Finn Juhl

Sculpting Space

In 1952, the Danish designer Finn Juhl wrote to his friends and colleagues Børge Mogensen and Arne Karlsen:

¨The craftsman’s ability to form is probably the same as that of a sculptor. A chair is not just a product of decorative art in a space; it is a form and a space in itself¨

Trained as an architect, Juhl transferred structural principles into his furniture designs, emphasizing organic forms and ergonomic function. In this story, we would like to highlight Finn Juhl, and a unique coffee table designed by Finn Juhl for Professor Alf Ross, in 1948.

Finn Juhl seated in his 'Grasshopper' chair, in front of a coffee table designed in 1941. Photo: Designmuseum Denmark Archive

Juhl’s initial aspiration was to become an Art Historian. As a teenager, he frequently visited the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and was given permission to borrow books from the Glyptotek library by Frederik Poulsen. Although his father did not permit the young Juhl to study Art History on its own, they made a deal: if Juhl would begin his studies in architecture at the Academy, he would be allowed to study Art History concurrently.

This symbiosis of interests resulted in the refined and unique design language that he developed over the following years. Finn Juhl started exhibiting at the Cabinetmakers' Guild Exhibitions in 1937. During the first few years, he designed furniture with highly sculptural forms, which were inspired by the contemporary art of this time such as Hans Arp, Barbera Hepworth and Henry Moore. He often decorated his stands with wooden sculptures by his contemporary Erik Thommesen. Juhl collected several works by Thommesen, and retained them in his personal home.

Cabinetmakers' Guild Exhibition, 1940. Finn Juhl introduced his 'Pelican' chair and table, with in the background a wooden sculpture by Erik Thommesen. Photo:  Hiort, Esbjorn, ’Finn Juhl: furniture, architecture, applied art’, The Danish Architectural Press (Denmark) 1990, p.30.

For Finn Juhl, the relationship between the fine and applied arts was natural. In the beginning of his career, Juhl was often accussed of not employing traditional cabinetmaking techniques, eschewing these in order to accoplish the supple and sculptural forms in his designs. His collaboration with master cabinetmaker Niels Vodder proved to be invaluable, as Vodder was able to execute difficult and unorthodox joinery.

Vodders talents are readily apparent when looking closer at the rare pair of ‘Westermann Fireplace’ armchairs, which he designed in 1943 for publisher and editor Poul Westermann. The armrests are sculpted out of Cuban mahogany, and highlight the chairs’ elegant appearance. He used this model as the basis for model ‘BO 46’, further simplyfing in its form.  

This light, organic and structural approach can also be seen in the unique ‘Ross’ coffee table, which was designed and executed in 1948 for a special commission for Professor Alf Ross. The two original drafts for the table exist in the archive at Designmuseum Denmark. The sketches show a version in oak with a green lacquered frame, and a version in teak with a white lacquered frame. Alf Ross went with the latter. The ‘Ross’ table can be seen as part of a series of other unique tables he designed from 1945 to 1950. The series eliminates the distinction between function and artistic expression. He uses different materials, each of which point to their functional purpose, while at the same time transforming it to a sculpture due to their different colours and shapes. The recess in the brass plate of the ‘Ross’ table was designed to hold a glass vase as per the original sketch, however it is unknown if one was ever supplied upon its completion.

The works by Finn Juhl serve as a link between the fine and the applied arts. Their simplicity, functionality and high-quality craftmanship, embrace the essence of Danish design.

Original draft for the 'Ross' table, this is for the version in oak with a green lacquered frame. Alf Ross went with the teak version with a white lacquered frame. Only the white version below has been executed. Photo: Designmuseum Denmark Archive

Professor Alf Ross with his family, gathered around the 'Ross' coffee table. 1950s. Photo: private archive.