History is my hobby ever since I can remember, but due to nature of my work, it’s rare that I have time to invest more time and effort into it. So apart from reading some books every now and then, history remained pretty side-lined. But, this is one topic that crossed my mind several times before, so I decided to do something about it and write this brief article. In the text, I will try to bring together furniture design and history – which is a rare opportunity to be perfectly honest, and I am rather hyped about it.
The question from which I will commence this short discussion is something that must have crossed your mind too if you are familiar with the works of Hans J. Wegner. The question is of course – how did a 17th century Chinese chair come to inspire classics of Danish mid-century design? So, let’s take a more detailed look at this question.
The golden age of Chinese furniture design
The Ming dynasty has been arguably the most influential in the whole of Chinese history. During their reign, some of the biggest scientific, artistic, but also social, industrial and economic breakthroughs took place. And the same is true for furniture design, too. In fact, the reign of the Ming Dynasty has been called the golden age of Chinese furniture design marked by the spread of its reputation and influence. In this period spanning from 14th to 17th century, China significantly upped the stakes in the regional influence games, kick-starting a prosperous era and a period when cities flourished.
With the rapid increase in urban population during the Ming rule, the demand for craftwork (but also all other goods) continued to increase. The craftsmen begin working together in guilds, but also started influencing each other in less formal ways, which all resulted in the emergence of a unique style which became characteristic for the Ming China.
The Ming style
This style developed under strong influence of two schools of Chinese religious philosophy, namely Confucianism and Taoism. The craftsmen involved view their endeavours as attempts to add more harmony to the world by creating simple, yet precise and elegant designs that were inspired by nature itself.
The same was true for furniture design and chair design more specifically, which is the topic of primary interest for us. In this field, the philosophical approach to craftsmanship resulted in unique shapes and forms marked by a continuous horizon of lines meeting in the chair back and flowing to the curved hand-rests in an aesthetical expression known in china as yuanhun which roughly translates to roundness or wholeness. The typical Ming-style round-back armchair is a typical example of this approach.
In traditional Chinese design, these elements were decorated with symbolic elements, like a sceptre which symbolises power and good fortune, or a specific position of the armrests which represents honour. Even the form of the chair itself was considered to be a symbolic representation of the philosophical concept known as tianuyan defang which can be translated to ‘round heaven and square earth’. But, even more important to our question here, Chinese merchants started exporting these chairs as early as 17th century and so they found their way into Europe.
Fast forward to the 1940s
European designers quickly began emulating these traditional Chinese chairs, although with no initial success. The elegance of this specific form was recognised only three centuries later, in the mid-century years, more specifically in 1940s when two iconic designs inspired by traditional Chinese chairs reached the pubic and captivated the imagination of millions – China chair and Wishbone chair, both of them designed by a master carpenter and innovator in the field of furniture design, Hans J. Wegner.
But, in his variation, Hans Wegner further explored the potential of the classic Chinese design, fusing the form with the typical Scandinavian sensibilities and demands of his contemporary period. In a twist of fate, by looking at the portraits of Danish merchants sitting in Chinese chairs, Wegner was inspired by traditional Chinese aesthetics, but the resulting design became synonymous with Danish and more broadly Scandinavian design.
However, despite its undeniably Scandinavian appeal, Wishbone chair as well as many other designs by Hans Wegner wouldn’t be possible without the Ming dynasty. Because only the prosperity brought on by this line of wise rulers enabled Chinese craftsmen to develop their unique style which in the end became ‘exported’ to Europe via centuries old trade routes. As Denmark developed as a maritime power itself, it traded with China extensively, setting the stage for the emergence of now legendary portraits of Danish merchants in Ming-style chairs which ended up inspiring Wegner and kick-starting the creation of possibly the most recognisable and iconic design of the Danish modern.