Carl Hansen: Hans Wegner’s Other Chairs

Frankly, it is simply ridiculous to think a career spanning more than 50 years can be based on a single achievement. So even if the CH24 Wishbone Chair, Hans Wegner’s best known design, is the only one you have heard of, you still know there must be others. You would be right, too. There are, in all, more than 500 and more than 100 enjoyed spells in long-term mass production. At Carl Hansen, Hans Wegner’s other chairs are still a source of pride, and many of those 100 are still being made.

After all, Hans Wegner produced his first chair in 1938 and was still drawing designs up to his retirement in 1993. Most importantly, he was one of that handful of designers around post-War Scandinavia who led a design revolution that is still with us today. The Mid-Century Modern look – almost Spartan in its stripped-back simplicity – became the feature style of Scandinavian design and pops up all over the place.

He was right up there among the most influential design figures of the second half of the 20th century. So his entire range of work deserves its place in the spotlight. Though he came up with more than 1,000 other designs, it was his chairs that really stood out. It is no coincidence that, even in his lifetime, people called him the King of Chairs.

A Chair Leader

The tale of Hans Wegner’s life is the story of a quest, the search for the perfect chair. It was always an illusion, and he knew that, but it didn’t stop him chasing his dream chair. In the real world there were just too many uses, too many conflicting demands, for him to succeed. Yet, if it was never possible in the real world, designers are imaginative people, and he could dream of a place where the dream was possible.

He would sometimes talk about the ancient philosopher Plato. One of the key ideas from the Ancient Greek thinker is that there is a place where the perfect form of everything exists. So there is the perfect cat, dog, rabbit or whatever. There are also the perfect forms of abstract ideas like anger or beauty. From Hans Wegner’s point of view, the important one was that there would be furniture perfection. In that realm, you would find the perfect table, the perfect footstool and, the essential one for him, the perfect chair. His job was to get as close to that ideal as possible.

That led to two approaches. There was the restless chasing of different styles and forms for their own sake. Then, once he had a basic model, he would keep coming back and adding refinements. Some were so subtle that probably he was the only one who could spot the difference. Others were more fundamental, but they were all part of that hunt for the perfect chair.

Who was Hans Wegner?

Hans Wegner was born in 1914 and first trained as a cabinetmaker, refining woodworking skills that would help define his work. His breakthrough moment came when he was doing military service in 1935 and visited the Cabinetmakers Guild exhibition in Copenhagen. It inspired him, not just with the quality of the workmanship, but also what could be achieved with design.

It all led him to study arts and crafts. He was a good enough artist that there was a suggestion he should drop woodworking and take up portrait painting. He resisted and the world of furniture won the battle for his talent.

Apart from improving his design skills, the other important development was that he started to understand how design had to emerge from the item’s function. A chair, for example, needs to support the whole body if it is to be truly comfortable. So the back has to do its job properly, and armrests are probably a good idea too. All while looking classy and fitting in with the rest of the decor.

By 1938 he was being asked to provide designs for the Aarhus City Hall. In 1943, he set up his own design studio and started working for Carl Hansen & Son, which is still working hard to maintain his legacy.

Highlights of the Chair Revolution

The route to Hans Wegner’s iconic chairs often started with an established model. So, to take an early and well-known example, his CH24 Wishbone Chair emerged from a picture he saw of Ming Dynasty furniture in China. There were a few early models sold as the China Chair from 1944 but the Wishbone soon emerged as the final version. It is still the bestseller among all his chairs, but we have covered it before.

That was the start, not the finale. Designs kept flowing as he took on board ideas and inspiration from all over the world.

 

The Round Chair

Next off the drawing board was the Round Chair, one of his submissions to the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers Guild in 1949. It was so successful that in the USA it simply became The Chair and in the UK, The Classic Chair. The American magazine Interiors dubbed it the “most beautiful chair in the world”. It was an instant hit, particularly outside Denmark.

Its big claim to international fame came little more than a decade later when the TV companies selected the model to be used in the first televised presidential debate in the USA in 1960. The confrontation between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon was iconic and almost certainly the key to Kennedy’s victory, but for the reputation of Danish design, it was the chairs that carried the day.

It turned out to be such an important moment that in 1991 the Round Chair itself won a spot on a Danish stamp, forever marking its importance in the design field.

Another Sensation

As with so many of Hans Wegner’s designs, there was a history to his next great creation, the CH22 Lounge Chair, but that didn’t stop it from causing a stir when he unveiled it. The simple lines and cord seat were both concepts from the past, but this took the ideas to a new level.

The distinctive large wooden back and elegant lines of the legs are interesting enough, but the real Wegner hallmarks lie in the details. There is the way the supports for the armrests stand on the side stretchers, go around the seat and expand to the full width of the armrest itself. There are the special joints where the front legs meet the seat frame or the way the back rail joins the back of the seat. Wherever you look, there are these little details that mark it out as one of Hans Wegner’s specials.

It went out of production for a while, but Carl Hansen relaunched the line in 2016. Though the company modernised the production line, the same craft principles apply. In fact, in some ways, it even improved things. Production needs meant the 20th-century version had round legs, for example. Modern techniques, however, allow them to copy the elongated profile of the back legs as Hans Wegner had intended.

The Design Moves On

It didn’t take Hans Wegner long to expand the design range. The next stage was to use many of the principles behind the Lounge Chair to make a dining chair. That became the CH23 Chair. It set a new standard for design with its artistic expression and ergonomic form.

Again, the details are just as interesting as the overall shape. The backrest, for example, is held onto the uprights with a little cross-shaped joint. Then there is the double woven seat, and arched legs to improve stability. It has been back in production since 2017.

CH25 Lounge Chair

Not satisfied with making one best-selling lounge chair, Hans Wegner almost immediately went on to design another. Like the others, the CH25 caused a stir when he unveiled it, this time because he had chosen to use woven cord for both the seat and backrest.

The material had been a wartime replacement for seagrass. Though it has become more common, it was unusual then and Hans Wegner was the first designer to use it extensively. He was enthusiastic about the way it looked and its durability.

The frame was also unusual, with the swept-back rear legs and slightly tilted seat adding to the modernist touch. Unlike some others, it has never been out of production, even though it takes 10 hours and 400 metres of cord to complete one chair.

CH20 Elbow Chair

One problem Hans Wegner sometimes ran foul of was that his designs could be beautiful, but not always that practical when it came to making them. So it was with the Elbow Chair, which he designed in 1956. It was too intensive a production process with equipment available at the time, however. As a result, the design lay untouched in his archives until 2005. By then manufacturing had moved on and Carl Hansen, at last, made it a reality.

It quickly established a position as a modern classic, winning the ICFF Editors’ Award in New York in the same year. The characteristic steam-bent backrest, crafted from a single piece of solid wood, provides support to the elbow and lower back. It also enables a variety of sitting positions. A unique support for the seat adds stability plus a light and floating appearance.

CH29 Sawbuck Chair

All this may have a serious feel to it, but Hans Wegner did have a strong sense of humour. He did, after all, make the Ox Chair, complete with horns. He understood how to make wacky work.

So perhaps it is not a surprise that one source of inspiration was the sawbuck being used around the workshop to hold wood while it was being sawn. It turns out the A-frame style suits to chair manufacture. The highly curved back and wide seat add to the comfort.

This chair went out of production in the 1970s but the company relaunched it in the 1990s and it has been a top seller ever since. With an upholstered seat and a variety of wood options, the colour scheme is perfect for any room.

CH07 Shell Chair

If you ever wanted a taste of 1960s avant-garde, then this is the one to go for. Hens Wegner actually designed it in 1963. It turned out to be ahead of its time and only got a limited production run. It is an obvious manifestation of Hans Wegner’s belief that a chair should always be comfortable but also beautiful from all sides and angles.

By 1998, however, the 1960s were part of the nostalgic past. Ideas that had felt too way out at the time started to come into their own. Carl Hansen sparked the interest of a new generation when it finally brought the chair into mass production.

Its wing-like seat and curved backrest, held by a frame with three arched legs, give it a light, almost floating appearance. Hans Wegner created the shape from form-pressed veneer that cradles the user. The legs are laminated with the front ones, made from a single element.

CH36 and CH88 Chairs

Finally, two dining chairs at opposite ends of the offbeat ideas scale. The CH36 from 1962 is more conventional, based as it is on the Shaker principles from America. These enshrine simple lines with functionality at the core.

There are still subtle Hans Wegner touches, though — things like the legs that taper at the top and bottom. It’s another with a cord seat and also comes with an armrest.

The CH88 shows a more novel approach, showing Hans Wegner’s master of different materials. While many of his iconic works are almost all wood, this has a metal frame and an upholstered seat. Only the uniquely shaped back comes in his favourite material. It is another designed early in his career but not put into production until 2014. It became an instant hit, joining the stable of success.

Hans Wegner’s Chairs

By now, you can see some breadth of Hans Wegner work. He straddles the range from Shaker simplicity to avant-garde wing designs with comfort and ease. Sometimes he was ahead of his time, but eventually the world and manufacturing techniques have caught up.

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