A Metropolitan Story
The relaunch of the Metropolitan Chair, presented at last year's Milan Furniture Fair, represented a very important moment in the evolution of iconic Danish furniture design. The chair, which takes its name from the world-famous museum on New York City's Fifth Avenue, was the brainchild of Ejner Larsen and Aksel Bender Madsen, who set out to create the ultimate embodiment of beauty and comfort. Exhibited for the first time in 1949, the chair is now part of Carl Hansen & Søn's portfolio in a version faithfully restored to meet the appearance, craftsmanship and overall quality requirements the designer duo laid out 66 years ago. The chair is available in oak or walnut with saddle leather upholstery in natural, cognac or black.
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Along with Hans J. Wegner, Mogens Koch, Børge Mogensen, Ole Wanscher and Poul Kjærholm, Ejner Larsen (1917-1987) and Aksel Bender Madsen (1916-2000) were both key figures among the 20th century designers who put Danish furniture design on the global map.
Independent yet intertwined lives and careers:
Trained as furniture upholsterer and cabinetmaker, respectively, Ejner Larsen and Aksel Bender Madsen met while studying at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Here, like nearly all the influential furniture designers of the time, they studied under leading Danish designer Kaare Klint.
Larsen and Bender Madsen established their own independent careers through various positions in the private and public sectors, each becoming responsible for the interior design and maintenance of various buildings. Both taught at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where Bender Madsen introduced new, experimental working methods to his students, among them the young architect Jørn Utzon.
Larsen and Bender Madsen's acquaintance developed into a close friendship and working partnership that lasted until Larsen's death in 1987. The men and their families lived just two houses apart in a townhouse complex in the Copenhagen suburb of Gladsaxe.
Bender Madsen's daughter, Marianne Lorentzen, and Ejner Larsen's son, Niels Larsen, both recall the two meeting almost every night after dinner at one of their homes. With the evening's work agenda complete, the men would be joined by their wives, and the families would drink tea and carry on conversations late into the night.
Over the years, Larsen and Bender Madsen designed approximately 300 works together, including a Cuban mahogany storage table with silver hinges for pipes and tobacco for King Frederik IX of Denmark.
Exhibiting Furniture in Copenhagen
Starting in 1947, the duo exhibited their work at the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers' Guild Furniture Exhibition, which, since its inception in 1927, had become a laboratory for collaboration between master cabinetmakers and the leading architects of the day. The exhibitions contributed immensely to Larsen and Bender Madsen's development. Shortly before his death, Bender Madsen said in an interview with the Danish Museum of Decorative Art (known since 2011 as Designmuseum Danmark): "What we exhibited at the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers' Guild Furniture Exhibitions was very much in keeping with the teachings of Kaare Klint - functional and natural, with the requirements determining the design."
In 1949, Larsen and Bender Madsen were ready to exhibit the soon-to-be Metropolitan Chair. The design incorporated a tensioned veneer backrest, a new technique inspired by a lamination course Bender Madsen had taken in Oslo, Norway.
The chair was extremely well received by journalists and the general public alike, becoming the duo's greatest success.
In the magazine København (Copenhagen), architect and journalist Ellen Bisgaard wrote about the exhibition setting the chair was part of: "Architects A. Bender Madsen and Ejner Larsen's Gaming Table is crafted from teak. Cabinetmaker Pontoppidan's name stands for quality. The chairs are quite simple in their construction, but are completely new in form - with a form-pressed veneer backrest that extends to form the armrest. It is an unusually attractive solution to the bridge chair, which must neither be too stiff nor too comfortable."
The Arts of Denmark in New York
The chair was put into production by cabinetmaker Pontoppidan in 1950, and was subsequently produced by different manufacturers in cherry, teak, walnut and oak. Cabinetmaker Willy Beck took over the manufacturing in 1959, and one year later the chair made its international breakthrough at the exhibition 'The Arts of Denmark' at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition was initiated by The National Association of Danish Crafts and formed part of a major culture and export campaign that included guest appearances by The Royal Danish Ballet and a visit by the King and Queen of Denmark. Later, The Metropolitan Museum purchased the chair, lending it its name. Georg Jensen Inc., the chair's US distributor, exhibited the chair in its Fifth Avenue store during the weeks of the export campaign.
While on exhibit in New York, the Metropolitan Chair was also shown at Palazzo dell´Arte in Milan as part of the Triennial. Chase Manhattan Bank purchased 450 of the chairs for its New York headquarters, and the chair was also selected for the new Danish embassy in Washington, DC. In Denmark, Larsen and Bender Madsen had long been established as top names in the furniture industry, so the breakthrough came as no surprise. Journalist Hartung-Nielsen wrote in BT, a Danish daily newspaper: "With its logical solutions to construction challenges and its superbly crafted execution, the chair is equally characteristic of both Madsen and Larsen and cabinetmaker Willy Beck. It represents not only the highlight of Ejner Larsen and Bender Madsen's design career but also the highlight of Danish furniture design and craftsmanship in general."
Carl Hansen & Søn Recreates the Original
Decades had passed since its international breakthrough, yet interest in the Metropolitan Chair had not waned. The manufacturing process, however, was extremely time consuming: it took a week to produce a single chair, a fact that was reflected in the chair's price tag, not to mention sales figures.
Since 1987, the chair had been manufactured by furniture maker Niels Roth Andersen. In 2014, Carl Hansen & Søn acquired the company along with its entire furniture portfolio - the main reason for the acquisition being the opportunity to introduce a new chapter for The Metropolitan Chair.
Working closely together with Marianne Lorentsen and Niels Ejner Larsen, Carl Hansen & Søn began the intricate process of recreating all the fine details of the chair, many of which had been lost over the years.
Although Carl Hansen & Søn continues to manufacture the chair by hand, the factory has developed a series of new tools that have improved and optimized several work processes. As a result, the chair is now available at a far more competitive price.
An Eye for Detail
When a piece of furniture is crafted by four different manufacturers over a period of more than six decades, it quite understandably changes along the way.
"Even though drawings existed, we carefully analyzed four chairs from four different manufacturers to decide on the right version. The slope of the backrest had changed and had to be readjusted in any event as we are roughly 10 cm taller today than when the chair was originally designed 66 years ago," explains Jesper Bruun, development manager at Carl Hansen & Søn.
The Metropolitan Chair's seat consists of a wooden frame with bone-shaped sides, providing the ideal transfer of weight from the seat to the legs.
"The seat is covered with 25 mm foam, which in turn is upholstered with saddle leather. It's not a chair one should sink into, so the foam must be highly compact. Upholstering the seat so it doesn't end up looking like a drum skin requires very special skills mastered by just two of the employees in our Aarup factory," explains Jesper Bruun.
Another important detail that had changed along the way was that the stitches used to sew the saddle leather had become longer. These stitches are now, once again, four to five millimeters long, and although this takes more time to execute, it results in a more beautiful finish.
The original chair's leather edges were also marked with a fine line of red wax. The color had changed over the years, but has now been restored to its original shade. Finally, when viewed from the front, the gentle curvature of the seat had originally resembled a smile, but had flattened out over the years. Now, the curve has been properly restored - and the smile has returned. And with good reason!
Sources:Edited by Jalk, Grete. (Ed.) 40 Years of Danish Furniture Design: the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers' Guild Furniture Exhibitions. (1987, Teknologisk instituts forlag)
Holmsted Olesen, Christian; Masterworks: 100 Years of Danish Furniture Making. (2000, Nyt Nordisk Forlag/Det danske Kunstindustrimuseum)
1960. Volume 33. "The Arts of Denmark". Danish Furniture Design, 7-8.Hartung-Nielsen, (October, 1960). "Madsen & Larsen" BT.