Finn Juhl, a Danish modern design pioneer, was born on the 30th of January in 1912 in Copenhagen. He is best known for bringing Danish modern design to America and for his combining functional and structural approaches to craftsmanship. His works are distinguished and very different from the typical functionalist approach to furniture making, prevalent in furniture making of that time.
Juhl lost his mother only three days after his birth and was left in the guardianship of his father, who owned a successful business as a textile merchant. Growing up, Juhl developed a passion for art. In his late teens he spent much time at the Statens Museum for Kunst and wanted to study art history. However, his father’s influence led him to instead study architecture. Juhl got accepted to the department of architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts. This was in the 30’s, the time when modern design emerged.
In 1934, Juhl got a job at Vilhelm Lauritzen’s architecture studio. He was involved in notable projects, including the development of the Copenhagen Airport, and subsequently dropped out of his studies. In 1937, his furniture was showcased for the first time at the Annual Cabinetmakers’ Guild Exhibition. In 1942, Juhl became a member of the Danish Architects’ Association. He was also known for collaborations with a talented cabinetmaker Niels Vodder for many years.
Juhl was famous for challenging the norms and conventions of furniture making of that time. He started his projects by measuring and analyzing the proportions and shapes of his own body, believing that a chair serves as an extension of the human physique, and the two should be seen as connected. He explained, “I’m fascinated by shapes which defy gravity and create visual lightness”. One of the examples of such visual lightness is the Egyptian Chair, inspired by the work Juhl had seen in Louvre. Merging the chair and the seater can be seen throughout his early work.
Juhl’s projects are certainly different from designers of the time, as he loved experimenting with shapes of furniture and crafted his masterpieces with a sculptor’s approach. Juhl avoided minimalism at all costs, instead being inspired by soft shapes and organic proportions. 1939-1940 were the first years of his chairs to be presented to the public, some of which possessed animal names, like the Pelican Chair (1940), the shape of which was inspired by the human torso. Additionally, the piece included wings that provided protection and support for the spine.
Juhl’s sofas often contained openings in the backrest, allowing the seater to hang one arm through. Some upholstered examples of Juhl’s work include the Easy Chair (1939), Poet Sofa (1941) and FJ50 (1950). Apart from upholstered pieces, Finn Juhl started creating pieces of an opposite concept, opening all of the framework to the consumer’s eye.
In 1942, Juhl and his wife built their own home north of Copenhagen, filling it with some of his most notable pieces, along with artwork by Danish painters. Juhl got divorced, but not long after met his second life partner Hanne Wilhelm Hansen. In 1945, upon leaving Wilhelm Lauritzen’s studio, he opened his own design studio with a focus on furniture and interior design, which quickly gained momentum. Between 1945 and 1955, Juhl also worked as senior teacher at the School of Interior Design.
In 1949, the Chieftain Chair was presented at the Cabinetmakers’ Guild exhibition. Carefully crafted and perfected with time, the chair was inspired by tribal art, with Juhl’s booth at the exhibition also decorated with tribal artifacts.
Combining his passion for art and mastery as a chair craftsman, Finn Juhl is undoubtedly one of the most unique furniture designers in Danish history. His work became celebrated internationally in 1950-1951, when he met Edgar Kaufman at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After visiting Denmark in 1948, Juhl’s work left an impression on Kaufman. This soon led to a collaboration with a Michigan-based company Baker’s Furniture, with Juhl’s masterpieces soon being produced and sold in the US.
Juhl was also invited to design the Trusteeship Council’s Chamber at the United Nations Headquarters before its construction in New York. Inspired by abstract artists like Mondrian, Juhl included imitation of several flags hanging down into the ceiling. The ventilation and lighting were hidden from the human eye. The chair designed for the chamber was later named FN-stolen, of the United Nations Chair, which later on came to be produced by Niels Vodder in Denmark and by Bakers Furniture in the U.S.
Juhl collaborated with Scandinavian Airlines in 1956, designing ticket offices for the company. In the following years he designed the interiors of as many as 33 terminals in cities like Tokyo, Nairobi and Alexandria. Airliners were also designed by Juhl.
In his later years, Juhl’s designs became more mainstream, resulting in mass production by companies like France Och Daverkosen. Some of the pieces designed in 1950s for this company included the Japan Sofa and Easy Chair, as well as the Diplomat series of furniture, designed in the 60s. Designs of that time started to be used in offices internationally, becoming the staple of comfort and reliability. However, Juhl’s later works placed more emphasis on daily functionality and lacked precise craftsmanship and dedication intrinsic to his signature pieces.
Juhl died on May 17th 1989. His spouse, Hanne Wilhelm Hansen, established the Finn Juhl Prize in 2003 in honor of his name. Finn Juhl’s furniture is still being mass produced to this day. However, Juhl’s earlier designs are the ones that are truly sought-after by collectors, as they brought an artistic impression of the mid-century decades into furniture making. Juhl’s craftsmanship possesses an iconic status and is celebrated all over the world to this day, breaking down the borders between art and functionality.