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Building “The Chair” – An Introduction

Hans Wegner (April 2, 1914 - January 26, 2007) was probably the quintessential Danish furniture designer and most famous for his chairs. Their styling was modernist and minimalist, yet with all the joinery of traditional furniture making.

One of his best known is the Wishbone Chair, which uses bentwood and reflects a Ming influence …

The subject of this build is a chair referred to as “The Chair” as it is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful designs of its genre. It owes some of it fame as the Debate Chair, used when Kennedy and Nixon went head-to-head on TV for the US presidency in 1960 …

The Chair”, as it is affectionately called, also nicknamed “The Round Chair”, was known to Wegner by its number, which was PP501. This had a corded seat. He later produced a PP503, with a solid seat.

The original version was designed in 1949. The following is the review by Interiors Magazine in 1950:

The Round Chair shows the very essence of Modern Danish Design and its commitment to centuries of experience in wood working. As explained by Wegner: “I have often been asked how we created the Danish Modern style. And I have to say that it was nothing like that – creating... I suppose that it was more an advanced process of purifying, and for me a simplification, cutting the elements down to the bare essentials: four legs, a seat and a combined top rail and arm rest - The Chair.

In this oak desk chair Mr. Wegner uses a simple construction and devotes himself to perfecting the shape and scale of the parts. The top rail, a complicated collection of twisted curves and joints, was wrested into quiet obedience. The sturdy legs are tapered just enough to seem muscular rather than overfed, and the seat dips slightly to look willing but not seductive.” – Interiors Magazine, USA, 1950

Version #501 utilised Danish Cord for the seat and on the back rest, the latter was to hide what Wegner considered to be ugly joinery between the back and the arms…

Later Wegner introduced a finger joint here, and the result was left for all to admire …

The chairs were manufactured by PP Møbler, who improved the construction by replacing the early dowelled joints with mortice-and-tenons, and a solid wood construction. It does not utilise bent or laminated construction.

Wegner was a trained and gifted furniture maker, not simply a designer. He built models of each chair to work out design kinks …

The question I have been asked is why I want to build a copy of this chair? Why not build one of my own design? The answer is simply that I wish to pay homage to this chair, which I have admired for a long time.

This choice was made a tad tricky since I had not actually seen one in the flesh. No one I knew had one. The permanent exhibition of MOM was a little far to go for a measure up. I began collecting photos of every angle, and searched for information and dimensions. It was interesting to discover how many “replicas” are for sale both in stores and on eBay. Even in photos it is easy to discern the original pieces from the replicas.

Max Withers (at Saw Mill Creek) came to my rescue. He sent me photos of one of his chairs along with a good many measurements. Slowly I began to piece these together. The more I did, however, the more I realised what an impossible task this was. Putting together a set of drawings to scale made me literally see how difficult it was to represent a 3-dimensional shape on a 2-dimensional plan.

There are subtle curves that just do not become apparent on photos, and that one only knows from feel. Then there are compound curves that make you aware that this chair was manufactured by machines, not handtools.

And I have never built a chair before. This is learning to swim in the deep end.

At this point I began to explore excuses:

I’m taking vegan cooking classes”.

I’ve developed claustrophobia … and now hate listening to jazz in the workshop”.

The workshop has been invaded by bandicoots”.

I promised my wife we would visit her mum this summer”.

I had second wind .. contacted the Australian Forum to see if anyone in Perth had The Chair. But unfortunately no.

I started searching through eBay (Australia). Perhaps I could find an original for less than the $4500 asking price … several thousand dollars less than that.

And you know what? There was one! Just one other bidder – who put in a token bid … and I was the owner of one of the chairs I have coveted for yonks … $500 for an original #503 The Chair in original condition save for a recovered seat.

This is a chair that was made under license for a short while in the 1960s by Danish Design in Melbourne. It has Tasmanian Blackwood body and Teak legs.

OK, now that I have The Chair it ups the stakes a little. It should be a lot easier having a model. The build copy will need to be really close to the original. If it is not so, then this will be quickly apparent, and I shall have proved myself a useless and incompetent woodworker, something which I long tried to disguise from you lot.

David Pye (in The Nature and Art of Workmanship) wrote about the “workmanship of risk”. This refers to the conflict between the certainty and predictability of results that come from machines, versus the uncertainty of quality that depends on the dexterity of one’s hands. Here we have a chair that is built by a duplicator machine. Want to see it done? Here you are:

The question I asked myself was “could it be done with handtools (or predominantly handtools – is a bandsaw a handtool? And a lathe?). I know of only one person who was mad enough to build The Chair by hand – Jeremy Broun – and he did this as a 17 year old!

The second-to-final piece of masochism is the wood I have for this build. One of the issues is that The Chair is created from solid blocks of wood. There is no laminating or steam bending. This is an inefficient use of wood … but that obviously does not bother the Danish.

I visited Derek Doak, “The Timber Bloke”. Derek is a helicopter pilot by day and on the weekends he is an urban salvage recycler.

I needed something in the region of 150 x 150mm (6” x 6” in the old money … but I decided to go metric in this build in honour of Denmark).

I left with some interesting Curly Jarrah in the back of my wife’s Golf …

The timber had been resting for a few years and was now dry. It is hard. The problem was that about a quarter of it was quite checked and there would be only just enough for the build. There would be no second chances, no back up pieces to turn to if I screwed up anything. Is this what David Pye was referring to as “risk”?

The final challenge would be making the seat. I quite fancy the seats woven from Danish Cord, and I’d like to try my hand at this. It does not look too difficult (famous last words), and I have found some great videos on the Internet by Mark Edmundsen on FWW and Caleb James.

What is Danish Cord? Danish cord is made from a heavy kraft paper, and comes either 1/8” thick laced (roped) or unlaced (twisted) cord. It is synonymous with Danish furniture.

So there you have it. This build is more likely to be a spectacular failure and not last as long as the first task, building the legs. There is only enough wood for four of them.

I shall document the work as it proceeds, and will count on the forums to offer up advice, which I shall collate and include here. Whatever transpires we shall learn something. Hopefully it will continue to the conclusion of the project.

Regards from Perth


January 1st 2014