While interior design experts are no stranger to the name Hans J. Wegner, others may be surprised to know just how important the Danish furniture designer was to the development of the mid-century aesthetic that is so popular today. As with other mid-century modern designs, Hans Wegner chairs strove to combine both form and function as equally important components. Though Wegner wanted his furniture to provide support and comfort to the human form, he also treated each design as an individual work of art.
Who was Hans Wegner?
Born to a cobbler in southern Denmark, Hans Wegner (April 2, 1914 – January 26, 2007) worked as a cabinet maker’s apprentice from an early age. He quickly discovered his passion for woodworking and would go on to study at the Danish Design School after completing his military service. Some of his earliest well-known works were produced for the architects Erik Moller and Flemming Lassen as part of the Aarhaus City Hall, where he designed nearly every piece of furniture for the iconic building during the height of the Nazi occupation of Denmark.
Today, Wegner’s designs are lauded for their clean, simple lines and craftsman-like use of materials. Wegner’s background as a skilled cabinet maker can clearly be seen in his masterful integration of wood in his furniture designs. Wegner’s creations allow the wood to be appreciated in its purest form, stripped to its simplest state.
Wegner designed over 500 chairs in his lifetime, and over 100 were put into mass production. Many of these chairs have become icons in the world of design and helped shape the mid-century modern movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In large part because of Wegner’s success, Danish design became prominent on a global scale.
Hans Wegner chairs can be identified by traditional joinery techniques such as mortise and tenons, as well as sculpted elements that Wegner incorporated in areas such as the armrest and seat support.
Read on to learn about five of the most quintessential Hans Wegner chair designs, many of which are still sought after today.
Round Chair/The Chair
Hans Wegner once said that “a chair is to have no backside. It should be beautiful from all angles.” This statement can perhaps best be seen in the design of Wegner’s Round Chair which was referred to as “the most beautiful chair in the world” by Interiors magazine shortly after its debut in 1950. In 1960, it was used in the first-ever televised U.S. presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Its modern, futuristic design was thought to symbolize a sense of looking towards the future with the presidential candidates. After the debate, Round Chair earned the nickname “The Chair.”
Round Chair is made up of four straight legs and a curved back rail that seamlessly form into the armrests. Available in a variety of warm woods and the seat in either woven cane or leather, it exemplifies Wegner’s expertise in the manipulation of organic forms.
While previous Hans Wegner chairs were clever re-interpretations of classics from other cultures, Round Chair was the first chair he created that was purely a Wegner creation in shape and construction.
On July 9, 2020, six of Wegner’s Round Chair creations sold at Phillips Auction in Hong Kong for $HK 275,000.
The Wishbone Chair is a favorite of many Wegner fans. When it was first created in 1950 for the Hansen family’s furniture manufacturing business, it featured a simple, hardwood silhouette. The seat was made from paper and spun to resemble rope, a material that was difficult to come by during wartime.
Though today the Wishbone Chair is celebrated for its sleek, pared down design, the chair was not an immediate hit when it was released. The dainty wooden frame didn’t fit that of the typical 1950s home and the rope-like seat was reminiscent of patio furniture.
The Wishbone Chair eventually found a fan base in California and from there, its popularity traveled to Germany. It wasn’t until a few years after its creation in 1950 that Wegner’s home country warmed up to it, becoming a hallmark of Danish modernism.
Papa Bear Chair
In 1953, Hans Wegner began his design of the Papa Bear Chair for PP Mobler, the start of a long-lasting collaboration with the Danish furniture workshop. The chair was named so after a journalist reviewing the chair referred to its armrests as “great paws embracing you from behind”.
Those familiar with Wegner’s more simplistic designs may be surprised by the anthropomorphic Papa Bear Chair. The only wood in sight can be seen in the chair’s legs, while the body is wrapped in traditional upholstery. The slanted back and generous arm rests exude comfort, while still keeping a stylish form. The chair is usually seen with an accompanying foot rest, with matching legs and fabric.
To this day, the Papa Bear Chair is one of Wegner’s most exclusive designs. With over 100 separate production processes involved in the making of a Paper Bear Chair, it’s easy to see why it is so sought after.
With its first release in 1963, Hans Wegner’s Shell Chair did not win many over initially. The ultra-modern design was seen as too avant-garde by much of the general public, leading to a very limited production. Carl Hansen & Son reintroduce d the chair to a new generation in 1998 and it received immediate praise.
Shell Chair is at times affectionately referred to as “the smiling chair,” because of the upturned smile the seat seems to create when looking at it straight on. The curved legs and wing-like arching of the seat create a lightness that creates a floating-like appearance. With just three legs, Wegner took paring down his designs to a whole new level with Shell Chair.
Much like Wegner’s Papa Bear Chair, the Ox Chair was a departure from the wood frames and minimal upholstery of some of Wegner’s most popular chair designs. Its 1960 debut was produced by Erik Jorgensen Mobelfabrik, whose experts perfected the leather upholstering of this demanding design.
The Ox Chair featured an intriguing cylindrical cushion as a headrest. The purpose of the long, cylindrical headrest was to allow the sitter to drape a leg over the armrest while comfortably leaning back. This revolutionary form allowed for one chair to have many different sitting positions.
In addition to its form being innovative, the base of the Ox Chair was another feature that departed from Wegner’s usual designs. The elegant, curved stainless steel legs challenged everything Wegner had been taught while attending Denmark’s School of Arts and Crafts, which praised natural forms such as wood.
Named for the cylindrical, curved headrest that resembles the horns of an ox, the Ox Chair is usually seen with its matching ottoman, accentuating its comfort and modern design.
The Lasting Influence of Hans Wegner
With the resurgence of mid-century modern design in many stores today, it is easy to look at Wegner’s chairs and appreciate just how influential he was. Hans Wegner furniture at auction continues to be in high demand and can realize exceptionally high prices on occasion, particularly for rare original works in good condition (read our Guide to Caring for Antique Furniture here). Part of ‘the Golden Age‘ of modern Danish design, it’s no surprise that Wegner’s furniture is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, and demand will likely only increase as minimalist design trends continue to explode in popularity.