“If only you could design just one good chair in your life,” famed Danish designer Hans Wegner was quoted as saying in 1952. “But you simply cannot.”
He wasn’t kidding: Wegner, one of Denmark’s most prolific designers, ended up creating over 500 chairs and 1,000 other pieces of furniture in his lifetime–a feat that earned him the nickname the “King of Chairs.” Just One Good Chair, a new exhibition at Designmuseum Danmark, celebrates the 100th anniversary of Wegner’s birth by showcasing more than 150 of his most innovative furniture designs, alongside drawings, photos, and models, offering insight into his working process.
The exhibit isn’t just an homage to an individual man but a testament to how design can reinterpret a single object in near infinite ways. In his design philosophy, Wegner sought “continuous purification” and simplification, as he put it in a 1950 interview. He wanted “to cut down to the simplest possible elements of four legs, a seat and combined top rail and arm rest.” Wegner worked his entire life to improve traditional Chinese and English chair designs, enhancing their artistic and sculptural qualities while also constructing them for mass production. This led to his pioneering developments in Organic Modernism, the artistic movement of his time, which reinvented classical design ideals, focusing on fusing functionality with artistry.
In 1949, Wegner designed his iconic Round Chair, which became known simply as “The Chair,” because, to many, it seemed nearly perfect: an elegantly curved, minimalist design consisting of 11 pieces of wood. “The Chair” supported many a famous person’s behind, including John F. Kennedy’s and Richard Nixon’s during the 1960 presidential debates.
Despite the Round Chair being dubbed “the most beautiful chair in the world” by Interiors Magazine in 1950, Wegner still worked to out-beautify it with new designs. His Flag Halyard chair was inspired by a trip to the beach, during which he traced its outline in the sand. The Valet Chair of 1953 doubled as a storage rack for each piece of a man’s suit. For Wegner, designing furniture was a form of creative play. “We must take care,” he once said, “that everything doesn’t get so dreadfully serious. We must play–but we must play seriously.”
This play took place not just on the drafting board but in the workshop–Wegner was an expert craftsman and produced nearly all his own prototypes, revealing how a hands-on approach to physical materials is deeply important in any field of design. His playfulness was most visible in his later designs, like the Ox Chair, which came with its own pair of horns.
“The chair does not exist,” a philosophical Wegner once said, channeling Plato’s musings on the ideal “Form of Chair” versus the imperfect “imitations” upon which we all sit. “The good chair is a task one is never completely done with.” As famous contemporary designers like Jasper Morrison, Naoto Fukasawa, Tadeo Ando, and Konstantin Grcic cite Wegner for inspiration, and his designs are still strikingly modern and coveted after decades, it looks like the world won’t be done with Wegner’s good chairs anytime soon.
Just One Good Chair is on view at Designmuseum Danmark until November 2014.