One morning in the spring of 1949, the architect Finn Juhl placed a piece of paper on his drawing board and drew four vertical lines with "something" in-between. He had no clue that he had just embarked on the journey towards creating one of the most famous and iconic pieces of Danish furniture design ever: The Chieftain Chair.
Despite the critics, Finn Juhl (1912-1989) was at an early age already perceived as an outstandingly talented furniture designer. He ranked amongst the best of the best designers during, what is considered, the golden age of Danish design. Since 1937, Finn Juhl had been a regular at the annual Cabinetmakers' Guild Exhibition where he attracted great attention. His undogmatic interpretation of functionalism, often paired with an organic and sculptural mode of expression, was rather unknown in Denmark at the time. This mode of expression was greatly influenced by Finn Juhl's interest in contemporary international artists like Barbara Hepworth, Jean Arp, Sigurjón Ólafsson, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and the Danish sculptor, Erik Thommesen. In addition, his interest in foreign cultures, such as African art and Ancient Egyptian furniture, was clearly visible in his designs. This expressive style was, at times, a bit much for a rather puritan Denmark.
The independent way of interpreting functionalistic ideals in his furniture meant that Finn Juhl would clash with the nestor of Danish furniture design, Kaare Klint. In 1924, Klint had established the School of Furniture at the Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and he was a firm believer in functionalism, with strong opinions about how furniture should be shaped. Meanwhile, Finn Juhl also thought of himself as a functionalist, but believed that Kaare Klint's approach to furniture design was much too rigid and schematic. Finn Juhl sought to liberate furniture design from self-imposed limitations, resulting in a range of designs that were highly experimental in terms of expression and quirky design solutions. With every new furniture iteration, Finn Juhl was slowly getting closer to what would eventually become the ultimate climax - the creation of the Chieftain Chair.
The Creation and Construction
Compared to his contemporary design peers Finn Juhl had one big challenge - namely that he did not have a background in furniture design. Finn Juhl was enrolled at the Department of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, and according to himself, he had no sense of joinery or wooden constructions. Therefore, he had to rely on his intuition and basic measurements of the human proportions when deciding how a piece of furniture was to be shaped.
In a stroke of luck, Finn Juhl met the 20-year older master joiner, Niels Vodder. Not only was he an impeccably skilled joiner, but he also had the vision to translate Finn Juhl's rather rudimentary drawings into physical products of the highest quality.
A few years after meeting Niels Vodder, Finn Juhl developed a groundbreaking principle in his designs, where he would create a clear separation between the supporting elements (the frame) and the supported elements (backrest and seat), which clearly delimited the shape and function of each element. This principle quickly became a defining characteristic in Finn Juhl's future designs. The separation between supporting and supported elements is especially distinct in the Chieftain Chair. Design-wise the Chieftain is undoubtedly the most expressive and iconic piece of furniture from Finn Juhl - and he has also stated that the chair was conceived to be a big piece. About the creative process he said in a 1981 interview with the design magazine Rum og Form:
"I started drawing the Chieftain Chair one day in the spring of 1949. I was at home, and I started drawing a small sketch around 10 AM with just four vertical lines connected to something. By two or three o'clock in the morning I had painted it. But in reality, I don't know how long it took me to design that chair. Perhaps I had a vague idea for some time that I wanted to design something bigger. There had been so many small, handy chairs, so I probably felt like designing something a bit more pompous..."
More pompous it is indeed. With a total width of one meter, a pair of characteristic armrests, as well as a big and tall backrest, the Chieftain Chair takes up a lot of room and requires quite a lot of space to be fully appreciated. The Chieftain Chair was introduced at the Cabinetmakers' Guild Exhibition in 1949. Immediately it attracted much attention, not only due to its size but also because of its organic shape and exotic expression. However, not everyone was equally enthusiastic about Finn Juhl's newest piece.
The Norwegian architect and design critic, Odd Brockmann, described the chair as "four failed omelets that were hung on a rack". In an interview later on Finn Juhl had a nice little response to this particular piece of critique: "I will admit, that as an omelet, it was terribly useless".
Naming a Future
On his project papers Finn Juhl had simply written "The Big Chair" and when the chair was initially displayed in 1949 it was referred to as NV 49. Later on, Finn Juhl revealed that the name "the Chieftain Chair" came about as a coincidence:
"King Frederik and Queen Ingrid of Denmark used to be so kind to open the exhibition. When the chair was brought in someone asked me who the chair was for, jokingly I answered "King Frederik". However, of course we couldn't call it "the King Chair" or "the King Frederik Chair" because he hadn't asked for it, nor had we asked him. Then I played it off by saying that it was for some random chieftain - and that's all there is to it".
From Size and Shape
Much of the furniture created during the golden age of Danish furniture design from 1940-1960 drew inspiration from foreign cultures. Naturally, Finn Juhl also had his muses. Especially ancient Egyptian furniture dating back 3000-4000 years intrigued him. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the imposing Chieftain Chair draws direct parallels to early Egyptian furniture. In a 1975 interview with the Danish newspaper Politiken, Finn Juhl said that the inspiration for his 1949-display at the Guild Exhibition occured from a visit to the Louvre in Paris:
"Honestly, I stole the construction. Furthermore, I stole the right angle and curved back. It is important to note that I have been more amazed by the simplest and most elegant furniture from Egypt than I have with any other ancient furniture".
Upon closer inspection of the Chieftain Chair it becomes abundantly clear that references to Egyptian furniture exist, because the chair is finished with a drop-like corbel in the joint on the top of the rear legs - an ancient, intricate little detail. The grand size of the chair can leave people wondering, but it was carefully calculated. Finn Juhl wanted to create an armchair in wood with the possibility to sit in a multitude of ways.
To Finn Juhl, the shaping of furniture was not about subscribing to a strictly functional paradigm. Quite on the contrary in fact. To him, it was much more a question of focusing on the humane and organic impressions of a piece. It was this challenging intension that exhilarated Finn Juhl in his work as a furniture designer and this approach is undoubtedly the reason why there is still so much hype around his furniture today - especially the Chieftain Chair.
Not many contemporary pieces of furniture can measure up to the embracing sensuousness and loving shape - sensuality if you will - that the Chieftain Chair is a representative of. Luckily it was not lost in the mist of forgetfulness.
In 2001, when Ivan Hansen and Hans Henrik Sørensen were granted the exclusive rights to produce and relaunch Finn Juhl's furniture, the Chieftain Chair was among the first designs they wanted to revive. 18 years later, the two furniture geeks are still the front figures at House of Finn Juhl. Their attitude towards relaunching Finn Juhl's iconic furniture has remained the same throughout this stint. They do not shy away from a daring challenge.
Multiple reasons constituted Henrik and Ivan's decision to relaunch the Chieftain. First of all, it has a very special backstory. But furthermore, because of its sheer size and sensuous shape, it draws attention from design circles as well as from people who usually do not pay much attention to furniture. Ivan and Henrik felt that the qualities of the Chieftain were hard to overlook.
The Chieftain Chair was - and remains to this day - a very complicated and costly chair to produce. However, with the help of uncompromising craftsmen in Japan, they succeeded.
And they didn't regret the decision. In 2012, the Chieftain Chair received the coveted award `Danish Design Award - Classic´. The jury had this to say about the winner:
"The Chieftain Chair is an inspiration for a new generation of furniture designers as a symbol that focuses on ultimate quality, international format and a strong will to break the chains of tradition".
Today, no one questions Finn Juhl's groundbreaking ideas. The old Vodder-versions of the Chieftain Chair sell for enormous sums on auctions worldwide. This is a testament to the fact that the chair has indeed achieved international status and is considered a valuable collector's item. This year, the chair that has reached iconic status, turns 70.
At House of Finn Juhl this is celebrated by changing absolutely nothing at all. Hans Henrik Sørensen explains:
"The Chieftain Chair liberated itself from the strict tradition of functionalism, both in terms of organic shapes, unique construction and impeccable quality. The chair is exactly as it is supposed to be, which is why we refrain from the tendency of launching an anniversary model. The Chieftain does not need any "extra sparkle". There is something entirely different at play here. Despite its 70 years of age, it has never been more current. We believe that this is due to the way the chair appeals to the senses, the feelings and the artistic expression. You simply feel like a chieftain while seated!"