Very early on in his career, before he had reached the age of 30, Poul Henningsen (PH) had designed a number of items of lighting that could be described as a ‘commercial’ successes. Having trained as an architect and begun to experiment with furniture design in his twenties, Poul Henningsen in 1924 collaborated with the lighting manufacturer Louis Poulsen on what we today know as the iconic PH Lamp.
Having become one of Denmark’s authorities on lighting theory, Poul Henningsen designed the PH lamp in 1925, a lighting icon inspired by the way natural light falls through the foliage of a tree, providing illumination that is devoid of obtrusive glare. One year later, Poul Henningsen’s PH Lamp won a gold medal at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs & Industriels Modernes in Paris. Interestingly, Louis Poulsen, a business that had originally sold tools and electrical equipment still produces these and many other PH lamps today: almost one hundred years later the PH Lamp is still enduringly popular and can be considered to be a contemporary design classic.
The enduring presence of Poul Henningsen’s creativity can still be found frequently in Denmark. In addition to the PH Lamp, he designed several houses, a factory, a part of Tivoli, the interiors of two theatres and several pianos, all of which have become enduring design icons. Early versions of his work can be found and studied at the permanent exhibition of Designmuseum Danmark (located on the same street in Copenhagen as the showroom of PH Pianos & PH Furniture).
What is lesser know about Poul Henningsen is that he was also a prolific designer of furniture, although only a small number of his furniture designs were manufactured in his lifetime and in very small numbers. Yet, many of PH’s designs are as relevant today as they were in the first half of the 21st Century. Inspired by German Bauhaus design theories, PH became a pioneer of functionalism. Poul Henningsen believed in prioritizing”utility before beauty”, observing in 1927 that ”We do not desire a new form unless it is dictated by the objective”.
How to bring ‘good design’
Poul Henningsen began to design furniture as early as the 1919, when he is known to have designed the PH Dressing Table. The PH Dressing Table was one of PH’s earliest furniture designs and is now in production under license from the estate of Poul Henningsen by PH Furniture. PH’s furniture designs were many, though not all were progressed from presentation as drawings to prototypes and production.
Most often, PH designed simple and light furniture avoiding the use of heavier materials and expressions in the design, with practicality as the main idea behind each piece. Poul Henningsen frequently observed that the solution to many common design problems in furniture were to be found in nature. Examples of this idea can be seen not only in the PH lamp, but also in the design of the PH Snake Chair and his collection of table designs. PH was an early advocate of ‘standardisation’ , since he saw mass production of quality home furnishings as a way of solving one of the twentieth century’s increasing problems: of how to bring ‘good design’ – that is design that was beautiful as well as functional – to the broader population at an affordable price.
It is a feature of most of the PH furniture that the legs are uniquely designed in order to make a clear distinction between what is carrying and what is being carried. Therefore, the furniture legs are often separated visually from the frame or the frame is placed on the very edges of the legs. In addition, Poul Henningsen often made the legs underpinning his furniture thin, light and as unobtrusive as possible, in order to create the illusion that his furniture pieces appear almost to float.
Beautiful and Functional
Poul Henningsen was also keen to revolutionize the materials used in furniture manufacture. When wood was not eschewed in favour of metal, PH felt it important to use colour to allow a piece of wooden furniture to communicate. The story goes that PH painted all the wooden furniture at his private home.
Poul Henningsen’s approach to designing new product was very much the reverse of the design philosophy of many creators who went before him, who were responsible for the furniture that was available in the early part of the 20th century. Rather than designing with the view to solving a ‘design problem’, so therefore putting the issue of ‘function’ first, designers and cabinet makers had historically referred to tradition and what ‘had always been done’ when creating furniture. PH turned this philosophy inside-out: by resolving the issue of the function of the design of a new piece of furniture first and only then deciding on how it should look.
The result of PH’s inverted approach was furniture that often challenged the ideas about what things ‘should look like’. A perfect example of this is PH’s Grand Piano design, which removes all that is superfluous about the traditional ‘black box’ piano design, featuring unnecessary and heavy cabinetry and replaces it with a piano which has been stripped back to it’s basic exoskeleton, revealing the beauty of all the components within.
In 1932, Poul Henningsen presented a collection of eight steel tube furniture designs at the Danish Fair for Industrial Design and Products in 1932. PH’s steel tube furniture received some attention in the media because of its innovative character and more importantly because its distinctive, bold yet still elegant shapes were created in steel rather than wood. PH’s steel tube furniture did not, however, come to a point of a mass production, nor was it marketed during his lifetime. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the commercial market was not ready for what was possibly perceived as “fancy, modern and avant-garde” furniture. In the 1930s, Poul had designed furniture belonging to the future just as was the case with the completely distinctive Poul Henningsen Grand Piano, which had been presented a year earlier.
Additionally, 1930s manufacturing technology was simply not advanced enough to produce on a scale the sophisticated Poul Henningsen designs, with their curvaceous forms and innovative use of materials. Even today, it is a major challenge to reproduce the steel tubes in line with his original designs, although modern manufacturing techniques now make this possible.
Poul Henningsen (PH) can be described as a true visionary, ideas that PH wrote about during his years of extensive designing in the 1920s and 1930s that were considered by the establishment as ‘avant-garde’ at the time are now fundamental to the concepts behind modern furniture production today.
Now, in the 21st Century, PH’s furniture designs are available to buy, as contemporary production techniques enable them to be brought to life to accompany the highly popular PH lighting range that has become integral to the very fabric of many interiors in Denmark.