Kaare Klint: the father of Danish design – Part 1
The great pioneer of Danish design is undoubtedly Kaare Klint. With his ergonomic research into standardisation, he turned Danish decorative arts into the world-famous Danish design of the 1950s.
Klint systematised a human-centred approach that formed the basis of Danish modernism. Through a series of measures around objects used by people (e.g. linen, tablecloths, cups, glasses, plates, cutlery, etc.) he established standards for the construction of, for example, sideboards, thus creating a certain form of rationalisation of storage. For its time, Klint ‘s research was bold, to say the least.
Klint ‘s research began quite early, in the early 1930s, and was therefore contemporary with that of Le Corbusier (1887-1965) on the Modulor. His research, although earlier, can also be compared to that of the Frenchman Marcel Gascoin.
Apart from the seat designed for the church in Grundtvig in 1936, made of beech and woven sea grass, none of Klint ‘s furniture was industrially produced. It is also one of the few pieces of furniture made of beech, a native wood that is rarely used by Klint. The designer had a strong taste for beautiful materials, such as Cuban mahogany. This choice, together with the handcrafted production at Rud. Rasmussen in Copenhagen, made his furniture expensive.
Klint’ s pioneering work in the field of furniture standardization and his teaching at the “Furniture School”, a “school” within the architectural department of the Copenhagen Academy of Fine Arts, were the main means of disseminating his avant-garde ideas. Almost all future Danish designers of the 1950s and 1950s passed through this section where Klint taught.
Let’s take a look at some of Kaare Klint’s most famous designs, such as the furniture for the Faaborg Museum, the Red Seat, his Safari Seat and the seat, known as the “church seat” because it was originally designed for the Church in Grundtvig.
The furniture for the Faaborg Museum
From 1913 Klint collaborated with the architect Carl Petersen to design furniture for the small Faaborg Museum on the island of Fuen. At the time, Danish design was still influenced by neo-classicism, and this is evident in the furniture.
Kaare Klint was always aware of the various trends that influenced his work, including the classicism of his early furniture and the English touch that he kept throughout his life. Klint had grown up in an environment where the importance of tradition was the basis for all renewal. The Danish tradition to which he was faithful was a mixture of classicism, national romanticism and, above all, a tradition of high quality cabinet making. He did not see the need to start all over again, but rather urged creation to benefit from the discoveries and achievements of the past in order to progress more quickly. With him a new page in the history of Danish furniture was opened, a gradual transition, since Kaare Klint was far from breaking with Danish tradition.
Taking the example of the Faaborg Armchair, which was to be used as a resting chair in the various painting rooms of the small museum. There were also sofas, cabinets, shelves and tables. The Faaborg Armchair is light, made of oak and cane, which makes its structure clearly visible. The backrest extends into armrests in a wide circular curve to the front legs, which are straight. The back legs, on the other hand, are slightly curved, which may remind us of the Klismos chair. Here we can already see some of the characteristics of Kaare Klint‘s future furniture, such as the simple and clear forms, the use of beautiful materials and the maintenance of the cabinetmaking tradition. The chair is still published today by Rud. Rasmussen.
The chairs designed for the Faaborg Museum have a classical look and are thus in keeping with Danish tradition. But this does not necessarily mean that they are historicist. Both the furniture and the details are original and specially designed for the space for which they are intended. We can speak of a total work of art here. The environment was therefore an important factor in the design of Klint‘s furniture, and this is a recurring theme in all his designs. Because the chairs are light, visitors can move them around and sit in front of a painting to contemplate it in more detail. Here, the idea of taking into consideration the individual for whom the furniture is intended, a concept that Kaare Klint developed a great deal in his teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, comes through, albeit timidly. The chairs are also perfectly adapted to the location, in this case the museum rooms. Seats and backrests are horizontal and follow the plane of the floor so as not to interfere with the oblique lines of the very peaceful rooms. Also the use of cane, made like a rattan trellis, on the seat and backrest, allows us to see the colours of the mosaic floor through. The legs are slightly pointed to match the small pieces of mosaic on the floor. This chair for the Faaborg Museum was so successful that Kaare Klint reworked it many times, including for the director’s desk at Thorvaldsen Museum, which he restored after Carl Petersen’s death in 1923.
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the red chair
The furniture for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs monopolised Klint’ s work for the next few years. He made countless display cases for the various objects on display. Even after the opening of the museum in 1926, he continued to create furniture for the museum, as evidenced by the furniture for the garden and the conference room. In 1928 he delivered 200 chairs made by Rud Rasmussen. This is the famous Red Chair, named after the red Niger leather that covers it.
This chair is very characteristic of Kaare Klint‘s furniture design. Here the inspiration comes from the English 18th century, a recurring reference in his designs. Klint himself describes this chair and says that the lower part was inspired by a typical Chippendale chair with straight legs and spacers between the legs and the back by another English chair with a very simple back covered with leather, and in this way he creates a completely new chair.
This way of designing a new piece of furniture was also one of the bases of his teaching. The Red Chair was, like most of Klint‘s furniture, made of Cuban mahogany, a precious wood as was often done in traditional cabinet making. However, he was also a pioneer in this field, as he only used wax to enhance the colour and the material. The notion of authenticity of materials is very present in Klint’s work. In this respect, he was in line with other artists and designers of his time, such as the English Arts and Crafts movement and Adolph Loos. And as is often the case, Klint reworked this model later on.
With Kaare Klint, the great adventure of Danish furniture began and the start of what was to guarantee a major place for Danish design on the European and American market, especially from the 1950s onwards. But why is Klint so important if his own work remains fairly traditional?
Kaare Klint a functionalist?
As early as 1916-1917, Klint made a series of drawings showing furniture dimensions relating to the size of the man, standing and sitting, his reach, the distances of his field of action and his field of vision etc. This work was not aimed at a production of furniture. This work was not intended for industrial production. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that we can speak of real industrial production in Denmark. Klint considered anatomical considerations fundamental when designing furniture, which is obvious to us today. His work on furniture standardisation was aimed at taking the human environment into account. Ergonomics was therefore a priority for Klint, and he was interested in the standardisation of furniture in order to better adapt it to the human being.
As we will see with the desks and sideboards, there is a close connection between form and content at Klint. The outer dimensions are determined by his studies of the human body. Similarly, the volume and divisions take into account space saving, different paper sizes, storage requirements and different uses according to individual needs.
How do you recognise a Kaare Klint library? A common denominator between the different bookcases is that the inner part is separated from the rest at the level of a chest of drawers and the upper part is at the maximum height that a human being can reach with his or her hand while standing. The bookcase is separated in the middle by a central partition. On this and on the lower sides of the bookcase, Klint creates a system of slots in the lower part of the shelves with protruding bottoms. The number of slots makes it possible to divide the bookcase into many different units, in line with the standardisation of the various objects, and thus allows for a wide variety of uses. It will thus reconcile ergonomic data with practical and space issues.
Every work process at Klint starts in the same way: first studies on the human proportions in relation to the object, on the need for space and on the possibilities of construction, then the determination of the dimensions and the treatment of the materials etc. Only then can the work of standardisation begin. It is no exaggeration to speak of him as the first designer in Denmark. It is, however, difficult to call him a functionalist in the sense that we usually understand it, because he did not use new materials such as metal, preferring traditional wood, and thus continuing the Danish cabinet-making tradition. The trend embodied by Klint is sometimes referred to as ‘traditional functionalism’. And some call him a traditional modernist.
But like many of his time, Klint had difficulty reconciling theory and practice, for although he had very socialist theories, he could not bring himself to industrialise his production. The question of living space was a growing concern at the beginning of the 20th century. Housing was beginning to change, with working-class neighbourhoods springing up everywhere, and although Klint addressed these issues, his designs were by no means compatible with this segment of the population, which could not afford such expensive furniture. The choice of materials (mahogany, leather, etc.) and the fact that the furniture was not industrialised made it unaffordable for these workers. Klint dreamed of the notion of Art for All but could not apply it.
Let’s remember above all the very interesting link in Klint’ s work between a furniture considered somewhat classical, not only because of the shapes, but especially because of the materials used; the woods, and this despite the rather innovative research for the time. The importance of Klint ‘s teaching is crucial to understanding the importance of wooden furniture. Among Klint ‘s most famous pieces of furniture is the famous Safari chair. Designed in 1936 in Denmark, it was the first chair to be exported disassembled in a small box. But also the deck chair made from 1933 at Rud Rasmussen or the folding stool made of ash wood designed around 1933 and also produced at Rud Rasmussen.
Kaare Klint was an all-round architect and designer who not only created furniture, but also funerary monuments, museum furnishings and the now world-famous lamps under the name Le Klint.
In our next article we will take a closer look at Kaare Klint ‘s teaching at the Furniture School at Copenhagen Fine Arts. A teaching that has had such an influence on all future generations of Danish designers.
Sources: www.carlhansen.com | www.leklint.com | www.rudrasmussen.com
Written by Rikke JACOBSEN
Doctor in Art History – Design, graduate of the Sorbonne Paris IV
Thesis on the subject of “Wooden furniture after the Second World War