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.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - AIA AWARDS 2017 - STORY JENI PORTER

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

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