Finn Juhl: distinctive Danish Modern furniture

NEW YORK – Blending canny craftsmanship with discriminating details, Finn Juhl (1912-1989) introduced the Danish Modern aesthetic to America. Not only an architect, he was also an interior and industrial designer, whose innovative furniture designs, starting in the 1940s, are at the heart of his legacy.

After getting his architecture degree, Juhl began working for the renowned Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen in 1934 but avidly pursued his passion for furniture design, which was self-taught.

A pair of Finn Juhl rare lounge chairs model NV-45 from 1945 made $60,000 in November 2014 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Like other modernist pioneers, Juhl started from scratch without role models or inherited restrictions. He designed by measuring his own body and analyzing how the individual components of the chair should carry the human body,” according to commentary on the website of the House of Finn Juhl, which in 2001 was given exclusive rights from Juhl’s wife to manufacture and relaunch his sculptural furniture. The firm has reissued several of his most iconic designs. “But contrary to his modernist contemporaries, with their streamlined, scaffolding-like structures, Juhl aimed at a more organic, natural form.”

Juhl’s iconic armchair, model 45, takes the easy chair to new heights, breaking away from conventional furniture construction by treating the upholstered back and seat as separate entities from the load-bearing wood frame. Pushing the material’s strength to the maximum and using the expertise of his staff of joiners, Juhl designed a chair whose curves are gracefully simple and sensuous. This chair was one of several pieces that was the highlight of the 1945 Cabinetmakers’ Guild exhibition, where Juhl and master cabinetmaker Niels Vodder exhibited elegant and sculptural furniture that was comfortable yet sensible.

As designers know, the chair is not an easy thing. It needs to be both light yet sturdy and above all comfortable. Famous designer Mies van der Rohe famously said it was almost easier to build a skyscraper than a chair.

This Finn Juhl Chieftain lounge chair from 1949, its first year of production, attained $75,000 in December 2018 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Rather than thinking in terms of practical construction, Finn Juhl had the mind-set of a sculptor, when he shaped a piece of furniture. In the 1940s and 1950s, this way of working had never been seen before,” according to the website of the House of Finn Juhl. Creating pieces that evoked movement and life, Juhl’s goal was to create pieces having what he called a “visual lightness.”

While teaching himself the ins and outs of furniture construction, Juhl first began working with fully upholstered pieces, focusing on the organic shape of the furniture, which became his signature look, but within a few years, he was confident enough to focus on wood as the central material instead of hiding it under a layer of upholstery.

A group of eight Finn Juhl for Niels Vodder Egyptian rosewood chairs in blue upholstery earned $60,000 in May 2018 at Clars Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Juhl’s Grasshopper Chair, designed in 1938, was a daring innovation at the time when furniture was bulky and traditional. This design was showcased with Vodder’s stand at the Guild shows. The chair is aptly named as the back legs and armrests meet the floor on a diagonal, resembling a grasshopper’s back legs bent and poised to jump. At the time, buyers were not overly impressed and the only two examples Juhl brought to the fair, did not sell. Today, however, the design has been reissued and made its debut at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2019.

While Juhl is best known for his chair forms, he designed a variety of seating furniture, including his Poet sofa, launched in 1941, and the Baker sofa, designed in 1951, the same year that Juhl’s works transfixed American audiences when showcased in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” exhibition. He also designed credenzas and sideboards and over time drew inspiration from American designers, especially Charles Eames. While wood has been his central material up until now, he increasingly began incorporating steel and a new fondness for straight lines and simplicity in his tables, benches and sideboards. Modern sculpture, such as Alexander Calder’s mobiles, also influenced his work.

A Finn Juhl wall-mounted sofa from Villa K. Kokfeldt in Denmark, 1953, realized $60,000 in
November 2015 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Being connected to the landscape was something that Juhl both lived and practiced, and the influence is notable in the organic forms of his furniture,” according to Design Within Reach in Stamford, Conn., which also offers modern furniture and pieces in the tradition of Juhl and others, reissuing vintage designs.

Finn Juhl’s furniture, like any example of good design, has stood the test of time. Made to be comfortable above all else, they exhibit craftsmanship at its best and an appreciation for organic forms and the materials.