At the same time as he was developing the Ant Chair, Arne Jacobsen created a one-off range of office furniture that arguably represents the first tangible evidence of his move away from the natural materials and traditional handicrafts of his pre-war furniture and onto the mixed media, industrial products that have ultimately come to define his work. And so can truly be considered great lost furniture design classics.
Not least because they really are lost!
In 1951/52 – the records are a little unclear here – Arne Jacobsen was commissioned by the Copenhagen based shipping company Burmeister & Wain to produce a gift for the American Scandinavian Society and designed a desk, coffee table and side chair group.
The highlight of which is without question the desk. Quite aside from its reduced down simplicity there are two features of the desk that, for us, elevate it above the masses of desks available before or since.
Firstly there is the typewriter holder. A device that swivels through 90 degrees meaning that it can either sit in line with the desk – so out of the way. Or be pulled round next to you to be used. Which is just gorgeous. And of course although designed for a typewriter, these days it is perfect for laptop or tablet; thus making the desk just as relevant and functional today as it was then.
And secondly the drawers. Not just the fact that they are there, but much more the simple yet ingenious decision to attach them to the frame with chrome-plated tubes thus giving the whole structure a lightness that a more conventional solution would never have achieved.
The whole composition is just a joy to behold.
The desk created by Arne Jacobsen for the American Scandinavian Society (photo: source unknown....)
A further fascinating aspect of the project is the potential role of a young Verner Panton.
From 1950-1952 Verner Panton worked in Jacobsen’s studio and one of his jobs was developing early prototypes for the Ant Chair. In their monumental Jacobsen biography Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum write “Panton, who through PH’s [Poul Henningsen] friendship with the boss had been given a job in the office began to create a range of steel wire prototypes that quickly grew to a sprightly collection standing on a box next to his desk”1
Could one of these prototypes have then mutated into the American Scandinavian Society chair?
We certainly know that Jacobsen wanted the Ant to be three legged chair, and so be extrapolation Panton must have been told to devise prototypes with 3 legs.
While the unmissable, irrefutable formal parallels to Verner Panton’s own 1955 Bachelor Chair would tend to imply that if Verner Panton wasn’t personally behind the American Scandinavian Society chair, he greatly influenced it. Or was greatly influenced by it.
That is the great unknown.
We believe, but cannot prove, that Verner Panton was largely responsible for the chair.
In contrast the desk and coffee table are pure early 1950s Arne Jacobsen.
The group was made, once and once only, by the Copenhagen cabinet makers Rud. Rasmussen and formed part of a series of gifts from numerous companies to the American Scandinavian Society to celebrate their move to new offices in New York.
American Scandinavian Society records show that Burmeister & Wain donated furniture for the publications office, without noting any details of the items.
Or, more importantly, what subsequently became of them.
For in the intervening 60 years desk, chair and coffee table have vanished without trace……….
1. “Arne Jacobsen” by Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum. Danish Architectural Press, Copenhagen 2002
Lost Furniture Design Classics: Office Furniture by Arne Jacobsen for the American Scandinavian Society (Photo from"Arne Jacobsen" by Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum.)
And the chair. For us more Verner Panton than Arne Jacobsen..... (Photo from"Arne Jacobsen" by Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum.)
Posted in Designer, Lost Furniture Design Classics, Product Tagged with: ant chair, Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton
Remaining in celebratory mood…..
Twenty five years after the young guns of European modernism gathered in Stuttgart to open the Weissenhof Siedlung, a “somewhat ageing” Danish architect, who as a student had been greatly influenced by the works of European modernism, was about to make his global breakthrough with a chair design which as much as any represents the post-War break with modernism and the fearless march into the new, uncertain, world.
Happy 60th Birthday the Ant Chair by Arne Jacobsen!
Ant Chair by Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen
As with many classics of furniture design the Ant Chair has relatively unspectacular origins; specifically, it was initially conceived as a chair for a new canteen Jacobsen was designing for the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo.
However, early on in the project’s development Jacobsen made contact with Fritz Hansen, a company with whom he had worked on projects in the past and who, more importantly, were in possession of the machines and know-how Jacobsen required for the moulded plywood seat.
And as luck would have it Fritz Hansen were at that moment in time on the look out for an all purpose chair that could compete with the new products by Charles and Ray Eames for Hermann Miller.
However, despite the chairs unquestionable success, and in a similar vein to many of Egon Eiermann’s chair designs from the same period, the Ant Chair has long attracted criticism on account of its perceived similarity with the works of Charles and Ray Eames. Indeed at the formal presentation of the chair on October 3rd 1952 Finn Juhl is alleged to have commented to Arne Jacobsen on the likeness.1
Where Egon Eiermann could always claim that any similarity was down to shared inspiration; with the Ant the fact that Fritz Hansen obtained an Eames’ DCM in order to help Jacobsen understand what they were doing, does make it all look a bit suspicious.
Or would were it not for the fact that the Ant Chair contains a couple of very important innovations that sets it far above the Eames’ work of that period.
Firstly, it was the first 3D moulded plywood chair featuring a single, unified seat and back unit. The seat shell of the DCM, for example, is also folded vertically and horizontally, is however not attached to the back rest.
In successfully realising this important construction process it was not insignificant that Fritz Hansen as a company started out in 1872 bending wood à la Michael Thonet, and so by the time they were trying to mould Jacobsen’s plywood shell had 80 years experience in heating and forming wood.
Successfully bending the plywood was, however, only the first part of the problem. The shell had to be stable, which meant it had to be stable around the bend where seat flows into back.
Jacobsen achieved this stability through the inspired addition of the cut-out slit and rounded, curvaceous “waist” – a sober, technical solution that gives the chair is characteristic form. And name.
Two ladies? A lamp? ... Neither. Its inspired genius!
Equally important as the technical innovation Arne Jacobsen and Fritz Hansen achieved with the shell is the fact that the Ant is stackable.
For Jacobsen a stackable chair was paramount for its intended function – not only its original intended function as a cafeteria chair, but also for its new intended function as a multi-purpose chair in private homes – however, up until that point stacking chairs were more the exception than the rule. Charles and Ray Eames, for example, wouldn’t create a successful mass producible stacking chair design until the 1955 DSS.
And in this context comes a second highly contenious issue: the three legs of the original Ant Chair.
For Jacobsen the three legs of the Ant were non-negotiable. The Ant was to be a three legged chair. Period.
Not only did such a construction aid the stackability, but for him it also meant there was less chance of the legs getting tangled up in one another in a hectic cafeteria situation.
Just one example of how as a chair the Ant is brutally reduced down to aid its functionality, something that of course nods back to the very best of European modernism.
For many of Jacobsen’s contemporaries however the three legged chair was an unstable insanity, and indeed such was the commotion that in 1955 Jacobsen was more or less forced by Fritz Hansen to devise a four legged version. However, at Jacobsen’s instance it remained an under the counter product that wasn’t officially marketed by Fritz Hansen until after Jacobsen’s death in 1971.
While it is fair to say that the later Series 7 chair with its more top hat like back rest is probably better known today than the Ant – not least because of the tastelessly obscene number of look-a-like products on the market or indeed that tastefully obscene Christine Keeler photo – the Ant Chair remains one of the most important chairs in post-War European furniture design and an object that everyone with an interest in good design should study and understand.
Happy 60th Birthday!
1. “Arne Jacobsen” by Carsten Thau und Kjeld Vindum.Danish Architectural Press, Kopenhagen 2002
Ant Chair by Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen
Posted in Designer, Fritz Hansen, Producer, Product Tagged with: ant chair, Arne Jacobsen, fritz hansen
As already stated our visit to Copenhagen and CORE 10 was without question one of our more disappointing trips.
Largely because of the complete lack of imagination, innovation or indeed quality that we found.
It’s certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life.
What do you mean?
Well, at one point, you’ve got it, then you lose it. And it’s gone forever.
All walks of life.
Georgie Best, for example, had it, lost it.
Or David Bowie or Danish design.
Danish design. Some of their modern stuff’s not bad.
No, it’s not bad, but it’s not great either, is it?
And in your heart you kind of know that although it looks all right…
It’s actually just…..
Even within the pantheon of Scandinavian design “Danish design” occupies an elevated almost mystic position.
Verner Panton, Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, Poul Kjaerholm, Hans J. Wegner dot dot dot
It is probably fair to say that no country has given post-war design more “stars” than Denmark.
Especially when you calculate the “star designer to citizens” ratio.
Too few Danish furniture producers understand why that is.
It’s not the ageometric shapes and the bright colours.
Arne Jacobsen's Bellevue Chair from 1934
As with the likes of Egon Eiermann, the majority of those who embody “Danish design” were architects who in the years before the Second World war regularly created individual furniture pieces for their projects – but who played no real role in industrial furniture production.
The social and cultural changes of the 50s and 60s effectively created the mass market for contemporary furniture: and the furniture producers found in the leading architects of the day a ready source of innovative, experienced furniture design talent.
The designers however largely remained architects who produced occasional furniture designs on the basis of their architectural understanding and processes.
Arne Jacobsen’s Ant chair, for example, began life as a canteen chair for a factory Jacobsen was working on. Through contact with Fritz Hansen the project developed, largely driven by an interest in creating a product to compete with Charles and Ray Eames plywood furniture range.
Which brings us onto the second impulse: the innovation of the period.
The Eames DSR, for example, is not an especially stunning chair – however the moulded plastic seat was revolutionary at that time. Exactly as with Eames’ moulded plywood or Verner Panton’s plastic cantilever chair. Much of what we consider design classics today are such not because of their appearance, but because of their historical importance and the fact that when they were first released they re-defined genres and as such entered the collective psyche.
A related factor was the availability of materials per se. Traditionally furniture had been made of wood, the Bauhaus movement and modernism briefly introducing metal and glass into the vocabulary; until in the late 1940s a shortage of materials meant that European furniture producers were limited in what they could use. However in the 50s and 60s not only had the producers access to more materials, but industrialization was producing ever more new materials – and the furniture designers grasped at the new possibilities like frenzied children in free sweet shop.
Each new innovation being presented over new mass media such as television or colour printing and being eagerly snapped up by a European society thriving in the prosperity and security of the period.
All these factors combined to produce the concept of Danish design.
Or in other words Denmark found itself with the right people doing the right job in the right moment.
Tivoli Chair by Verner Panton through Montana: Colourful, but that's not why its good.
Today products for furniture companies are almost exclusively created by professional product designers, men and women whose job it is to produce products to order.
In itself no bad thing, assuming that the brief is motivated by the desire to achieve something new or improve an existing design.
Too much of what we saw wasn’t.
Too much of what we saw was simple mediocrity neatly wrapped in meaningless marketing twaddle to hide the fact the there was nothing new or interesting about the product.
As Renton would no doubt say: “Sooner or later this kind of thing was bound to happen.”
There is a poster on the smow office wall called “A Century of Danish Chairs”, it starts in 1905 and ends in 1979 – we experienced something similar at CODE 10.
It was genuinely as if the last 30 years hadn’t happened.
Danish furniture design hasn’t completely died, and even Sick Boy’s unifying theory of life isn’t completely valid; however, large sections of it have clearly lost their way and its hard to see where the impetus is going to come from to revitalise and revive Danish furniture design.
Not least when a tired affair such as CODE 10 is branded as demonstrating “…new approaches to design form, design thinking and the creative process”
Fortunately there were a couple of truly excellent items on display, and they will feature in our next Danespotting post.
Is the sun setting on Danish furniture design?
Posted in Danespotting 2010, Designer, Exhibitions and Shows, Fritz Hansen, Producer, Product, Vitra Tagged with: Add new tag, ant chair, Arne Jacobsen, Bauhaus, Charles and Ray Eames, Egon Eiermann, Finn Juhl, fritz hansen, panton chair, Verner Panton
For one of Denmark’s most celebrated designers Verner Panton spent considerably little time in Denmark; and many most of his celebrated works were realised abroad.
That said Copenhagen is full of reminders of Verner Panton, his life, his work and his passions.
And so during our brief visit to the Danish capital we took the opportunity to meet up with one his Vitra Panton Chairs for a guided tour of Verner Panton’s Copenhagen.
The Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole, Copenhagen Verner Panton's alma mater
Our tour began, as did Panton’s association with Copenhagen, at the “Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole” – the Architecture School of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
Following completion of his architectural engineering studies at Odensee Techical University, the 21 year old Verner Panton enrolled in the architecture school of the Royal Danish Academy in 1947. In Copenhagen he met Tove Kemp, the stepdaughter of designer, critic and architect Poul Henningsen, and the two married in 1950. Although the marriage to Tove was only short lived, Panton’s relationship with Henningsen was to be much more long-lasting.
On the one hand in Henningsen Panton found a mentor and teacher from who he could develop his light design concepts. In the course of his carear Verner Panton not only designed some 60 lamps, but light and shadow played important roles in his various installations and room design projects.
413 Strandvejen Copenhagen, Arne Jacobsen's house and studio
And secondly, through Henningsen Panton was introduced to Arne Jacobsen and in 1950 began working in Jacobsen’s studio, located in the cellar of Jacobsen’s house at 413 Strandvejen.
Through observing the studied and uncompromising manner in which Jacobsen worked not only did Panton’s interest in furniture design develop, but he also acquired a preference for experimenting with materials and taking risks with his designs – characteristics that were to be critical in the development of his approach to design.
In addition, while working for Arne Jacobsen Verner Panton made his first contact with Fritz Hansen.
But everything in turn.
In 1951 Jacobsen was commissioned to design a canteen chair as part of a project with the company Novo, and from this project arose a cooperation with Fritz Hansen to develop a multi-purpose chair from bent plywood. And Verner Panton was assigned the task of making the initial prototypes for possible designs. The final result was to be the 3100, Myren or Ant Chair – and although the final design is largely Jacobsen, the experience of working on the Ant Chair helped shape Pantons future work.
Tivoli Gardens Copenhagen, site of one of Verner Panton's earliest commissions.
Panton graduated in 1951, left Jacobsen in 1952 and established his own studio. Initially he spent his time undertaking extended European tours in his VW camper van; tours during which in addition to designing he also made contact with designers, producers and retailers.
In 1955 Pantons’ relationship to Fritz Hansen developed further when they brought the very first commercial Verner Panton product onto the market; the Bachelor chair, quickly followed by the “Tivoli Chair” – so named because it was initially developed as part of a commission for a restaurant in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen.
In the late 1950s Panton left Denmark, living and working in Norway, Teneriffe and subsequently Basel, from where he developed his Panton Chair in collaboration with Vitra.
Cirkusbygningen Copenhagen, one of Verner Panton's last public projects in the city
Settling in Basel Verner Panton’s relationship with Copenhagen became increasingly limited to visits, either private or to receive numerous prizes and honours. In 1984, however, Verner Panton was commissioned to develop a new colour scheme for the Cirkusbygningen – a theater and cabaret venue near Tivoli Gardens – a project that he developed in his own inimitable style.
In the 1990s Verner Panton shared his time increasingly between his Villa near Basel and his flat in Copenhagen. Verner Panton died in Copenhagen on September the 5th 1998, aged 72 years.
Strolling through Copenhagen with Vitra Panton Chair and listening to its Verner Panton anecdotes we couldn’t help thinking what a shame it is that the city doesn’t do more to honour the likes of Panton or Jacobsen – or at least make the sites of their work and inspiration more visible and accessible.
The Little Mermaid and the Panton Chair - two of Copenhagen's most important landmarks
Posted in Danespotting 2010, Designer, Fritz Hansen, Producer, Product, Vitra Tagged with: ant chair, Arne Jacobsen, fritz hansen, panton chair, Verner Panton, Vitra
Vitra Design Museum: The Essence of Things. Design and the Art of Reduction
The (smow)blog team outing to the cardboard furniture workshop was coupled with a visit to the current Vitra Design Museum Exhibition: The Essence of Things. Design and the Art of Reduction.
We must admit to finding it more than a little ironic that an exhibition on “Design and the Art of Reduction” should be taking place in a building designed by Frank Gehry, especially when Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavilion is only some 10m away.
And after the long journey to Weil am Rhein this thought honestly kept us amused for about 4 hours.
The exhibition itself is divided into 12 thematic sections each of which deals with a different aspect of “reduction”; be it elements that the end customer is aware of, for example, geometry or lightness or those that remain hidden from the customer, for example reduction in logistics.
Stephan Schulz: Concrete Bowl
Some 160 objects illustrate the various themes ranging from design classics such as Michael Thonet‘s Chair No. 14 or the Ant Chair by Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen onto objects that are less well known – if every bit as interesting – such as Stephan Schulz‘s concrete bowl or Marcel Wanders‘ Knotted Chair for Capellini.
Good design needn’t be complicated, less but more, form follows function – the number of design theories that encapsulate the practice of “reduction” are as numerous as they are legendary: yet at design show after design show we are confronted with products that attempt to win us over through their complexity and extravagance.
We also don’t know why that should be, but we suspect it has a lot to do with a saturated market and the associated increasing role that the internet plays in ensuring that your – probably completely superfluous – work is seen.
Which design blog is going to feature Jasper Morrison‘s Ply-Chair when they have photo of a bookcase that looks like to two paradise birds engaging in a mating ritual atop Carmen Miranda?
Ok we would. But not many others.
For us the true art of reduction in design is when the designer reduces the volume of the product down to the absolute minimum – be it through the use of a new material, innovative joining of the individual elements or through reducing the exterior measurements.
.03 by Maarten Van Severen
One particular example that occurs to us being Maarten van Severen’s’ .03 with its integrated compound spring supports that give the chair its comfort and stability without unduly adding to the weight, volume or outer dimensions.
However as the exhibition “The Essence of Things. Design and the Art of Reduction” ably demonstrates reduction can involve other processes.
Joe Colombo’s No 281 lamp, Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s tea service or Donald Judd’s Chair 84 proving nice examples of what can be achieved with the necessary talent and motivation.
On the negative side we must add that for our taste the exhibition highlighted the work of Charles and Ray Eames a little too heavily – specifically the dedication of the complete section “development” to their work looks suspiciously like a bit of editorial shoe-horning on the curators part.
That aside, for all interested in the design process, and especially where the difference between “designer” furniture – i.e. those furniture pieces where a targeted design process occurs- and cheaper, generic products lies, the Vitra Design Museum exhibition “The Essence of Things. Design and the Art of Reduction.” is definitely worth the trip.
The Essence of Things. Design and the Art of Reduction at the Vitra Design Museum runs until September 19th 2010. More details can be found at http://www.design-museum.de
Posted in Designer, Exhibitions and Shows, Fritz Hansen, Producer, Product, Thonet, Weil am Rhein Tagged with: .03, 214, ant chair, Arne Jacobsen, Frank Gehry, fritz hansen, Jasper Morrison, Maarten Van Severen, marcel wanders, Stephan Schulz, Thonet
Weil am Rhein Rathaus
When we were still young, fit and healthy, towns and cities existed.
These days in order to exist a city needs to be the city of something.
And so as one drives along a German motorway, every ten metres or so comes a large brown sign announcing the next conurbation as “Chemnitz – City of the Modernity”, “Pied Piper City Hameln” or “Prien am Chiemsee – City of the criminally lazy taxi drivers”.
Not wanting to be the outsider in this age of claims making, Weil am Rhein has decided to call itself “Weil am Rhein – City of Chairs”
And what could be more appropriate for a city that uses an image of the Vitra Design Museum to illustrate the “Economy and Tourism” section of their homepage and which welcomes 100,000 tourists a year to the Vitra Campus in the Charles Eames Strasse.
And it’s certainly a lot catchier than “Weil am Rhein – City of the huge goods train station”
There’s just two things that bother us.
Trifling, small, things, but you know us….
Apple Honey by Shiro Kuramata in Weil am Rhein
In front of the modernistic and inspirational “Rheincenter” stands a huge statue of a chair.
A chair that isn’t, wasn’t and never will be produced by Vitra. Rather by Dutch producer USM Pastoe.(Obviously not to confused with Swiss producer USM Haller)
Apple Honey by Shiro Kuramata is a wonderful chair.
Shiro Kuramata did partake in the very first Vitra Editions, alongside the likes of Frank Gehry and Ron Arad.
Vitra even produced Shiro Kuramata’s equally delightful “How High The Moon” chair.
But not Apple Honey.
Much more confusing is the image painted onto the side of one of the four tower blocks that “tower” over the Vitra Campus and the new VitraHaus.
Next to the text “City of Chairs” is a picture of a chair.
A most curious, three leggeed, chair.
Weil am Rhein City of chairs ... but which chairs
Our initial reaction was that it was a DCM by Charles and Ray Eames. And very fitting we found that too given the close ties between the the Eames’, Vitra and Weil am Rhein.
Except the DCM is of course a four legged chair.
And try as we might we simply cannot think of a single three legged chair that Vitra produce.
Our next guess was that it was an “Ant Chair” by Arne Jacobsen…also an excellent representative of 20th century chair design. But in the Ant Chair the seat and the back are formed from one piece of wood. And the single leg is at the front.
Then we really thought we had it: SE 69 by Egon Eiermann. But no the SE 69 also has the single leg at the front.
Egon Eiermann’s SE 42 does have the single leg at the back, but is made of wood.
Indeed the longer we stood in the middle of Römerstrasse, holding up the traffic and irritating the good folks of Weil am Rhein, the more we struggled to think of a three-legged chair which has a steel tube single back leg.
Principally on account of the instability factor.
Only once we were back in Leipzig could we track it down, thanks to the MoMA New York archive.
Charles Eames Three legged side chair from 1944 (photo via http://www.moma.org/)
Three-Legged Side Chair by Charles Eames for the Evans Products Co from 1944.
A chair which may or not have been taken on by Hermann Miller when they acquired the Eames rights from Evans in 1946. And so which may or may not be part of those Charles and Ray Eames products to which Vitra the European production rights posses.
Which is a long way of saying, Weil am Rhein appears to celebrate it’s “City of Chairs” status with two chairs which have nothing to do with it’s status as one of the most important centres of contemporary European designer furniture production.
Visitors to the new VitraHaus can ponder this paradox from the fourth floor window.
Or simply enjoy the wonderful view over the Vitra Design Museum and the orchard meadow.
Posted in smow, Weil am Rhein Tagged with: ant chair, Arne Jacobsen, Charles and Ray Eames, dcm, Egon Eiermann, Frank Gehry, prien am chiemsee, Project Vitra, Ron Arad, SE 42, SE 69, USM Haller, Vitra, vitra campus, Vitra Design Museum, vitrahaus, Weil am Rhein