Poul Henningsen (1894 / 1967) - A Pioneer of Functionalism

Poul Henningsen (1894 / 1967) - A Pioneer of Functionalism

Forget all you know about Danish design and start again with Poul Henningsen or just the PH he used as his signature: simple, functional and to the point. Everything he produced from architecture and furniture to cultural critique and poetry follows this one single line of thought.

Born in 1894, Poul Henningsen’s early life was considered rather unconventional at the time. The fourth child of writer Agnes Henningsen and the son of liberal writer Carl Ewald, PH was born in to a highly creative and rather non-traditional family environment that by it’s very nature challenged the concept of ‘traditional Danish society’. Undoubtably, PH’s childhood enabled him to feel that he was free to undertake a ‘non-traditional’ and creative path as he grew older as it had already been demonstrated by his parents that this was not only acceptable, but also to be applauded.

A common theme throughout Poul Henningsen’s life that can be observed from his very beginnings: his desire to design and craft items by hand. In his earliest years, Poul Henningsen’s zeal for ‘making things’ took the form of items made on a workbench he was gifted at the age of three. Later, his creativity manifested itself in paintings, before he trained as a carpenter and then as a stone-mason. These artisanal craft skills of two and three dimensional manufacture were all acquired prior to PH’s eventual qualification as an architect, giving him not just theoretical knowledge of design – but crucially, a deep interest and understanding in what would work in practice in home and building design.


Provocative, Visionary, Challenging: a Founder of Futurism Illuminated Living

From this point in time, Poul Henningsen’s output as a designer, architect and sometimes writer and cultural commentator was prolific. He consistently challenged the status quo of Danish life on many levels, sometimes through the very practical re-designing of homes, furniture and everyday objects and sometimes as the source of often provocative writing and thinking of a more political nature.

Poul Henningsen believed that well-designed, functional and aesthetically pleasing environments were the right of every individual: this was the enduring philosophy behind all his work. Whether designing a two bedroom city apartment or writing for publications, making a good quality of life accessible for all was a recurrent theme. Inherent in Poul Henningsen was a desire not just to improve the day to day quality of life of the socially elite and the bourgeoisie, but also to make available ‘good design’ to working people.

Many of Poul Henningsen’s designs are as relevant today as they were in the first half of the 21st Century. 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. A winner of a gold medal at the World Fair in Paris in the 1920s, today the PH lamp is still in manufacture and in extremely high demand. 

Poul Henningsen also designed several houses, a factory, a part of Tivoli, the interiors of two theaters, 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 is located).


Design for the Next Generation: Poul Henningsen’s Furniture

Inspired by German Bauhaus design theories, PH became a pioneer of functionalism in Denmark. Poul Henningsen believed in prioritizing function over form or ”utility before beauty”, observing in 1927 that ”We do not desire a new form unless it is dictated by the objective”.

Most often he 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 Snake Chair and his collection of table designs. 

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. 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. 


Bold and elegant steel tubes: Challenges and possibilities

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.

Now, in the 21st Century, PH’s furniture designs are to be made available to buy for the first time, 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.

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