The Chieftain and the Chair: The Rise of Danish Design in Postwar America
By Maggie Taft
University of Chicago Press, 188pp.
edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.
Published May 23, 2023
“Danish design” has been making the rounds across the United States for at least 60 years now. As Maggie Taft cites in The Chieftain and the Chair, the American authors of the 1954 book The Shopping Guide to Europe declared: “In furniture, handmade or manufactured, the Danes stand like a Colossus over all of Europe and indeed reach a long arm into our own country.”
We may take Danish Modern for granted. But as Taft shows in her absorbing story, the furniture aesthetic was less an expression of national spirit than a complex product of colonial relationships, protectionism, state intervention and transatlantic salesmanship.
Proudly Made in…
Taft’s book is, among other things, an exceptional case study in marketing. Before turning to the two objects of the ambiguous title — the Chieftain is a chair, as is The Chair — it’s worth considering the history of national branding. Most countries manufacture products in a range of quality and price, although they use their national origin brands to emphasize quality. Think of the renown of Savile Row tailors and the prestigious British “Super-100” woolens that suit makers around the world tout. Nevermind that England is also the homeland of the shoddy industry — a proud name in the districts where this inexpensive cloth is reprocessed from rags.
Other nations encroach on those brands. Some German manufacturers in the late 19th century were notorious for labeling cutlery, for example, as “Sheffield,” despite having no connection to the English city. At the time, the unified, ambitious German empire was not only a naval rival of Britain, but also becoming a manufacturing competitor. And its products soon proliferated in British shops — just as Chinese goods became increasingly common in the U.S. in the 1990s. In both cases, the upstart exporting nations had a reputation as vaguely unpatriotic but irresistibly cheap.
In 1887, the UK Parliament sought to exploit anti-German sentiment as well as origin counterfeiting with national origin requirements — aimed mainly at the Germans. German quality, meanwhile, was improving not only in cutlery but also in science-based technology like optical goods and electrical equipment.
And so it goes. In the 21st century, many German and Japanese manufacturers have moved most production to developing Asia, but their flagship lines often maintain the coveted national origin labels.
Modern But Comfy
Danish modern, as Taft explains it, was not an extension of a domestic craft tradition but rather a hybrid creation. Teak, the favorite material, is a tropical wood and Denmark, unlike other Scandinavian countries, has relatively little forest land. It also has a surprising colonial heritage. While Thailand, Denmark’s source of the Southeast Asian wood, had retained its independence in the 19th century, it was effectively an economic colony of Denmark and links had continued after the Second World War. Thai loggers even precut teak into boards suitable for use by Danish artisans and manufacturers.
It should have been obvious to consumers that this tropical wood could never be planted in chilly Scandinavia, but it was nonetheless naturalized in sophisticated buyers’ tastes as innately Danish — that is, until the Thais began charging full market prices. (The Danes thereupon shifted to another tropical forest hardwood, rosewood, that could be cut thinner for veneers.
Americans have been encouraged to conjure images of Danes living in the streamlined comfort of their exporters’ products. In fact, Danish middle-class tastes at mid-century were traditionalist, even stodgy.
Danish design hits a sweet spot. The author does not use the phrase, but the style reminds me of the mantra offered by the mid-century product design guru Raymond Loewy: MAYA — most advanced yet acceptable. Elizabeth Gordon, editor of the influential shelter magazine House Beautiful, championed Danish design as “human and warm … personal, national and universal.” She contrasted it with what she considered the products of the German Bauhaus movement exemplified by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s tubular steel furniture, which she considered “tyrannical.”
Gordon’s hero, by the way, was America’s premier home-grown design genius, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose stunning midcentury modern work had an Achilles heel that Taft might have examined more closely. Wright’s integration of interior furnishing and architectural form made his buildings unique immersive experiences, but he knowingly sacrificed occupant comfort to aesthetic vision.
It is rare to find such a thoroughly researched study of the forces that create tastes and trends.
It was up to Wright’s clients to adapt themselves, recalling the adage, “beauty must suffer.” Sometimes this meant adapting to a 90-degree backrest, sometimes avoiding a spill from a three-legged design known to the occupants of one of his office buildings as the “suicide chair.” In a rare compromise, Wright produced another, conventionally four-legged version, yet he continued to create unstable seating for years.
Fortunately for Gordon and her readers, Denmark’s star designers like Finn Juhl and Hans Wegner could continue Wright’s tradition. For Taft, the surest sign of the Danes’ ascendancy was the choice of Edith Farnsworth, one of Mies’s major clients, of Wegner’s Round Chair (soon known as The Chair to enthusiasts of Scandinavian design). This was instead one of Mies’ own tubular-steel-framed designs for Farnsworth’s Bauhaus-inspired country home in Plano, Illinois. The Round Chair was not actually circular. It had a gracefully curved back support resting atop four slender legs as though floating in air. In my experience it is less comfortable than Marcel Breuer’s cantilevered tubular steel sled chair, which has full back support. But the Round Chair is more relaxing to look at.
Modern But Pricy
As Taft notes, imported Danish furniture was always an elitist choice, partly because import duties made it pricey, but also because of the skilled artisanship needed to make it even in factory settings. A set of eight chairs at $125 each in 1955, Taft observes, would have cost a third the price of a Ford Thunderbird. But thanks to Yankee ingenuity, knockoffs abounded.
Enforcing furniture design and utility patents has always been challenging in U.S. courts, especially when an independent patent holder faces off in court against a giant manufacturer or retail chain. (The Smithsonian Archives Center once began to collect furniture manufacturers’ catalogues but discontinued the program because of companies’ fear of plagiarism, a curator once explained to me.)
Despite this book’s apparently narrow scope, it should be read widely not only in the history of technology and design, but also in world economic history and in the business of applied art and design, because it is rare to find such a thoroughly researched study of the forces that create tastes and trends.
Taft could have paid more attention both to the uniqueness of American taste and to other cultural trends in the postwar era. Many 19th-century European visitors noted the indecorous custom of American men to tip backward in their chairs and even to rest their (dirty) shoes on tables. In fact, international contributors to social media sites still wonder about this even today. The Chieftain chair with its built-in suspended reclining function appealed to this habit. Taft even includes a photo of the designer with one foot draped over an armrest, as though demonstrating a feature to prospective U.S. customers.
A shorter-term trend also encouraged would-be chieftains. Postwar American media, including Life Magazine, noted a strong trend toward informality and reclining. The 1950s and 1960s were a golden age of innovation for companies like La-Z-Boy and Barcalounger, not to mention Knoll and its still-iconic Eames chair and ottoman.
The price of the Chieftain was roughly in line with that of leather Barcaloungers and of Eames recliners with ottomans, all about $300 to $400 in the mid-1950s, the equivalent of about one-tenth the price today. Thus, all the originals were aimed at a small, affluent segment of the public.
The marketing of the period emphasized the tension of the workplace and the pleasures of unwinding at home. Barcalounger was promoted as a “heart-saver” chair and the archives of the Vitra Design Museum in Germany have an album of doctors’ prescriptions for tax-deduction purposes — as well as documentation of the Federal Trade Commission’s challenge of the maker’s health claims. The Norwegian manufacturer Stressless remains a leading U.S. brand.
Finally, the Chieftain chair may have been one of the best furniture investments of all time. Authentic Danish ones now are selling for over $18,000, and vintage units in good condition for over $10,000 — far more than any other widely marketed lounge chair in history.
Denmark may thus rightly claim to be the champion national brand of early 21st-century America. The Danish brand is contemporary but not hard-edged (like Bang & Olufsen audio), relaxed but dignified (like the two chairs of the title), simple yet also challenging (like Lego blocks). Think of it: an egalitarian society with bicycling royals sending premier luxury products to the wealthy of the world.