Finn Juhl: The “Chairman” of Danish Modern

Finn Juhl's house, photo via Mksfca on Flickr.

“A chair is not just a product of decorative art in a space; it is a form and a space in itself”,

Finn Juhl, the man credited with introducing Danish Modern to America and a leading figure in 1940s Danish design. 

Finn Juhl’s timeless style never seems to lose traction. Like so many of his Scandinavian modernist contemporaries, his designs have resonated across generations, but while Juhl’s pieces include the typical clean lines and highly functional designs, it’s his fun and playful pieces that steal the limelight, being as comfy as they are cool.

Like a warm and generous hug from the Fonz, Juhl’s 1940 Pelican Chair perfectly encapsulates his approach. Blessed with the cool, clean lines typical of the modernist movement, Juhl captured organic forms and softer lines in the Pelican Chair, as well as bright colors to create furniture that not only set him apart, but also looked mighty comfortable to sit in.

Born in Fredriksberg in Denmark, Juhl studied architectural design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and spent a decade as an architect, before turning his attention to interior and furniture design. After graduating, Juhl worked for ten years at Vilhelm Lauritzen Arkitekter, Vilhelm Lauritzen‘s architectural firm, where he had apprenticed as a student.

Changing Perceptions

It was at Vilhelm Lauritzen Arkitekter that he began a collaboration with cabinetmaker Niels Vodder, which would continue until 1959 and shape both the quality and the clean lines of his work. He first designed his Pelican chair in 1939, and it was first produced by Vodder in 1940, but perhaps surprisingly such work proved to be controversial when he exhibited at the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild Exhibition. Critics struggled with Juhl’s rejection of the decadent and ornate weight of traditional furniture designs, opting instead for a lighter approach.

Despite press criticism, Juhl and Vodder continued their partnership with the FJ41 Poet Sofa in 1941, which continued the sculpted approach of the Pelican Chair and its appealing organic form. The NV44 chair followed three years later, and with its curved backrest and organic shape this chair helped to cement Juhl burgeoning reputation as a leading designer.

In 1942 Juhl designed a house for himself in Charlottenlund, Denmark, with money inherited from his father. He lived there until his death in 1989 and over the years, increasingly furnished it with his own designs. Juhl’s widow Hanne Wilhelm Hansen left the house and its interior unchanged after his death and in April 2008, the house opened under the umbrella of Ordrupgaard Art Museum (you can take a virtual walk-through the Finn Juhl house here).

By the 1945 Cabinetmakers’ Guild Exhibition, the tides had turned in perceptions of Juhl’s furniture. In a review of Juhl’s stand, the architect Erik Herløw wrote; “Most beautiful is an armchair, where the frame is organically shaped as a bone, able to support the muscles of an arm and the weight of a body. The expression of the chair is reminiscent of a weapon, sharpened by human hands.”

Breaking America

In 1945, Juhl left Vilhelm Lauritzen Arkitekter to set up his own design practice. His success continued with the 46 Armchair (1946), the 48 Chair (1948), and the Chieftain Chair (1949), which all featured his trademark floating back that was designed to seemingly hover on its supports. Juhl’s famous Judas table followed in 1950; made of oak wood and teak and so named because of the 30 silver pieces embedded in the table top.

Despite enjoying progressive success and adulation in the 1940s, it would be the 1950s that would change Juhl’s career and propel him towards worldwide recognition. This began when the Baker Furniture Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan approached Juhl about producing his designs in their American factory, which was marketed under the ‘Baker Modern’ line. 

The sculptural Baker Sofa (1951) with its two-piece backrest was Juhl’s American debut with the Baker Furniture Company, which started an export boom for Danish design to the United States. The line was relaunched in 2009, but it’s the originals that really catch the eye of collectors. This was followed by the FJ55 Mahogany and Leather Armchairs, which continued Juhl’s famous floating back aesthetic. 

Future Generations

From 1951 to 1952, Juhl not only left his mark on intergovernmental peace and security, but also modern styling for future generations when he designed the Trusteeship Council Chamber in the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City. 

Representing a departure in his usual furniture designs, in 1955 Juhl created a sideboard with a difference that showcased his playful and selective use of color, as well as the influence of his American colleagues – Charles Eames in particular. The beautiful sideboard combines wood with colors from Goethe’s color wheel and due to a resurgence in interest was re-released in 2012.

The B062 Reading Chair (1962) in beech and rosewood followed, showing his fondness for dark woods, unlike many of the other proponents of the Danish Modern movement at the time, who often used oak in their designs. 

By the time of his passing in 1989, Finn Juhl had become an award winning and highly celebrated furniture designer on the international design stage. To this day, Finn Juhl’s sculptural pieces of furniture are celebrated worldwide and he is credited as one of the founding fathers of the Danish Modern movement in America, who not only made sitting in a reading chair look cool, but comfy too.