Whereas many designers only speak of form and function, Finn Juhl embodied it. An architect turned industrial designer, Juhl is credited with bringing Danish design to America in the second half of the 20th century, following his debut at the Good Design exhibit in Chicago and at MoMA in New York in 1952—and for good reason.
We can’t disassociate him from the unmistakable boomerang curves so perfectly materialized in the Chieftain Chair or the iconic FJ Sideboard, which gained so much popularity that its 1955 design is plagiarized even to this day. And while it was the Grasshopper Chair that made him known to the masses, author Christian Bundegaard argues that those pieces, in fact, were not even Juhl’s best.
His is the first comprehensive monograph of the pioneering Danish furniture designer—and it’s gorgeous. Some 200+ vintage illustrations grace its pages alongside a never-before-published holistic inventory of Juhl’s legendary designs. Life, Work, World is chock full of old sketches, architectural elevations, and vintage ads.
Read on for Bundegaard's take on everything from Juhl's morality to his thoughts on nature to the impetus behind the Golden Age of Danish Design.
What inspired you to author this monograph on Juhl?
There was a puzzle: What made the mid-20th century the "Golden Age of Danish Design," as it came to be known worldwide? I found two reasons. Firstly, it coincided with the arrival of international modernism, or "functionalism," in Scandinavia—marked by the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, showcasing architecture and design and strongly influenced by the design thinking of the Bauhaus School in Germany. Finn Juhl enrolled at the school of architecture in Copenhagen that year, and together with other famous colleagues like Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen, Hans J. Wegner, Børge Mogensen, and Vilhelm Lauritzen, he became part of that creative rush of Scandinavian Modern, which combined skilled tradition with modernist functionalism.
Secondly, at the same time, designers and cabinet makers in Copenhagen started to work closely together in couples, and that made it possible for the designers to experiment with form according to the modernist ideas, having each their "personal" skilled cabinet maker to ensure high quality realizations of their designs in wood. Juhl teamed with cabinetmaker Niels Vodder, who was almost as important to Juhl’s success as the designs themselves. Finally, in the case of Juhl, one must not underestimate the influence of Professor Kaare Klint, the father of modern Danish furniture design, initiating the analysis of function in design (why not make the shelf the size of the shirt?) and Finn Juhl’s own teacher, Professor Kay Fisker, who taught and designed modern housing with that human Scandinavian touch.
What separates this book on Juhl from others?
Although this is not the first book to suggest its solution to the puzzle of the Golden Age of Danish Design, I believe it does so in a rather comprehensive and convincing way. Then, there are not that many books about Finn Juhl, and this is the first major monograph to present his oeuvre in total—written with the benefit of hindsight of Juhl being rediscovered, classic, and world famous. He really was a star—in America not the least—in the design world of the 1950s.
In your research, what did you find most fascinating about Juhl?
He continued his revolt against his father all through his life. Finn Juhl wanted to study history of art, but his father insisted on a law study or some other more bread-winning line of work, and architecture became the compromise they stroke. Art, especially modern sculpture, plays evidently an important role in Finn Juhl’s furniture design, and the rest of his life, he kept teasing and striding against any authority he came upon to the point where he ended up in a rather unfortunate row in public with colleague Børge Mogensen about the moral aspect of design—honesty and function versus form for form’s sake. It was unfortunate and sad, as they never communicated after the dispute, even though they really did not disagree that much in their intentions, which I show in the book. Being anti-authoritarian as a designer, in his quiet 1950s way, he paved the way for even more provocative types of the 1960s, like the Danish designer Verner Panton with his hip pop-art plastic interiors, or a Phillipe Starck of our time.
What makes his oeuvre of work so noteworthy?
His chairs are works of art. But what makes him noteworthy was his unorthodox way of challenging wood as a material in order to get a closer affinity to the freer sculpture of art—and of the human body. In his best works, he succeeds in designing modern furniture and interiors in this human, organic way that corresponds with the oldest traditions of artifacts and forms in nature, much like Scandinavian architect Alvar Aalto.
What would you like for people know about Finn Juhl?
He enjoyed the high life. He knew very well that he was in the luxury business. Remember, it is not many years ago since most people in this world had to make their furniture themselves. In the countryside, only the chieftain or the lord of the land sat on his own chair. In ancient Egypt, the hieroglyph for chair meant "distinguished." At the same time, Finn Juhl was professionally brought up by his teacher, Kay Fisker, to design for everyone—to strive to open the minds of ordinary people for design and architecture of quality, because in modernist thinking, changing the space we live in, we change the time we live in. The enlightening, socially responsible aspect was, and is, much more important in modern design than many who only see a style would think. Far from the glittering lifestyle magazines of today’s fashion-consumerism, these designers worked hard on bringing nature’s own functionalism into our homes.