The Chieftain and the Chair
The Rise of Danish Design in Postwar America
The Chieftain and the Chair
The Rise of Danish Design in Postwar America
Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund
Today, Danish Modern design is synonymous with clean, midcentury cool. During the 1950s and ‘60s, it flourished as the furniture choice for Americans who hoped to signal they were current and chic. But how did this happen? How did Danish Modern become the design movement of the times? In The Chieftain and the Chair, Maggie Taft tells the tale of our love affair with Danish Modern design. Structured as a biography of two iconic chairs—Finn Juhl’s Chieftain Chair and Hans Wegner’s Round Chair, both designed and first fabricated in 1949—this book follows the chairs from conception and fabrication through marketing, distribution, and use.
Drawing on research in public and private archives, Taft considers how political, economic, and cultural forces in interwar Denmark laid the foundations for the postwar furniture industry, and she tracks the deliberate maneuvering on the part of Danish creatives and manufacturers to cater to an American market. Taft also reveals how American tastemakers and industrialists were eager to harness Danish design to serve American interests and how furniture manufacturers around the world were quick to capitalize on the fad by flooding the market with copies.
Sleek and minimalist, Danish Modern has experienced a resurgence of popularity in the last few decades and remains a sought-after design. This accessible and engaging history offers a unique look at its enduring rise among tastemakers.
"In this thorough exploration of two iconic Danish chairs, Taft looks to debunk old myths and makes a convincing case for a reexamination of Danish design and how it shaped the story of not only Danish modern, but also the evolution of modern design from New York to Chicago, North Dakota to Los Angeles, in post-war America."
Zoë Ryan, Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania
"This book is a clever conceit—it uses two exceedingly famous chairs, Finn Juhl’s the Chieftain and Hans Wegner’s the Chair, to narrate a specific history about the creation, consumption, marketing, and reception of Danish Modern in the United States. These chairs are diplomatic actors in the drama that unfolds surrounding the small, but mighty country of Denmark making furniture for an export market in the United States, in which one could not exist without the other. The Chieftain and the Chair is a fresh and succinct contribution to Nordic design studies."
Monica Obniski, curator of decorative arts and design, High Museum
“In The Chieftain and the Chair, Taft provides a rich backstory to two fundamentally familiar mid-century furniture forms. By mining Danish-language archives and obscure American repositories, Taft makes the history of these chairs accessible to an English-speaking audience. Danish design was constructed to appeal to American consumers and American taste, as The Chieftain and the Chair deftly demonstrates.”
Bobbye Tigerman, Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator for Decorative Arts and Design, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
When Dr. Edith Farnsworth chose Wegner’s Round Chair—often called simply “the Chair”—for this prominent place in the country retreat Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had designed for her, refusing the tubular steel and leather pieces of his own design that he proposed, she was but one of many Americans embracing the midcentury fad for Scandinavian design. Danish design, in particular, became so popular that American manufacturers sought to capitalize on its cachet. As Danish furniture exports to the United States climbed over the course of the 1950s, American furniture companies hired Danes to design lines of modern furnishings. Some companies even referenced the craze in their names. Dansk, for example, was not a Danish company but an American one, which sometimes hired Danes to design its dinner- and cookware. Lifestyle editors featured Danish design in full-color magazine spreads, and “Danish” became shorthand for a livable, modern style associated with natural materials, quality craftsmanship, and casual comfort. (...)
Though “Danish design” appears to describe a national style, it is not interchangeable with midcentury design from Denmark. Period participants in the furniture industry understood this, even as they benefited from the publicity and growth in sales that the term and its associated aesthetic produced. “We cannot say that a Danish taste of furnishing is existing,” one prominent furniture maker told an Italian journalist in 1955, as Danish furniture exports skyrocketed.3 Americans and other foreigners, he argued, were conflating all of Denmark’s production with one small, Copenhagen-based sliver of the industry; furniture like Wegner’s Chair, though seen as representative of Danish design at large, existed alongside industrial design and folk art, neohistoricist homage and Viking-inspired kitsch. But the Italian journalist was skeptical of the furniture maker’s protest. “Danish taste must exist,” he wrote, “for the simple reason that millions of persons are convinced of its existence.”
The Danish furniture maker was not wrong in insisting that Denmark had no single, unified design identity—that its overseas exports represented neither the full range of Danish design production nor a design style embraced by all of Denmark’s nearly 4.5 million midcentury inhabitants. Nonetheless, as the Italian reporter countered, widespread belief in the idea of Danish design was enough to make it real. The version of Danish design embraced by Americans, in the postwar era and today, may have been a fiction, but its emergence as something recognizable and powerful shaped design culture and popular taste worldwide. How did this happen, and why?
The Chieftain and the Chair answers these questions by following two iconic designs—Finn Juhl’s Chieftain Chair and Hans Wegner’s Round Chair—from their conception and fabrication in Denmark to their popularization and reproduction in the United States (plates 1 and 2). The Chieftain was, as described in the New York Times, one of the “status chairs” of the 1950s. And the Chair was a media darling, appearing in a variety of contexts, including magazine features on interior design and the first televised presidential debate. The Chieftain and the Chair are both notable design achievements, as well. Though the Chieftain’s size makes it something of an outlier in a category typified by small, limber designs, its biomorphic form is emblematic of what House Beautiful called the “soft, rounded flowing forms” of Danish design. With its wooden frame suspending its upholstered seat back and armrests, it also exemplifies a structural technique often deployed by Juhl to produce a floating effect. The joinery of Wegner’s Chair is innovative, with its unbroken top rail transitioning into armrests and elegant finger joints providing structural strength that eliminates the need for a supporting backboard.
Even so, the two chairs are less exceptional than exemplary products of Danish design in the postwar period. Their stories help to show how Danish design’s popularization was the product not simply of creative genius, but of institutions, designers, fabricators, distributors, professional and amateur tastemakers, and, perhaps most surprisingly, copyists, who together brought the very idea of Danish design into existence. This diffuse activity is not unique to Danish design; understanding design history requires attending to the contexts that give shape to objects, the conditions of their manufacture, the circumstances of their circulation, and how they are taken up by the market and by consumers. Here, the Chieftain and the Chair, two familiar designs, tell the particular story of Danish Modern’s invention and rise in postwar America.