Wegner at 100: The designer, the furniture and the company

Hans J. Wegner would have turned 100 this year. He created some of the world's best chairs - many of them in collaboration with Carl Hansen & Søn.

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"Imagine if you could design just one good chair in your lifetime - but that simply cannot be done," Hans J. Wegner said in 1952. The statement seems strikingly paradoxical coming from the man regarded as one the world's most talented furniture designers. Yet it is the key to understanding Wegner's conviction that designing the perfect chair is a task that is never complete.

Over the course of his life, Wegner designed a wealth of exceptional furniture items, including innovative tables. Yet his place in design history rests above all on his wide range of chairs, each of them highly original and completely natural in appearance.

"Imagine if you could design just one good chair in your lifetime - but that simply cannot be done" Hans J. Wegner, 1952.

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Wegner had a great passion for creating and was extremely productive. Approximately 500 of his furniture designs have been in production over the years, with about 100 in production today.

Danish Modern

Wegner's grasp of wood's potential was unparalleled. He was, no question, a master cabinetmaker, but it was his creativity and extraordinary sense of sculptural expression that made him a pioneer of Danish Modernism, the movement that drove Danish design's international breakthrough in the years after World War II.

"In his first three weeks at Carl Hansen & Søn, Wegner designed four chairs - CH22, CH23, CH24 and CH25. CH24 is the product code for the now iconic and world-famous Wishbone Chair."

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"Wegner's first collection was unveiled in 1950 and was an immediate success. Further proof of Wegner's innate talent came in the fact that two of the chairs from the initial collection - CH24 and CH25 has been in continuous production ever since."

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Wegner became the main spokesman for Organic Modernism, which contained elements Functionalism lacked: a genuine interest in the interaction between product and user, as well as an organic sense of form. For Wegner, the experience was not limited to the visual: a chair should speak to all of our senses, and he was particularly uncompromising in his pursuit of comfort.

Reflecting on his role as a pioneer, Wegner once said in an interview: "Many foreigners have asked me how we created the Danish style. My answer is that we did nothing of the sort. It was more of an ongoing purification process. For me it was about simplification, reducing the elements to the barest minimum - four legs, a seat and a combined backrest and armrest."

"The Wishbone Chair and CH327 Table in a MIX of walnut and oak."

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A young talent

Hans J. Wegner's uncommon flair for design was evident from boyhood. But his opportunities to develop his abilities and his attainment of worldwide fame at 35 were owed also to the people he met on his journey who recognized his potential. His relationships with some of these people endured throughout his life. They became his partners, and their companies produced and marketed his furniture. One of these was - and continues to be - Carl Hansen & Søn.

"For me it was about simplification, reducing the elements to the barest minimum - four legs, a seat and a combined backrest and armrest." Wegner."

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Wegner was born in 1914 in the Danish town of Tønder in Southern Jutland. He became a cabinetmaker's apprentice at a young age, having discovered his love of and ability to work with wood early on. He later studied at a technical college and at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. At 24, he began producing his own furniture, attracting increasing attention from the industry in years that followed - not least from Carl Hansen & Søn, which offered to partner with Wegner in 1949. This partnership led to Wegner's commercial breakthrough and was a defining moment for Carl Hansen & Søn.

The partnership begins

Carl Hansen & Søn was founded in 1908 by cabinetmaker Carl Hansen, the grandfather of the company's current owner and CEO, Knud Erik Hansen. Carl Hansen opened a small one-man carpentry workshop in Odense, Denmark, where he produced heavy Victorian furniture for wealthy citizens. He also began manufacturing simpler furniture with a lighter, more modern aesthetic to meet the needs of working-class people living in small apartments.

"Three generations of the company gathered for breakfast: Knud Erik Hansen (CEO since 2002), Holger Hansen (CEO 1947-1962), Carl Hansen (CEO 1908-1947), Ella Hansen (CEO 1962-1990) and Jul Nygaard (CEO 1962-1988)."

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Carl Hansen continued to develop the company throughout his life, and the strategy he established when he founded the company 106 years ago continues to guide Carl Hansen & Søn to this day: work with the best contemporary designers to produce quality furniture based on traditional craftsmanship - furniture that rises above cheap and transient alternatives.

In 1934, Carl Hansen passed the baton to his youngest son, Holger Hansen, who some 15 years later discovered Hans J. Wegner's remarkable talent. Holger Hansen suggested that Wegner design a collection of chairs, armchairs, sofas, and dining tables to be produced at the factory and sold directly by Carl Hansen & Søn - a bold initiative that represented a new form of furniture marketing.

In 1949, Wegner was known among connoisseurs in the industry but not yet by ordinary consumers. Trusting Holger Hansen and his employees' production abilities, Wegner agreed to the task. Once Wegner had completed his drawings, he moved in with the Hansen family, borrowing one of the children's bedrooms, and began producing prototypes.

Furniture classics are born

Discussing the relationship between Holger Hansen and Wegner, Knud Erik Hansen explains: "They had a mutual need for each other. The commercial side was driven by a love of wood and the desire to produce quality wooden furniture.

"The Wishbone Chair was the first chair to receive the quality control mark Danish Furnituremakers Control".

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Both were excellent cabinetmakers, but my father was also a businessman. So they complemented each other, and also had a very strong friendship."

The partnership was a resounding success. Wegner designed at a prodigious rate, Carl Hansen & Søn launched extensive advertising campaigns, and the new furniture sold quickly. Wegner's virtuosity also began to attract international attention.

From 1949 onwards, Wegner designed numerous pieces specifically for Carl Hansen & Søn. Today, many of the chairs enjoy iconic status. One of these is the 1950 Wishbone Chair, often referred to as 'the world's best wooden chair' and Wegner's most sold chair to date.

"The sculptural Shell Chair, designed by Wegner in 1963"

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"Wing Chair designed by Wegner in 1960."

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In 1963, Wegner developed a shell chair using form-pressed veneer, building on preliminary studies he had done in 1948 for a competition held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this area, he was a contemporary of fellow pioneer Charles Eames. Wegner later commented that these veneer structures offered so many opportunities that he had to make a choice between working with them or with solid wood - and he chose the latter. In 1997, Carl Hansen & Søn relaunched the Shell Chair, which in just a few years became one of the company's best-selling chairs.

Third generation at the helm

Representing the third generation of the family business, Knud Erik Hansen took over with energy and enthusiasm in 2002. His vision of efficient production based on quality craftsmanship and a modern sales and distribution network quickly transformed Carl Hansen & Søn into an international brand. In recent years, the company's product range has been extended to include other furniture icons, in part due to the acquisition of Rud. Rasmussen, Denmark's oldest active joinery. Yet the company's core products continue to be Wegner's timeless furniture designs.

Carl Hansen & Søn's partnership with Hans J. Wegner's Studio continues to this day. At the time of his death, Wegner left behind 3,500 drawings of furniture items that had never been produced.

"The CH88 Chair embodies the essence of what Wegner wanted all his furniture to express. For him, good design was not a style, but rather a method for solving functional problems with style."

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The Wegner family has given Carl Hansen & Søn permission to put some of these into production.

Today, the power of Wegner's furniture is undiminished, notes Knud Erik Hansen, who regularly interacts with customers around the world. "I grew up with Wegner's furniture and have run around the workshop all my life.

Wegner's understanding of the possibilities inherent in shaping wood is unsurpassed. All the furniture he created emanates something solid, simple and organic. And the more you understand what lies behind it, the more you respect it. All the pieces pass through a hundred hands, and there is a 100 percent focus on making them perfect. Just like in 1908, when it all began."

 Watch the making of the Shell Chair

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Watch the making of the Wing Chair

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Watch the making of the CH88 Chair

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Watch the making of the Wishbone Chair

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Sources/quotes:

Hans J. Wegner: on Design, by Jens Bernsen, Dansk Design Center, 1994.

Wegner: bare een god stol, by Christian Holmsted Olesen, 2014.