Danish design is defined by the idea that furniture should be made to last, so that it can be cherished and passed down, whatever styles may come in or out of fashion.
I think that’s why mid century design continues to endure – not only were the designs incredibly well made and beautifully functional, they also had a simplicity to them that meant that they could fit seamlessly into any setting. I love the idea (if you are able to) of buying less but better, so that you can fill your home with meaningful objects that get even more beautiful with age. Then you’re less likely to keep replacing furniture and ultimately end up spending more in the long run.
I don’t think you always recognise the craftsmanship that goes into something until you understand the story behind that object. It was a real treat to step into the Carl Hansen & Son factory on the island of Funen in Denmark this month to get a behind-the-scenes look at how they make their iconic designs. The level of skill was awe-inspiring and it gave me a new appreciation for the mastery that often belies simple design.
[Ad – I was hosted in Copenhagen by Carl Hansen & Son on a press trip]
The trip began with a styling challenge in the Carl Hansen & Son flagship store in Copenhagen. You can see what Blue (@niblu.home) and I created with the 60th edition of the CH07 Shell Chair by Hans J. Wegner above. Available as an exclusive version in rosewood until December, the chair was first shown to the public in 1963 to mixed reviews before being relaunched in 1998. The curved shape of the chair looks instantly inviting – like a hug in chair form – which we balanced with three elegant Nesting Tables, alongside a collection of sculptural vases and soft, natural details. It helped give us a taster of the craftsmanship to come…
It was then a two and a half hour bus journey west to the island of Funen for a tour around the Carl Hansen & Son factory in Gelsted. Founded in 1908 by Danish cabinetmaker Carl Hansen, the Danish brand started out as a small furniture workshop in the city of Odense. Today they have 60,000 sqm of factory space with 400 cabinetmakers and members of staff working on different shifts. Almost all of Carl Hansen & Son’s furniture is still manufactured in Denmark, bar their outdoor furniture, which is made in their own factory in Vietnam. All of their wood is FSC-certified and the same two sawmills have been supplying them since the Fifties.
Carl Hansen & Son’s ethos is all about preserving Danish design and traditional craftsmanship, while creating the new classics of tomorrow with contemporary designers. ‘Our goal: is to gather the best, most iconic modern furniture designs under one roof,’ they say. Carl Hansen & Son even has its own apprentice workshop, THE LAB, to help train young talent with the skills that have defined classic cabinetmaking. The modern apprenticeship takes three years and nine months, in which students learn different types of joints, sanding methods, weaving and CNC machine techniques.
The making of the Wishbone chair
Hans J. Wegner’s CH24 Wishbone chair is no doubt Carl Hansen & Son’s most famous design, if not the most recognisable piece of furniture to have come out of Denmark, capturing the very essence of Scandinavian design. Even if you don’t know the name, you’re likely familiar with the form, with that signature Y-shaped back and paper woven seat.
The chair has been in continual production for over 70 years since first being launched in 1950. It was Carl Hansen’s son Holger who first saw the potential in the then little-known designer and cabinetmaker Hans J. Wegner, commissioning him to design five chairs in 1949 (one of them going onto become what we now know as the Wishbone chair).
For the Wishbone chair, Wegner was inspired by portraits of Danish merchants sitting in wide, rounded chairs from the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The chair is formed of 14 different parts that take three weeks to prepare and assemble. The curved steam-bent top and back piece combine to create an open, comfortable form that has become a timeless icon of Danish design.
The production process involves 100 steps, from shaping the backrest, through sanding the legs to hand-weaving the seat. Each seat uses 150m of paper cord and can take over an hour to make. And let me tell you, it’s all so much harder than it looks! We got to have a go at some of the processes that go into making a Wishbone chair, and let’s just say, it’s best left to the professionals. Sanding requires a steady hand and an eye for detail, while the weaving process needs strength to create a tight formation that will hold and last for years and years to come. I’m truly in awe!
I hope you enjoyed this unique insight into Danish design manufacture. Now when I see a Wishbone chair, I don’t just see a beautiful chair, I see the hours of craftsmanship that went into it. It is undoubtedly an investment piece, one you might aspire to and save up for, but it’s also an investment in Danish craft and time-honoured skill.