By Michael Sheridan
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art hosts a summer exhibition of designs by Danish furniture designer Poul Kjærholm – the first museum exhibition of his works for two decades. On show are 75 designs, including prototypes and models, in addition to 150 sketches and drafts and numerous photographs. The exhibition traces his career from the cabinetmaker’s workshop in provincial Denmark to international acclaim.
Danish furniture designer Poul Kjærholm (1929-1980) was formerly trained as a cabinetmaker but excelled as an industrial designer. He was a radical modernist yet also a proponent and protector of traditional 19th-century craftsmanship. He taught all his life but said little in public and wrote even less. He was an ambitious designer with a modest character. In short, Poul Kjærholm had a complex nature. He was a deft and knowledgeable designer and most of his furniture and exhibition designs have become milestones of modern Danish culture.
Nonetheless, it is precisely the paradoxes of his personality and his working methods that have qualified his designs to withstand the test of time and the fleeting fads of interior design. His approach seems as appealingly fresh today as when his designs were first created some 50 years ago.
A natural talent
Poul Kjærholm was born in the small town of Øster Vrå in northern Jutland in 1929 but grew up in the larger town of Hjørring where, with some difficulty, he endured primary school before embarking, at the age of 15, on an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. For four years he nurtured his talents at the local polytechnic school before moving to Copenhagen where he was enrolled at the Danish School for Art and Design.
In 1952, Poul Kjærholm presented his graduation piece – an armchair cut out of a sheet of steel with a halyard backrest. The chair was part of a living room concept created for Danish architect Halldor Gunnløgsson, who was so impressed that he ordered no less than three copies for his personal living room in Vedbæk, north of Copenhagen. The *PK 25* chair, as it was named, was put into production right away and has been in steady supply ever since.
Poul Kjærholm was hired by Danish furniture manufacturer Fritz Hansen shortly after his graduation and was given a free hand to experiment with materials and designs. He only stayed there for a year before deciding that furniture should be designed as industrial products, employing innovative materials and the latest technology.
A man of two worlds
Almost all Poul Kjærholm’s famous designs in steel and leather were influenced by his early work for Fritz Hansen and as a freelancer in the years between his graduation in 1952 and his subsequent assignment in 1955 to Danish furniture manufacturer E. Kold Christensen. His experimental prototypes were all crafted in his small apartment in the Copenhagen suburb of Rødovre where he and his wife, Hanne Kjærholm, lived from 1953 to 1960.
Poul Kjærholm’s designs are born of two very different worlds. Some follow an organic idiom using just one material – such as his aluminium chair (1953), his designs made of concrete created for highway picnic areas in northern Jutland (1954), and a series of wire garden chairs (1954) – and yet others are composite designs facilitated by precision crafting, such as his aluminium chair with steel legs (1953), his cafeteria chair (1954) and the desks he designed for the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art School of Architecture (1955). What could be called a hybrid of these two approaches – the organic and composite approaches – is exemplified by his early masterpiece, the *PK 0* armchair, made of two laminated shells with rubber rims (designed in 1952, produced in 1997).
Metals, minerals and wood
Although primarily associated with metals and minerals, Poul Kjærholm always had a predilection for wood, especially solid mahogany. In 1965, he was commissioned by the Danish state to design customised furniture as a gift intended for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Poul Kjærholm worked on the project for several years before it was finally aborted for financial reasons. The assignment, nonetheless, revived his interest in experiments with wood.
The first of the commissioned designs for the Kennedy Centre was furnishing for the foyer, which he undertook in 1965-67 in association with Danish designer Nils Fagerholt. The furnishing was originally to have included a couch to be mounted on the wall, named *PK 26*, and a freestanding couch with a wooden shell of polished walnut veneer. The design was never developed beyond a model but it inspired the later *PK 27* armchair made of laminated wood, designed by Poul Kjærholm in 1971, and which earned him the Danish Design Council award, the *ID-Prize*.
Up though the 1970s, in the autumn of his career, Poul Kjærholm forged a working alliance with leading cabinetmaker Ejnar Pedersen from the Danish furniture manufacturer PP Møbler. Together they created tables and chairs of a variety of sizes and designs as well as a bookcase concept and chairs for a theatre in addition to *The Louisiana Chair* (1976), which was designed for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen. The partnership resulted in designs that applied to wood Poul Kjærholm’s skill in the art of steel-fashioning. He thus turned full-circle, reverting to the same material that preoccupied him in his early years as a cabinetmaker.