TAKE A SEAT
THE PRESENT GENERATION OF DANISH DESIGNERS HAVE STRUGGLED WITH THE LEGACY OF THEIR MID-CENTURY FOREBEARS, BUT ARE FINDING NEW WAYS TO SHINE – EVEN IN SOMETHING AS SIMPLE AS A CHAIR.
Cecilie Manz is an acclaimed member of the new generation of Danish designers creating stateof-the-art crafted products for international brands as well as oneoff experimental items. She designs portable speakers that employ the latest audio technology – but she doesn’t use a computer. Instead, Manz works in an oldschool way, sitting on a Kaare Klint chair inherited from her grandmother and sketching on the same tracing paper that Finnish legend Alvar Aalto used 70-odd years ago. She draws with her favourite Papermate (bought in bulk when she heard it was going out of production), using the tracing paper to overlay her renderings until she gets the right curvature.
“It’s not to be weird or special or anything, it’s just that these are my tools,” says Manz, who was named Denmark’s Designer of the Year for 2017 in the prestigious awards run by interiors magazine Bo Bedre. When she studied furniture design she made it her mission to learn about her design inheritance – not just who was who and what was what, but also the minutiae of how her legendary forebears worked: with pencil, paper, and, in some instances, cabinetmakers’ tools.
Studying in the 1990s, Manz is of the generation that struggled to forge careers in the shadows of the Danish Modern giants whose creations still dominated the scene. She says this legacy is a gift and a burden, and many of her fellow students didn’t want to know about it.
“They just wanted to do new stuff and look forward,” she says. But knowing how her predecessors worked was like learning a trade. “I’m not a carpenter, I’m not a textile designer, I’m not a craftsperson, so this is kind of like my craftsmanship to know this business, the facts and the history, and then find my own way.”
When Manz set up her Copenhagen studio in 1998, straight out of design school, it was really tough. “Only the old brands existed and we couldn’t get started because we were not Børge Mogensen or whoever.” Her first products were a ladder that was also a chair and a “weird” clothes tree, which no Danish brand wanted to put into production. Then her work turned “slightly more normal” and she had a breakthrough with a light fitting. Companies that had rejected her began clamouring to get her to design for them.
Twenty years later, Bo Bedre described her as one of the “global super elite” whose sharp eye and uncompromising approach took Danish design onwards and was something that “we as a nation should be proud of”. This year alone she’s released a bathroom series for Duravit, the P2 portable speaker for B&O Play, outdoor furniture for the German brand Gloster, a pouffe for Republic of Fritz Hansen and a chair for Muuto, one of the new wave of Danish firms focusing only on contemporary designs.
Still, for Manz every new project is a nightmare, more or less. Conscious of the amount of “crap” produced for commercial reasons in the guise of design, she’d rather make one good product than 10 bad ones. “I always state that if I do something new I need to be able to look myself in the eye and say this is OK.” She wends her way through “forests of doubt and chaos before she gets to the crisp, clear, calm vision of the finished product”. The Klint chair, on which she ate icecreams as a child, helps to ground her with its solidity and patina.
“It’s kind of tacky in some way with these brass studs and this special kind of Niger leather from a goat or whatever, but it’s just getting more and more beautiful.” There’s an oft-told story about the perfectionism of Klint, the godfather of Danish design. A visitor to his studio asked what he was working on, to which he replied, “I’m working on a chair.” Some 18 months later the same person returned and asked the same question. “I told you,” said Klint, “I’m working on a chair.”
Chairs are a recurring theme in Manz’s existential deliberations: “Does the world need more chairs? No, not really,” she laughs. “Of course, that puts me in a dilemma because I really love creating, using my hands, and I can’t stop getting ideas and this wish or urge to beautify.” The one she designed for Muuto started out as a “freewheel” project without commercial or practical considerations. It was part of Mindcraft 2016, an exhibition of experimental pieces by Danish designers and artists held annually during Milan Design Week. The curators, hot Danish/Italian design duo GamFratesi, gave Manz a brief that simply said “wooden chair”.
“That was it, nothing else, it was really free – so that was also really coming from me,” says Manz. “Sometimes I need to do something for my own sake, I need to experiment and challenge all kinds of functionalities. I think it’s very important that you don’t get stuck and say, ‘OK this works so we’ll do it again’,” says Manz.
The brief may have been simple but it played to the whole history of modern Danish design, so much of which is built around chairs, from Klint’s Faaborg, to Arne Jacobsen’s Egg and Series 7, Hans J. Wegner’s Wishbone and beyond. (The furniture design program at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts has a collection of 300-400 chairs for its students to assess).
Manz’s response was to make an archetype that seems as spare as the brief: four legs, a seat and a back. It looks solid and is sturdy but you can lift it with one finger because the seat and back are veneer. She likes the crisp sound when you knock on the thin back. The beauty is in the details – the angle of the back leg, the way the front almost twists to meet the surface of the back, and refined joints where solid wood meets veneer.
She named it the Sølvgade chair after the central Copenhagen street where she runs her almost 20-yearold design studio – one of several high-ceilinged lightfilled spaces that look on to a common garden and house artists and other designers. At the same time as this project Manz was working on a commercial one, a shelving system for Muuto. While checking on the shelves, Muuto’s design director Christian Grosen saw her exhibition piece and was smitten. The chair that was experimental one year was in production the next and centrestage on Muuto’s stand at the 2017 Salone del Mobile fair in Milan.
“We haven’t changed it at all from the exhibition, just reinforced it, that’s so interesting to make these two worlds meet,” says Grosen, who’s proud of the craftsmanship yet affordable price. “It’s such an archetypal chair – it has clear references to Kaare Klint and all these great masters from the past but it’s still so
much today. It’s playful and it’s intelligent and I think really proves that it is relevant to make a new chair.”
Grosen has been design director of Muuto for two years. Before then he was head of design at the 145-yearold Fritz Hansen where he was responsible for a deified backlist of furniture by Jacobsen and Poul Kjaerholm as well as commissioning new works by the likes of Manz and Spain’s Jaime Hayon. Under his stewardship Muuto last year introduced 23 new pieces, a significant rampup of production for the 11-year-old company, whose name comes from the Finnish word for new perspectives.
Management consultant Kristian Byrge and his business partner Peter Bonnén set up Muuto in 2006 after identifying a gap in the market as younger consumers sought fresh, more daring designs by their own generation, with similar values as the classics but at keener prices. It’s more than a coincidence when Byrge talks about Muuto adding a “New Nordic” chapter to Denmark’s storied design heritage. As a founding shareholder in the Copenhagen restaurant sensation Noma, he helped coin the phrase for the culinary revolution led by chef René Redzepi.
The emergence of brands like Muuto, Hay, Normann Copenhagen and Menu in the past decade changed the dynamics for Danish designers, says Manz. They made it their mission to support new talent, inspired others to set up design houses, and created a fresh take on Scandinavian design. “Now I think the generation younger than me have more possibilities,” she says. Grosen agrees that these newgen brands sparked something that gave designers selfconfidence and higher ambitions. “They started to feel that after all these years it is possible to create this golden era of our time – not only in Scandinavia, but we can expand all over the world.”
The realms of possibility are evident at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen, where its exhibition Danish Design Now traverses such territory as new Nordic, new Danish cool, neo-decorative, narrative design and sustainability. Its curator Lars Dybdahl, who is head of research at the museum, says there is a “stylistic plurality” of Danish design.
Danes talk about the 90s as the era of “father killing” and there was even a protest when a group of students hacked up a Wegner chair. But the dynamism of the contemporary scene means the new generation of designers are reconsidering the classics rather than having their creativity stifled by them, Dybdahl says.
“Everything is allowed and you can pick and mix from everywhere you go and cite the old masters.” His exhibition ranges from furniture through jewellery, homewares, posters, bikes even, but chairs still reign. There’s Form by Simon Legald, who graduated from the academy five years ago, and Louise Campbell’s laser-cut steel Veryround for Zanotta – more technical tour de force than chair, with 260 circles, no legs and no joints. Then there’s the Ferdinand lounge chair by OEO Studio, a neo-Nordic classic-to-be in soap-treated oak and leather with a wink to the past but a contemporary sensibility. When Hermès went looking for the perfect lounge chair for the men’s fitting room in its first store in Copenhagen, it chose the Ferdinand.
Released in 2014, it’s named after Ferdinand Krüger, one of two brothers who set up a woodturning workshop in Copenhagen in 1886. Now run by the fourth generation, Brdr. Krüger (the brothers Krüger) hasn’t been famous for its own products. Preparing for their own generational change, the Krüger family engaged OEO to help define a strategy that would enliven and secure the future without detracting from the past.
The Ferdinand chair evolved from a dialogue about how OEO could put a new turn on tradition with its own products. “You can see it’s a tribute to our Danish history of design but it also has that freshness,” says OEO’s creative director Thomas Lykke. “It was also our ambition to create something that was complex – you really have to mean to do it – it’s not just a piece you send to be made in Lithuania or somewhere,” says Lykke. OEO has since added the Theodor dining chair and the Pauline bar stool.
Lykke trained as a fashion designer before then Wallpaper editor Tyler Brûlé recruited him in 2000, to be interiors editor of the design magazine in London, saying he had the “right eye”. Three years later he returned to Copenhagen hoping to help revitalise a design scene he felt had fallen behind.
OEO, which he set up with Anne-Marie Buemann, prefers the interesting rather than obvious path, which has led to projects as diverse as shaping the creative direction of a 330-year-old Japanese textile maker to the award-winning interior of Kadeau restaurant and a showroom for the lighting brand Flos in Copenhagen. OEO was celebrated as interior designer of the year in the Bo Bedre awards.
Lykke embraces his heritage. “Standing on the shoulders of the giants – I mean why not? It’s our legacy. It was good and that’s why it still works.” But he has a more sober view of the state of Danish design than some of his peers. He thinks there’s a sameness creeping in, perhaps as growth drives sales more than passion. And he’s concerned about a loss of skills in Denmark, especially in cabinetmaking, the bedrock of Danish Modern, hence his line about “Lithuania or somewhere” where a lot of production is done.
“I’m passionate about making something that has a long life and I think maybe there’s too much that’s easy and cheap. That’s my fear: that it kind of dilutes design. You can say the design is good but if the quality is shit it will not have a long life. I wouldn’t like to see the tradition of Scandinavian design become like that.”
“It is possible to create this golden era of our time – not only in Scandinavia, but all over the world.”
Designer Cecilie Manz and her Sølvgade chair, in progress and finished, left; the Ferdinand chair by OEO Studio, below
Thomas Lykke and Anne-Marie Buemann, founders of OEO Studio