Hans Jorgen Wegner helped change the course of design history in the 1950s and 1960s. His Danish Modern furniture was elegant and comfortable, making the style all the rage among cosmopolitan Americans of the era and beyond.
The son of a cobbler, Wegner (1914-2007) learned woodworking as a boy in Tønder, a small city in southern Denmark. He rose to international prominence as one of a handful of Danes who grabbed the design world’s attention with a fresh aesthetic of sculptural and organic modern furniture.
Their work, often made in warm blond wood, domesticated the cold chrome shine of the Bauhaus-influenced International style. In the process, they found a way to dovetail the words “Danish” and “modern” for the first time, joining cabinetmaker-guild traditions of high craftsmanship, quality and comfort with modernist principles of simplicity and graphic beauty.
“Many foreigners have asked me how we created the Danish style,” Wegner once said. “And I’ve answered that it was a continuous process of purification and of simplification – to cut down to the simplest possible design of four legs, a seat, and a combined back – and armrest.”
Along with Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, Borge Mogensen and Poul Kjaerholm, Wegner was part of the spectacular generation that created the Golden Age of modern Danish design. Even among these highly respected craftsmen, Wegner is considered one of the most creative, innovative and prolific. Often referred to as the master of the chair, Wegner created almost 500 in his lifetime – many of them considered masterpieces. His iconic Wishbone Chair is probably the most well-known and has been in continuous production since 1950.
Wegner began his apprenticeship with Danish master cabinetmaker H. F. Stahlberg when he was 14. Later he moved to Copenhagen and attended the School of Arts and Crafts before setting out as a furniture designer. Wegner’s background as a cabinetmaker gave him a deep understanding of how to integrate exacting joinery techniques with exquisite form. A deep respect for wood and its characteristics combined with a natural curiosity inspired his work.
With its sleek, ergonomically-minded wooden frame and woven seat, the iconic Wishbone Chair cemented Wegner’s status as one of the biggest names in midcentury modern style.
The design became a near-instant success. While Wegner would go on to create many more classic pieces, the Wishbone Chair remains his most recognizable.
While the chair is associated with Danish style for obvious reasons, the original idea for the streamlined mix of curves and sharp angles sprang to Wegner’s mind from images of the wide-seated, high-backed thrones of the Ming dynasty.
Using Wegner’s original design, the Wishbone Chair is made up of 14 separate components which require 100 individual processes to chisel, carve, sand and shape, adding nearly three weeks of preparation time before the chair can even begin to be assembled.
One of the most decorated and renowned of the Danish furniture designers, Wegner also earned a footnote in political history, when, in 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy were seated on Wegner chairs during the first nationally televised presidential debate.