Danish designer Hans Wegner. For decades his craftsmanship has helped keep Denmark at the forefront of furniture design.
Copenhagen — HANS J. Wegner is the last of the original ``revolutionaries.'' Along with Finn Juhl, Borge Mogensen, and Arne Jacobsen, he led that postwar revolution in Denmark that produced a new wave of fresh, light, functional furniture using exposed frameworks of naturally finished woods such as oak, teak, beech, birch, and cherry.
Today he refers to the period as ``that marvelous, exhilarating time when we were free at last do what we wanted and to get going.''
The goal ``was to keep the work process simple,'' Mr. Wegner remembers, ``to show what we could do with our hands and to try to make the wood we loved come alive, give it a touch of spirit and vigor, make our works look so natural that they could only be like that and like nothing else. We admired good tools. There were still many good craftsmen about, and we wanted to build on their know-how and competence in the new things we wanted to create.''
The impact of the revolution that resulted, fanned by exhibitions and competitions in many countries, was immediate and international in scope. A new Nordic design aesthetic had been born, and Wegner was one of its most exuberant and original exponents.
Several generations of young designers, cabinetmakers, and woodworkers have studied and continue to study and learn from Wegner's prodigious output over the last 40 years. He remains one of Denmark's most productive and imaginative designers.
Interviewed in his sunny design studio on the lower floor of the house he designed for his family in 1965, Wegner declares firmly, ``I will never retire as long as I can make something. And because I always think I can make something better than I made it before, I tend to keep improving on my own designs, as well as looking for new solutions for the churches, libraries, dormitories, and conference rooms I am commissioned to design.''
To keep creatively active, he says, ``the main thing for a designer to do is to keep designing. Just keep on doing it, without becoming afraid of the blank white paper in front of you. I keep facing that paper with expectation and the inspiration comes. Then I find myself eager to experiment with new ideas.''
Today, he explains, there is only one difference in his work routine. At 72, he works only eight hours a day, not 14 hours, as he used to do. His daughter, Marianne, a trained architect, is his assistant.
Wegner was born in the town of Tonder, Denmark, in 1914, the son of a shoemaker. ``We had a full range of craftsmen just around the corner,'' he recalls. ``The clatter of the craftsman's hammer was a familiar sound. Everything was simple, close, human. You became familiar with tools -- probably one of the important things that kids lack these days -- and you grew up in the midst of this creating world, learning from it all.''
``To me,'' he says, ``to design something is first of all to feel it. It is also a question of working with a thing long enough. I have to work with an idea until it looks like it can be only so, and could not be made in some other way. I only know what the end is when I come upon it, and that may take a long time.''
Wegner once surprised a group of design students at Pratt Institute by telling them that it took seven years to design his ``classic'' chair, which the world acclaimed in 1949. That chair of sculptured wood with a reed seat satisfied his desire ``to create a new thing which looks modern but is born classic.''
In fact, he has never paid much attention to fad and fashion. ``I have no time for the current Memphis or post-modern movements. They are too much surface -- too much outside. I think a designer must look deeply within himself and the traditions that have most meaning to him.'' He himself has drawn inspiration from such sources as ancient China, the Shakers, Windsor chairs, and rural Danish folkcraft.
Things are done best, Wegner says, by one responsible designer who can remain true to his own insights and who, during production, keeps careful watch on many things, including consistent quality. ``I go to the factory every day when I am making new models, and work there with the foreman and those skilled men who will produce it. It takes years to develop the kind of rapport I have with them. They understand and respect what I do.''
Wegner's designs have always been made by the firm of Johannes Hansen, although he has sometimes designed for as many as eight different firms and had as many as 45 chair designs in production at one time. Some of his chairs have been in continuous production for decades and are in use in millions of homes, as well as hundreds of institutions, including Harvard University, the Chase Manhattan Bank, the United Nations, and UNESCO headquarters in Paris
His most classic pieces of furniture are included in the permanent collections of museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert in London, the National Museum in Stockholm, and the National Gallery in Melbourne. Many of those produced in the 1940s and '50s are now fetching handsome prices at auction and selling briskly in those ``new antique'' shops that specialize in 1950s design.
``Of course,'' he muses, ``I have watched times change. Many of the fine old cabinetmakers and craftsmen have died off. The machine has taken over most of the work, so now you have to think about what machines can do, and it is not the same. I still design some chairs for craftsmen to make by hand. And we try to give others a feeling of handcraftsmanship by doing all finishing by hand.''
As the last of the original ``revolutionaries'' still actively designing, Wegner says he sometimes feels lonely. He glances at his workbench in the corner, at his planes, chisels, and other tools, and remarks, ``I often feel that I live at the end of a tradition and that I am standing with one of my feet in the past, several thousands of years back, at a time when man produced his own tools and thus had a close relationship to them.''
Although the master designer says he has always wanted to design normal everyday things for people at a price they can afford, he admits sadly that hand skills in particular have become very expensive. Today, George Tanier, whose New York firm Design Selections International (150 E. 58th) is the exclusive American importer for all Wegner designs, says that the designer's chairs sell in the US for $400 to $1,700.
Still, he says, ``Wegner is one of the master designers of the century and his knowledge of the craft of woodworking is as great as his feeling for form. He understands construction as few other designers do.''