The rise, fall and rise again of Finn Juhl

The designer fell out of fashion towards the end of his life but today his designs are rightly regarded as classics
Juhl with the family dog, Bonnie, in the garden of his house at Kratvænget 15 in Ordrup, which he built himself in 1942.
Juhl with the family dog, Bonnie, in the garden of his house at Kratvænget 15 in Ordrup, which he built himself in 1942.

If you admire the beautiful, humane style of architecture and design that came out of Scandinavia during the mid 20th century then you really should familiarise yourself with Finn Juhl who did so much to soften up the harder side of Modernism.

“If a single figure were to be credited with lifting Danish design to world fame in the years following World War II, it would surely be the designer and architect Finn Juhl,” writes Christian Bundegaard in his book Finn Juhl: Life, Work, World.

Much of the world first saw modern Danish furniture via Juhl's interior design work at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and in the Scandinavian Airlines’ ticket offices across the globe.


Juhl's house in Ordrup, Denmark
Juhl's house in Ordrup, Denmark

“However, in reality, the picture is more nuanced," writes Bundegaard. "For one thing, Danish design was just one strand of a broader, Scandinavia-wide Modernism that fed back into Modernism internationally. For another, Juhl was just one of a handful of talented young designers who together created a veritable golden age of Danish furniture design between the close of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1960s."


Poet Sofa, 1941, by Finn Juhl
Poet Sofa, 1941, by Finn Juhl

Finn Juhl and his co-designers created that aesthetic movement, publicised it and rode its popularity. “While international Modernism’s long straight lines in concrete, steel and glass can seem impersonal, even embodying a cold monumentality that is neither completely removed from Neo-Classicist temples nor from the terrifying scale of fascist architecture, Scandinavian Modernism is more down to earth – a continuation of local building traditions founded in the inherited knowledge of one’s craft," writes Bundegaard.

“Scandinavian architects and designers implemented an undogmatic, socially conscious functionalism, a meticulousness in planning and execution and an extensive use of warm, natural materials, such as brick and light Nordic woods. They emphasized organic compositions with curving forms that are sensitive to human scale. 


The Chieftain Chair, 1949, by Finn Juhl
The Chieftain Chair, 1949, by Finn Juhl

“In architecture and design, this new interest in ‘the social’ gave rise to what one might call a humanizing of the designer’s practice. People’s aims and needs came to be considered more important than style or convention. For some architects, this new scientific attitude became a genuine ideology, driven by a fascination with machine aesthetics and the new technological possibilities of mass production. For others though, the core of this fresh approach lay in a new moral and aesthetic integrity, conceived as the disclosure of the materials and the methods by which artefacts are constructed.

Of course, all art and design movements eventually come to an end; Juhl fell from international favor towards the end of his life. However, Bundegaard’s book doesn’t end with his subject’s death, but rather his posthumous reappraisal which he tees up perfectly.

“The story begins with his first ground-breaking meeting with Scandinavian Modernism at the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930 when he was just eighteen-years-old, and it continues through to the present-day renaissance of his furniture, now classic pieces, whose prices rocket at auction.

“This is in sharp contrast to the period between the 1960s and Juhl’s death in 1989 when he felt himself forgotten, his work fallen from favor. Yet this story cannot be told in isolation from the architectural and design history of the period, and indeed the history of ideas that shaped the social developments of the times. Juhl’s career and his products then, are seen from a broader perspective, the long view, from which all artistic work can be contemplated.”


Finn Juhl: Life, Work, World

“Today, Finn Juhl’s Chieftain Chair and Poet Sofa are considered modern classics. And Finn Juhl’s legacy embodies those very qualities that lifted Danish design to world fame: simple but distinguishing properties such as attentiveness, honesty and originality. What it means for a chair to possess these qualities is of course open to debate. It is a discussion that Juhl would undoubtedly have loved to take on one more time.”

To join in that debate, and enjoy more of these images order a copy of Finn Juhl: Life, Work, World here. 

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