent in making furniture. He became an apprentice to a cabinetmaker, Gronbech, at the age of fifteen. By 1948, he was certified as a journeyman cabinetmaker, after which he continued his education at the School of Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen. He studied under Hans Wegner and Jørn Utzon, both of whom recognized his natural talent and left a profound impact on his development as a designer. From Wegner, he adopted a sculptural treatment of wood and from Utzon’s industrial design course he learned of unconventional materials in furniture making. In his youth, Poul Kjaerholm expressed great artistic promise, painting expressionist landscapes and figures. His career is ultimately a story of merging two early interests into a single creation on the verge of utility and art.
For his graduation project in 1951, Kjaerholm designed a lounge chair which later became known as the PK 25. It consisted of a continuous steel frame, cut and bent from a single piece into a complex but clean form without joints. At the same time, the seat was formed from a single length of sailing rope wound around the frame. Thus, it was also termed the “Element” chair, possibly referencing the reduction of each material to a single element. The lounge caught the attention of manufacturer Fritz Hansen, who placed it into production shortly after. Poul Kjaerholm also briefly worked for the company, gaining experience in working with industrial techniques.
Kjaerholm’s use of steel frames and early endorsement of industrial methods was to become a hallmark of his designs. It was this approach that set him apart from his Danish contemporaries, who mainly worked with wood as the material most closely associated with Danish mid-century furniture. However, he used natural materials like canvas, leather, cane and rope to counter the reflective coldness of the sleek steel, resulting in a balanced composition. His ambitions as a designer were to create objects which could be mass-produced, something that is reflected in his constant experimentation with materials and methods during these years.
In 1955, Poul Kjaerholm was approached by E. Kold Christensen on recommendation from his former teacher, Hans Wegner. Christensen was scouting for talent, and the following year the young designer entered a partnership with the manufacturer. The first line Kjaerholm designed specifically for Christensen consisted of four pieces for living and dining. Of this collection, the PK 22 lounge chair and the PK 61 low table received the most attention, and brought the company significant success. The PK 22 was yet another exemplar of Kjaerholm’s approach of using minimal, contrasting elements to create a wonderfully balanced, light-weight piece of furniture. The chair was adapted for the export market, so it was constructed to be flat-packed and assembled on site, making it easily produced and widely accessible.
Only four years into the partnership, Kjaerholm had designed thirteen pieces for Christensen, ten of which are still produced today. During the fifties and sixties, he gained increasing exposure for his work, and created some of his best mature designs. At the same time, he taught furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In 1957 he won the Grand Prize at the Milan Triennale for the PK 22, while in 1960 he designed the Danish pavilion for the prestigious event. The installation reflected his subtle but lasting admiration for natural forms and the landscape, which was initially developed though his love of painting and his teacher, Jørn Utzon. He had a preference for horizontal lines and created his furniture lower than the norm, which in turn made a room feel taller and more spacious.
The following year, Poul Kjaerholm designed the PK 9 dining chair, today considered one of his most iconic designs. The curved shell was molded in polyester and covered in leather. This was placed atop three steel legs which joined in the middle, curving outward toward the ends. In a 1965 exhibition of his work named “Structures”, Kjaerholm displayed the PK 9 in a disassembled form. What was striking about the abstract, deconstructed display was the seeming simplicity of the individual elements and how few went into the construction of such a sophisticated piece. Together, the simple and minimal elements formed a chair which looked to be hand sculpted, yet at the same time industrially engineered.
In 1968, Kjaerholm’s sculptural work with wood reached its peak with the development of the PK 20, a cantilevered lounge chair. The curved spring steel frame paired with a leather seat makes for a laid-back and comfortable chair. It is loosely reminiscent of the PK 24, designed three years prior, but with a more conventional steel frame and a seat of woven cane. However, both lounges give the illusion of the seat – made of leather or cane – holding its own form with no support upon first glance. Of course, a steel frame is hidden under the surface, a deception which only adds to the effortless nature of the lounge.
The seventies marked a shift in Kjaerholm’s work. After fifteen years of working primarily with steel, he began to experiment with wood. In 1971, he designed the award-winning lounge chair PK 27. Made of laminated wood, it clearly relied on some of his earlier research of the material prompted by his admiration of the Eameses organic forms. During these years he produced a number of other pieces of furniture resting on a wooden instead of a steel frame.
Throughout the decades, he equally applied himself to both practice and academia. In 1973, he became head of the Institute of Design, before gaining a professorship in 1976. Poul Kjaerholm maintained a close and successful partnership with E. Kold Christensen until his untimely death in 1980. From 1982, Fritz Hansen took over the production of most of Kjaerholm’s designs originally sold by Christensen.
Poul Kjaerholm’s greatness lies in the continuity of his design philosophy which he perfected over the years. In addition, he had the ability to capture the essence of a piece of furniture, be it a table or chair, with minimal elements carefully sculpted into a clean and precise composition. The timelessness of his pieces lie in the careful balance of materials and artistic qualities they embody. They express an understated elegance which can fully be appreciated only by the most meticulous admirers of design.
In the words of Michael Sheridan, who poetically summarized Kjaerholm’s spirit: “Like Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways who looked backwards and forwards at the same time, Kjærholm worked on the threshold between two epochs; Danish craftwork and industrial Modernism, straddling the past and the future and making furniture and spaces that have transcended time.”
Featured image: Poul Kjærholm’s PK 9 exhibited in Designmuseum Denmark is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
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