70th Anniversary: The Chieftain Chair – A History Lecture for the Design Geek

We have reached a decade where we will start to see many of the biggest, most well-known Danish design classics being celebrated as it is now 70 years before many of them were designed. One of them, is the Chieftain Chair designed by Finn Juhl. It is one of those chairs most of us can only dream of these days, but we can still all admire it and dream about owning one from afar.

To celebrate one of Finn Juhl’s biggest accomplishments, I want to share a little history lesson for the design geeks out there. It actually all started one morning in the spring of 1949, Finn Juhl placed a piece of paper on his drawing board and drew four vertical lines with “something” in-between. He had no clue that he had just embarked on the journey towards creating one of the most famous and iconic pieces of Danish furniture design ever: The Chieftain Chair.

Despite the critics, Finn was at an early age already perceived as an outstandingly talented furniture designer. He ranked amongst the best of the best designers during, what is considered, the golden age of Danish design. His undogmatic interpretation of functionalism, often paired with an organic and sculptural mode of expression, was rather unknown in Denmark at the time. Finn was greatly influenced by his interest in contemporary international artists like Barbara Hepworth, Jean Arp, Sigurjón Ólafsson, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and the Danish sculptor, Erik Thommesen. In addition, his interest in foreign cultures, such as African art and Ancient Egyptian furniture, was clearly visible in his designs.

Compared to his contemporary design peers Finn Juhl had one big challenge – namely that he did not have a background in furniture design. He was an architect and according to himself he had no sense of joinery or wooden constructions. Luckily, he met Niels Vodder, a master joiner, who could transform Finn Juhl’s rather rudimentary drawings into physical products of the highest quality.

Finn developed a groundbreaking principle in his designs, where he would create a clear separation between the supporting elements (the frame) and the supported elements (backrest and seat), which clearly delimited the shape and function of each element. This principle quickly became a defining characteristic in his future designs. The separation between supporting and supported elements is especially distinct in the Chieftain Chair. Design-wise the Chieftain is undoubtedly the most expressive and iconic piece of furniture from Finn Juhl.

Since 2001 Ivan Hansen and Hans Henrik Sørensen have had the exclusive rights to produce and relaunch Finn Juhl’s furniture, the Chieftain Chair was among the first designs they wanted to revive. Luckily, Ivan and Hans Henrik both very passionate about design and they do not shy away from the original design, just to make the production cheaper. Exactly how it should be. I mean if you can’t stay true to the original design, you should relaunch it in the first place. The Chieftain Chair was – and remains to this day – a very complicated and costly chair to produce. However, with the help of uncompromising craftsmen in Japan, they succeeded. Happy 70th to the Chief.







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