Modern Master: Danish Architect and Designer Finn Juhl

SLIDESHOW: Finn Juhl’s house (Photo credit: Henrik Sørensen)

Danish architect and designer Finn Juhl was the purveyor of a quiet, precise Nordic aesthetic.

“A chair isn’t simply a product in a room, it is a design and a room in itself,” said Danish architect and designer Finn Juhl (1912-89) in 1952. The architect was then becoming famous for his exceptional designs. The winner of five gold medals for his furniture at the Milan Triennale in the 1950s, Juhl was chosen to decorate the Trusteeship Council Chamber of the United Nations in 1951-52. “When the chamber opened in 1952, it was clear that Juhl’s decoration of the room not only underpinned the UN’s democratic objectives, but also placed Danish architecture on the world map,” says Henrik Gabriel Maa.

A quiet and precise aesthetic, Juhl’s style embodies Danish modernism. In the outskirts of Copenhagen, his house — now a museum — looks very simple; ordinary almost, with its two clear-cut, boxy wings of plain white-stuccoed brick and a low, pitched roof covered in light grey shingles. “Once inside, the gentle Nordic light pours in through the generous terrace doors and windows, and reflects off the soft cream and pastel walls, creating a convivial environment for paintings, sculptures, furniture, ceramics and, of course, people. It’s a prime example of the most romantic ideals of modernism in action, where architecture, design, and art harmoniously commingle to bring about a comfortable, functional, personalised, and soul-nourishing space for living,” says Maa.

Considered one of the most influential and prolific Danish furniture designers of the 20th century, Juhl trained as an architect, yet built very few buildings. His residence in Ordrup, begun in 1941, is all the more exceptional because, over the 40 years he lived there, it served as a laboratory where he experimented with perfecting interiors, integrating carefully chosen elements across every art form and often trying out new ideas before taking them to market. He cultivated coherence in every detail, designing everything himself, right down to daily items such as cutlery and crockery.

“Juhl was too avant-garde to be a university professor,” says Jeppe Mühlhausen, general manager of Hotel Alexandra in Copenhagen, which offers a furnished Finn Juhl suite. “From a young age, he worked for famous Danish modernist architect Vilhelm Lauritzen and helped him design the iconic Radio House. Experts believe that the Crown Lamp placed on both sides of the hotel lobby was designed by Juhl,” the hotelier explains. In 2001 Mühlhausen conceptually revived the 19th century Hotel Alexandra. Each room was meant to embrace a facet of Denmark’s design heritage and revive the Danish moderns. “I wanted every space to pay tribute to some of our brightest design minds and offer guests the possibility to stay in a room that would be completely furnished with vintage design references and collectibles.”

Buying cheap pieces from sales and flea markets, Mühlhausen started noticing around 12 years ago that the price of modernist furniture was sky rocketing. “One day, Hanne Wilhelm Hansen — Juhl’s widow — offered ‘their’ bed. She said they had slept in it throughout their marriage and that maybe we could use it at the hotel and would just need to insure it. So we did,” he says. “Back then, the Finn Juhl-designed bed was only worth around €37,000, but when she died the Finn Juhl Estate placed it back in Hanne’s room, where it belongs, inside the Juhl house,” says Mühlhausen. Today, it is priceless.

Sometimes accused of an elitism contrary to the democratic aims of modernist design, Juhl’s furniture is now revered because he used luxury materials and turned to hand craftsmanship for details. For Juhl, the modernist project had more to do with an intellectual, aesthetic sensibility, than with finding efficient solutions to the design problems of mass culture. Many of his most famous pieces were conceived with the help of master cabinetmaker Niels Vodder: the Chieftain Chair, the Pelican Chair, the Model 45, the Egyptian Chair, the Poet Sofa and his multi-coloured Chest of Drawers (1961) are now cornerstones of design history. In November 2016, Juhl’s 1949 Chieftain Chair was sold in Hong Kong for almost €235,000.

Juhl once wrote that an “architect should strive for unity but not uniformity, and establish a complete thought process behind everything”. The interiors he designed 75 years ago still tell the story of a life impassioned by high culture but grounded in simple pleasures; engaged in pursuits of the mind, as well as the heart.

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