The Chieftain

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Have you ever wondered how to sit in a ‘Chieftain chair’? Well now you know. Above is an archive pic of Finn Juhl showing us how to sit in his most lauded piece for maximum comfort.

Some say the Danish master saw life as a cocktail party, others that he followed the vagaries of fashion. His detractors at the time never seemed to be able to make up their mind. Was he trendy or traditional? Modernist or late Art Nouveau? And could you take him seriously or was his work super-intense?

Nowhere can you get closer to the heart of the matter than in his own home on the edge of Ordrupgaard park built in Ordrup on a 1,700 m² plot in 1942 where Juhl designed everything from the cutlery to the furniture himself. Like many designers of the time including Erno Goldfinger and Willow Road, the house in Ordrup became a lab where he could play with proportions and light and shade. The house also sets the scene for Finn Juhl’s own collection of modernist arts and crafts.

Juhl's famous Poet sofa in its original setting

c Onecollection/House of Finn Juhl

When Juhl swapped architecture for a career as a furniture designer in the 1930s his furniture was certainly in strong contrast to the geometry of the time led by those including his own furniture professor Kaare Klint. He preferred to hark back to Le Corbusier and Art Nouveau he told the New York Times. “I loved the way Corbusier divided his rooms up into components. I tried to design a chair in the same way, so the carrying structure was emphasised as one thing  and the seat and back were just surfaces to give rest to a man’s body.”  It must have put some peoples backs up, pardon the pun,  but, Juhl didn’t believe in blindly passing on tradition, he loved the organic nature of Art Nouveau and realised you needed to study the past to truly evolve.

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c Onecollection/House of Finn Juhl

Unlike modernist furniture forefathers Gerrit Rietveld and Marcel Breuer, rather than denounce upholstery in favour of strict geometry, Juhl stuck to his own love of comfort. He only ever designed one chair without upholstery and sculpted others, including ‘The Chieftain’, to give just the right amount of support in the right places and always to exacting minimal proportions. Each element had to flow seamlessly into each other. The seated person was made to look as if they were floating like the sculptures he loved by contemporaries Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jean Arp.

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c Onecollection/House of Finn Juhl

No other chair better illustrates this than his 1949 ‘Chieftain Chair’, created with the help of  master cabinet maker Niels Vodder for the Cabinetmakers’ Guild in Copenhagen. Inspired by ancient tribal weaponry and armour, the armrest and seat were cut free so the organic, delicately upholstered surfaces seemed to float. The chair has a stick insect quality about it as if the insect is about to rise from its camouflage as a leaf and perform its ritual love-making dance on a plant.

No-one quite knows exactly what element of it drew the King of Denmark to sit on it but it got its name after a journalist said Juhl should call it the King’s chair. Juhl replied something like “I’d prefer the chieftain’s chair” and the name stuck. It became a turning point for Juhl who went on to win five gold medals at the Milan Trienalle in the Fifties.

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c Onecollection/House of Finn Juhl

That point in 1949 marked the break through for Danish design in the USA. When other countries were embracing industrial mass production Danish furniture, led by Juhl at this point, stuck to organic craftsmanship. Even though his fluid-looking joinery put incredible demands on his joiner, it was an inspired direction to go in as no machine could copy his bio-morphic creations that made chairs appear like living sculptures in rooms. Designs like Juhl’s  looked extremely sophisticated next to all the other modern furniture designers. What with his use of alternative woods like cedar, maple, nut and Brazilian rosewood and his application of teak for inside as well as outside, not to mention his revolutionary use of colour,  the American avant-garde fell in love with his dynamic style and his detractors were forced to eat humble pie. By sticking to his own beliefs and passions Juhl struck design gold.

After a twenty minute bidding war at Phillips Nordic Design auction in London in September 2013 an early Chieftain chair in teak and natural leather and executed by Niels Vodder became the world record holder for the highest price ever achieved for a piece of Scandinavian furniture  – £422,500.

Search for Juhl in Buy Vintage on The Modern Marketplace

One Collection website

House of Finn Juhl website 

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c Onecollection/House of Finn Juhl

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