The work of designer Finn Juhl (1912-1989) helped to modernize traditional Danish design and continues to exemplify the quality of craftsmanship and beauty that made the nation a leader in home furnishing design during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Juhl, born in Copenhagen, studied architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts, and graduated in 1934. He spent the next ten years working in the architecture offices of Vilhelm Lauritzen, winning a prize for the design of his own home in 1942. He also started to exhibit at the annual Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild shows towards the end of the 1930s, setting the scene for the opening of his own design office in 1945 where he would focus on furniture and interior design. Throughout the 1940s, as his work began to have an impact on the style of homes abroad, he also lectured on interior design at the Fredericksberg Technical School, influencing the next wave of designers.
His early chairs were originally produced in small batches, eighty at most, because they were created for the Guild shows which emphasized the work of the artisan over the burgeoning industry of mass production. However, they were almost all reissued later in his career. The influence of the abstract sculptor Jean Arp, a motif throughout his career, is clearly reflected in one of his first works, the 1940 “Pelican” chair. This was an early example of the organic shapes of upholstered furniture that would become popular in the 1950s. His designs that followed over the next several years gave a soft edge to the lines of modernist chairs in wood. The chair for the 1944 exhibit, identified by Juhl as his favorite, was carved rosewood with a leather seat and was one of the only designs to lack the floating back and seat that were his hallmark. The full back and seat, seeming to hover on their supports, start to emerge in the chairs from 1945 and 1948. His 1948 “Chieftain” was more relaxed and subtly more ornamented, with its gently sloping armrests. Also influenced by tribal art, Juhl exhibited the chair with enlarged photos of weapons from anthropological studies.
In the early 1950s his name started to become known in the United States due to his ardent fan, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., who lauded his work regularly in “Interiors” magazine. Juhl designed an interior for the 1951 Good Design show in Chicago, and spoke of the show in “Interiors,” saying that, “One cannot create happiness with beautiful objects, but one can spoil quite a lot of happiness with bad ones.” The same year he was commissioned by Baker Furniture, Inc. to create a series that would appeal to their emerging younger market. The work he did for them– 24 pieces including chairs, tables, storage units, sideboards and desks– represented his first successful marriage of modern mass production to his traditionally high craft standards. He was able to bring affordable, beautiful furniture to a large audience without compromising the quality.
During the 1950s Juhl was commissioned as the interior designer of the Trusteeship Council Chamber at the New York headquarters of the United Nations. For this space he designed a delegate’s chair, again with the seemingly floating back and seat. Juhl designed ceramics as well, for the Denmark’s Bing & Grohdahl factory, including a 100th anniversary porcelain dinner set. Among his other commissions are refrigerators for General Electric and glassware for Georg Jensen.