The marvelous furniture of Hans J. Wegner.

Bringing out the dead.
Feb. 14 2007 7:25 AM

A Chair To Remember

The marvelous furniture of Hans J. Wegner.

The author’s Wegner rocking chair
Click image to expand.
The author's Wegner rocking chair

Remember that old chestnut: What book, movie, or CD would you take if you were marooned on a desert island? I'd also want a comfortable chair for all that reading, watching, and listening, and I know which one I'd choose. It wouldn't be my Aeron, which is admirable, but really only good for working at a desk, and which, in any case, would look silly on a beach. The Adirondack chair that stands on my terrace is more suited to the outdoors, and I like the broad arms that double as side tables, but it's not really comfortable for long periods of time. What I'd want on the desert island is my rocking chair, which is good for reading and listening (I use it for watching television), and which would also serve for the many idle moments in between.

My rocker is not a Colonial antique. It was designed in 1944 by Danish furniture-maker Hans J. Wegner, who died last month at the age of 92. Wegner was one of a group of Danes responsible for what came to be known as Danish Modern furniture in the 1950s and '60s. Danish Modern was modern in a particular way. Unlike the furniture of the Bauhaus-influenced designers, which tended to look machinelike and favored chrome tubing and leather straps, Danish Modern was invariably wood, and while it was manufactured and often minimalist, it managed to preserve its ties to the ancient craft of furniture-making by incorporating traditional joinery. It was also much more comfortable. This had partly to do with its evolutionary nature—the Danish designers were not out to reinvent the wheel—and partly with basic Scandinavian good sense, which never compromised comfort for the sake of ideology.

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Wegner, who studied furniture design in Copenhagen, had qualified early in his life as a master carpenter, and he never lost his appreciation for handwork. While still in school, he was hired by architects Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller to design furniture for a town hall that they were building. He opened his own design office in 1943. His chairs from this period (my rocker is one) are traditional in conception, but modern in execution. My chair, for example, is solid beech with a seat of traditional woven cord, but its parts are shaped and connected together with a high degree of abstract elegance. The chair's generous proportions allow freedom of movement, which is an important element of seating comfort. Wegner also produced his version of a spindle-back Windsor chair. Later he became more adventurous, experimenting with veneered plywood shells (at about the same time as Charles and Ray Eames did in the United States).

The "Wishbone" chair 
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The "Wishbone" chair

Wegner is probably best known for a series of armchairs in which a single curved piece of wood forms the back as well as the arms. Wegner took the general idea from some ancient Chinese chairs, and he produced many variations: frames of solid cherry, mahogany, ash, beech, and oak, and seats of woven cord, cane, and cushioned leather. The so-called Wishbone chair (Wegner did not name his designs; it appears as CH 24 in catalogs) dates from 1950 and is a classic. Perhaps the simplest of all is PP203, which has unbraced legs that also support the semicircular back and arms. CBS bought 12 of these chairs for use in the famous 1960 televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon. *

The continued appeal of Wegner's furniture (most of which is still in production) is not hard to explain. It is beautiful, of course, and extremely well-made. While mass-produced, it feels crafted, and the manufacturing process includes both machining and handwork. It won't bankrupt you; although prices have crept up over the years, the roughly $500 price of a Wishbone chair is still reasonable compared to much designer furniture. While many chairs look beautiful, Wegner's chairs must be used to be fully appreciated—both for their comfort, and for the tactile experience of the materials and the carved shapes. As the Danish designer once said: "A chair is only finished when someone sits in it."

Correction, Feb. 16, 2007: This piece originally stated that the Nixon-Kennedy debate took place in 1961. It took place in 1960. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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