Finn Juhl: Danish Master of Form, Structure, and Function


Born in Frederiksberg, Denmark on January 30, 1912, Finn Juhl was many things: the son of a demanding father, a want-to-be art historian, a trained architect, an award-winning architect, and the Danish vanguard of Mid-Century modern furniture design.

 

Finn Juhl
Finn Juhl

If it weren’t for his father, Juhl would have most likely become an art historian and not the man whose work can still be found in museums 35 years after his death. But, he did have a father, an international textile wholesaler of note, who forced him to study architecture for four years at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts Architecture School. This decision was a fortunate one for the younger Juhl who studied beneath his nation’s top architect, Kay Fisker. Not only a professor, Fisker was also a leading proponent of Danish Functionalism, the school of thought that placed an emphasis on function rather than beauty. This is also the school of thought against which Juhl would later take a stand and make his name.

Early Recognition

While in school, Juhl apprenticed at the architectural firm of V. Lauritzen who subsequently hired him as an interior design architect once he graduated in 1934. During his ten years at this firm, Juhl quickly earned a name for himself in the interior design world and even got a chance to play a primary role in the interior designing of Denmark’s national broadcasting building. In 1943, the young Dane won the C.F. Hansen award for young architects for his work on the Radio Building.

Designing “From in The Inside and Out.”

But, winning awards and working as an interior-design architect was not enough for Juhl. After all, in his chest beat the heart of an art historian, and though he would continue to work in architecture his entire life, to include the Mid-Century modern designing of much of the Trusteeship Council Chamber of the United Nations headquarters in New York City in the 1950s, Juhl needed more if he were ever to live a fully formed life. He needed more than function. He needed beauty and he needed to design furniture.

He began designing his own furniture while still working for V. Lauritzen’s firm. His first show was at the Cabinetmaker’s Guild Exhibition in 1937 where he displayed a collection of chairs that he had designed. These types of shows played an important role in Juhl’s growth and career, and it was at this first one that he took his initial, public steps away from the straight angles and flat surfaces of Danish Functionalism or what would later become known as Danish Modern.

Juhl’s furniture, even at this early stage, honored form over function. The lines that made up his chairs were rounded, sweeping, and curved. Though still made to be comfortable and, yes, functional, they were more than a pleasure for the resting body; they were a pleasure to the moving eye.

Perhaps it was his decade at V. Lauritzen that taught him how to look at look at both interior architecture and furniture in a new way. He described this as approaching design from in the inside and out. Juhl believed that a room was more than its walls, dimensions, windows, and doors. No, to Juhl, a room was also defined by what it housed. This meant that furniture and other items within the rooms he designed deserved their own space so that visitors were able to view them “in the round.” Furniture was rarely pressed against a wall so that it could be taken in individually just as the room itself could be experienced as a whole.

While the room and furniture he designed for the UN is probably the most cited example of Juhl’s from-in-the-inside-and-out view of design due to the equal use of democratic space he gave each chair and desk area in the circular room. My favorite example of this outlook is Finn Juhl’s House, which is now a museum. This museum is home to furniture that Juhl designed and items that he collected. And although the former-house is loaded with items and furniture from the Mid-Century modern design era, it is neither crowded nor cluttered. Everything, to include the rooms of the house themselves, is given its own space while doorways and windows serve as frames through which external viewers can visually explore Juhl’s designs and collections.

As one explores Juhl’s former home, it is easy to see how each rug, painting, sofa, table, shelf, and book has its place because, as Juhl himself once explained, “One cannot create happiness with beautiful objects, but one can spoil quite a lot of happiness with bad ones.”

Juhl’s designs left no space for bad ones.

Though Juhl was an accomplished interior designer and architect, he said that he is most proud of the Mid-Century modern furniture that he designed using skills that he had taught himself.

 

Finn Juhl Chieftain Chair

The Chieftain Chair

Juhl’s most famous single design is his Chieftain Chair. Designed in 1948, Juhl gave the piece its regal name after Kind Frederik IX sat in one at the Cabinetmaker’s Guild show in Copenhagen in 1949.

Made of walnut, leather, flowing lines, and large rounded shapes, this early creation embodies all that Juhl believed to be important about furniture. Indeed, its feet are just as beautiful as is its scooped top. Also, though its form is gorgeous, the chair looks and feels comfortable with its sturdy, all-embracing concave back, tilted seat, and padded leather arm rests.

 

Finn Juhl Model 45 Chair and Loveseat

Model 45 Armchair and Loveseat

A predecessor to the Chieftain Chair, the Model 45 Armchair and Loveseat were first displayed at the 1945 Cabinetmaker’s Guild show in Copenhagen. Both were made of wood and organic lines. Just as the later-to-come Chieftain would, the Model 45 Armchair and Loveseat had their entire walnut frame exposed to reveal sturdy, yet beautiful structures. Though it emphasized looks, the Model 45 was still very functional armchair featuring a slightly leaning backrest and a soft seat. However, its armrests are bare.

Juhl’s Design Influence on His Contemporaries

Creating furniture made up of curved lines, Juhl’s work was considered to be more organic than the design featuring straight lines that he left behind. The Danish designer upped the organic nature of his the Mid-Century modern furniture by designing pieces made out of organic materials such as teak and other dark woods. His use of natural materials in the 1940s was later adopted by other Scandinavian designers and architects to such an extent that the practice was given its own name, Teak Style.

Eventually, Juhl’s pioneering furniture designs would become a driving force behind the growth of Mid-Century modern Danish design.

Introducing Danish Modern Design to the States

Though Juhl was not the sole proponent of Mid-Century modern Danish design, he became its international spokesperson when his furniture was displayed at the MoMA’s Good Design exhibit in Chicago in 1951. In fact, his exhibition was so well received that it helped him win the contract to design the UN’s Trusteeship Council Chamber.

Without Juhl, Danish design would have never enjoyed the popularity it had in the 1950s and 1960s in America. And, without this influence, odds are that the organic lines and use of natural materials that periodically become popular in America would simply not have ever visited our shores.