Børge Mogensen and The People’s Chair

The People’s chair is wood and rope; helping us all to live and cope. Made to last in nature’s way; It’s a classic in a modern way. Okay, not Wordsworth, Keats, or even McGonagall. But it does explain why Børge Mogensen and The People’s Chair is a tale worth its telling.

The J39 chair, which later earned its “People’s Chair” nickname, has been in production continuously since being launched in 1947. It helped inspire the post-war design revolution. The chair has become part of the Mid-Century Classic school of furniture and design – a movement that belies its title by holding onto its key position past end of the 20th century with such force it is still going strong well into the 21st century.

A Man With a Vision

Børge Mogensen was both a man of his time and a man ahead of his time. As a designer, he was part of the triumvirate – along with Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner – who helped revolutionise Danish ideas in the years after World War II. He came up with a lot of design ideas that are still current today, despite revolutions in both manufacturing techniques and available materials.

Not only that, but he was one of the first to go out to research how people lived and how they reacted to things around them. He then used that information to design furniture that made their lives easier. It could be the items were easy to move, simple to clean and maintain, more accessible, or just more comfortable than previous models.

Here’s one example out of many. Working with Grethe Meyer, he came up to build storage and shelving into a room from the start. He studied the kind of stuff people wanted to store and how big those pieces were.

That led to a set of guideline figures in his manual on how to build storage systems. It shows how important it is that designers still use his manual today, and it is still the base for many design decisions.

Ahead of His Time

He was also a man ahead of his time. As the world fell in love with artificial products coming out of the materials revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, Børge Mogensen stuck close to nature. Now, 50 years after his death in 1972, his focus on the importance of the environment and sustainability looks as though it was in Nostradamus territory.

His lifelong ambition was to create durable, useful furniture that would enrich everyday living – functional furniture for all parts of the home and society. He had a natural understanding of the materials he used and how to present them as effectively as possible, emphasising strong horizontal and vertical lines and surfaces.

Børge Mogensen came to the chair project with a solid career in furniture design and manufacture already in the bank. He had studied at the Copenhagen School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where he worked with Kaare Klint.

Having trained as a cabinet-maker, he understood wood and how to shape it. He had insights into how to turn the craft working practices into a mass-production process without losing that handmade appeal.

The People’s Chair

Børge Mogensen’s People’s Chair, or to give it its proper title, the J39 Mogensen Chair, came out of its designer’s research into merging simplicity and clean lines with functionality and comfort.

In this case, the inspiration came from the Shaker movement which had flourished in the 19th century. By the time Børge Mogensen came along, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, to give it its proper name – the Shakers name referred to the way members moved in ecstasy during worship – was fading. Yet its influence outlived it in fields as diverse as music and furniture.

One of the key features of the Shaker communities was they had to be as self-sufficient as possible, all part of their goal of creating heaven on earth. They grew their own food and made everything it was possible for them to make. Their origins lie in the American immigrant communities of the 18th century, and many were already skilled woodworkers before they crossed the Atlantic. They could use established skills according to the Shaker rules and principles.

All those guiding principles led them towards utility and simplicity combined with an unstinting focus on quality. So ornamentation was out, but so was shoddy workmanship. Form was important, but so was usefulness, and they encouraged innovation. The Shakers frowned on foreign wood, so locally grown timber was the go-to material.

Shaker to Maker

By the time Børge Mogensen was taking an interest, the Shaker community at New Lebanon in New York was one of the few still going. Luckily for him, it was one that had always specialised in chair-making, and he could study the way they worked before it, too, fizzled out.

The key lesson, which is perfectly shown in Børge Mogensen’s People’s  Chair, is to concentrate on form. No fancy decoration. Every part has to serve a purpose, but it still needs to look good. The size, the shape, the proportions are all vital to achieving that perfect appearance.

The focus on attention to detail was another vital element at a time when mass-production could inevitably mean shoddy workmanship. Early Shakers often came from a crafts background. They knew how to produce the ornate designs that dominated 19th century work, but were determined to lose the parts put there purely for decoration. Børge Mogensen echoed that drive towards simplicity. For him too, the attention to detail was vital, but so was the drive to a deceptively simple design and functionality. All that came together in the J39 Chair, the People’s Chair.

Come In J39

The J39 Mogensen Chair is a masterpiece. He crafted it from solid wood, and it features a hand-woven seat in natural paper cord. The clean lines and use of natural materials are all signature traits that contribute to the chair’s unwavering popularity.

Mogensen’s vision was to create high quality, functional furniture that could make modern design popular and accessible to all walks of society. He established the cabinetmaker’s principles he had learned in his early years and turned them to making sure the chair looked attractive but was strong and worked well both as a comfy chair and as a dining chair.

All that means the J39 Chair, Børge Mogensen’s People’s Chair, is a remarkably versatile piece. That, in turn, has ensured it continues to be in demand to this day.

It is suitable for both private and public use. Both new and vintage versions of the chair are on show in a huge number of public institutions such as universities, cafés or restaurants. You can also see them in private homes in Denmark and around the world.

The manufacturers make the frame entirely from plain wood, usually oak, walnut, or beech. You can choose to oil, paint or lacquer the wood, depending on what effect you want. The manufacturers make the seat from paper cord.

The back legs are all one piece, rising to a steam-bent back support. For the front legs, they are the same width, with six bracers bringing stability. The frame for the seat finishes the woodwork, with the woven cord making the seat both strong and comfortable.

Made to Last

It’s durable too. With no fancy bits to break off, the wooden frame can take a lot of punishment. Though dents in the wood might affect the chair’s looks, they don’t make any functional difference. If the cord eventually wears out after decades of use, you can replace it with little drama.

The J39 Mogensen chair has echoes of its origins in Mediterranean, Scandinavian, and Shaker design. However, its simple appearance and use of materials reflect Mogensen’s personal quest for design purity. Given its versatility and appeal to virtually anyone, it is no surprise the chair has been in continuous production since its introduction.

Fredericia and Børge Mogensen

Any designer needs an outlet, and for most of his career, Børge Mogensen worked in partnership with Andreas Graversen. They were already collaborating early in the 1950s, when the designer had opened his own firm and Graversen was working as an interior architect and entrepreneur. When Graversen acquired Fredericia in 1955, it launched a professional partnership that allowed Børge Mogensen to develop his range.

Throughout, both were uncompromising on their demands for quality. The pair carefully selected and sourced the wood, the cord came from reputable local suppliers. The Fredericia range of chairs was an early hit and is still going strong.

Danish Design Dominates

Everything about the chair is in keeping with Børge Mogensen’s vision. Anyone who has gone shopping for Scandinavian-style furniture has had a taste for what his vision was.

While a lot of the earlier furniture had been ornate, with plenty of decoration and frills, Mogensen and his contemporaries wanted to keep things simple and streamlined.

For earlier stuff, think Chippendale with its fancy carvings and scrollwork. No surface was too small to be embellished. The rule of thumb when buying at the top end of the market was to go for stuff that showed off the craft skill of whoever made it.

After Børge Mogensen and the other Scandinavian designers of his time, minimalism was just as important. The more flamboyant stuff still had its place, but the more down-to-earth version was better for everyday living. Børge Mogensen’s vision was to design durable, usable furniture that would enrich lives with its functionality.

Børge Mogensen’s Legacy

He believed furniture should create a sense of tranquillity and enrich lives with its modest appearance and lack of pretension. His sense of proportion and understanding of the materials he was using made his designs attractive to the eye.

Not that the simplicity meant the skill and craft went out of making them. Børge Mogensen’s People’s Chair shows how he  insisted on the highest level of work and skill as part of the production process. Fifty years after his untimely death, aged only 58, Børge Mogensen is still one of the most significant influencers in modern design. He helped establish Denmark as a cultural centre. That influence spread so that people all over the world recognise Scandinavian design as something special.

< Back to all articles