Vintage designs by the 20th century masters of Danish Modern have become sought-after collectables fetching soaring hammer prices at auctions worldwide.
By Camilla Streton
Designs by the masters of Danish Modern are not only experiencing a renaissance in contemporary design showrooms of late, but original vintage design pieces by such leading Danish designers as Kaare Klint, Poul Kjærholm and Poul Henningsen have now become highly sought-after collectables fetching soaring hammer prices at international auctions.
The surging interest in Danish furniture classics, fuelled by international design magazines and a general retro-interest in the birth of modernism, has become the mark of the clued-in international elite. And that is due not only to the timeless grace of the early classics but also to the eminent craftsmanship they represent and their built-to-last durability.
Vision and tradition
Danish Modern is generally a term used to describe Danish designer products of the 1920s to 1960s. Among the prodigies of the early movement was Kaare Klint (1888-1954), whose designs are a fine marriage of modern functionalism and time-honoured craftsmanship. And as head of the then newly established furniture design school at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, a position he held through the 1920s and 1930s, he influenced a whole generation of budding designers.
A unique relationship emerged during the two world wars between a new generation of progressive designers and proponents of Denmark’s rich tradition for craftsmanship. Functionalism was the new buzzword among designers whereas craftsmen held to traditional values and rendered mind-bending new designs with the tactile sensibilities of their craft and trade.
Many partnerships between designers and craftsmen lasted for decades, some of the most famous of which were Kaare Klint & Rud. Rasmussen, Hans J. Wegner & Johannes Hansen and Finn Juhl & Niels Vodder. Such was the influence of traditional arts and crafts on the Danish Modern movement that the principal showcase for their designs was the annual cabinetmaker guild’s exhibition held in Copenhagen (1927-1966). No other single event wielded more influence on the development of Danish furniture design.
Not all designers at the time chose to work with wood. Some pioneers of Danish Modern, such as Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971) and Poul Kjærholm (1928-1980), also designed steel frame furniture influenced by international design currents such as the 1920s Bauhaus School and the masters of modernism, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.
Arne Jacobsen – timelessly modern
His most instantly recognisable designs are without doubt his chairs, which are enduring examples of his elegant, soft-curved style. More timelessly modern than retro-cool, his oval chair The Egg still sits prominently in designer environments such as MTV studios and indie movie sets. His Ant stack chairs are enduring design fixtures of many of the world’s most styled and design-conscious conference centres.
His Series 7 stack chair drew special attention in the 1960s when the image was circulated the world over of British model and showgirl Christine Keeler sitting astride a chair that was intended to resemble the Series 7. The chair with its triangular backrest was actually a copy, but the real design nevertheless experienced instant international success. So enduring are Arne Jacobsen’s designs that his furniture is still among the world’s most counterfeited.
Arne Jacobsen was a true renaissance man. He not only designed furniture, flatware, jewellery, but even posters and hearses. As an architect he also designed some of Copenhagen’s most epoch-making modern buildings, including the SAS Royal Hotel (1960) and the Bellavista apartment complex north of the city (1932).
Poul Kjærholm – sculpted grace
Poul Kjærholm is celebrated for the sheer supremacy of the austere elegance of his steel frame and leather furniture designs. Like any truly accomplished sculptor he was eminently aware of each visual angle of his design and of the architectural context in which they were to be presented. Each subtle detail was part of an overall vision. Of his favourite material, steel, he once said:
“The potential of steel in construction is not the only thing that interests me; the refraction of light on its surface is an important aspect of my art. I consider steel to harbour the same artistic merit as wood and leather.”
Poul Kjærholm’s stature and influence within the world of design was reaffirmed in 2006 when the internationally acclaimed Danish auction house Bruun Rasmussen devoted an entire auction to his vintage designs, which became the greatest design catalogue success in the history of the auction house.
Poul Henningsen – the master of light
Poul Henningsen (1894-1967), widely known in Denmark simply as PH, was the pioneering master of lighting. He grew up in the early age of electricity and as a young man in the 1920s he devised complex theories dealing with reflective light distribution. He was a celebrity designer of his time and his lamps are still must-haves in designer homes throughout the world, not only for their elegantly orchestrated metal shades but for their unique ability to exude warmth and provide maximum reflective light without the glare of the naked bulb.
Like Arne Jacobsen, Henningsen was a man of many talents and an influential social critic. As editor of the left-wing journal *Kritisk Revy* (1926-28), Poul Henningsen took part in debates on the rise of international modernism in which he was no wholehearted believer. In one issue he penned a sharp critique of an interior design by the head of the Bauhaus School, German architect Walter Gropius:
“Acoustically the room resembles a tin in which each word hammers against the lid, sides and bottom. The window space is in itself far too large, and the influx of light from the bottom windows is reflected across the floor and table as a wicked sidelight and glares into the eyes from which it cannot protect itself.”
A small country by size, Denmark has fostered generations of outstanding designers, and still does. Their understanding of form-meets-function and defining style has made the Danish design industry a world leader. With success follows higher prices. In fact, prices are so high that international buyers on the lookout for Danish Modern vintage collectables at auctions in Denmark often far outbid Danish buyers. And according to auction house experts, a new price hike might be just round the corner.