Poul Kjaerholm & Upsidedown Cathedrals

OK, OK, yes, I beat Modernism about the face and head with it’s own hypocrisy, arrogance, gutlessness, and intellectual laziness, but on rare occasions, some very pretty examples manage to seduce me into contradicting myself. In the case of Poul Kjaerholm, I’ll still try to argue he’s ideologically not quite in sync with the blustering blowhards of Bauhaus, but there’s no denying his iconic works look like they were stolen out of the Platonic empyrean of pure mathematical forms, the place *every* good Modernist hopes to go after s/he dies.

Born in 1929, Poul Kjaerholm graduated in 1952 from the Department of Furniture Design at what was then called the School of Arts, Crafts and Design in Copenhagen. His 1951 *senior*project* – the PK-25 – became a world-wide sensation, and continues to be one of his most iconic works. It presented a strong counterpoint to the soft, gentle, wooden curves that had become the standard idiom of Danish design, instead boldly asserting itself in a new, angular, reductionist idiom.

In his 1951 senior project (PK25), Kjaerholm conquered considerable technical difficulties in realizing this chair, making the construction itself seemingly vanish without a trace behind the eye-pleasing switchbacks and bifurcations of the gleaming metallic laser beams comprising the frame.

But for the humanizing element of the natural fiber halyard, the overarching and dominant structure of the cut spring-steel chair appears more like carefully split & articulated laser beams than a seating frame. It is very nearly pure, architectural diagrammatics. –However, there are two features of the piece which, I argue, steer it away from Modernism: (i) a characteristic Danish refinement and humility of form, which has a (thin) tether to history & tradition, and (ii) those dainty little feet, like you’d expect at the end of baby grasshopper legs, far too adorable to belong in the same categorical grouping with the designs of those puffed-up, self-important dogmatists in Corbie’s mom’s basement.

After such success out of the gate, Kjaerholm certainly didn’t rest on his laurels, but was soon hired back to the same school as a professor, where he embarked on a 20 year career as teacher and international designer. In 1958, he won the legendary Lunning Prize, and in 1960, he was commissioned to design Denmark’s pavilion at the 17th Triennial in Milan. Influenced by his contemporary and friend Charles Eames, as well as by the Dutch De Stijl movement, and yes, some of the twit-headed Bauhaus crowd, like Mies and Breuer, he experimented with some different materials and styles throughout his career. However, his most representative pieces still exhibit the same mathematical elegance revealed in his first piece and perfected in later works. Especially in these, Kjaerholm effortlessly wields a baton, ruthlessly orchestrating the design vectors of proportion, rhythm, and light, producing a subdued sonata of sublime economy of form.

Ulf Hard af Segerstad, a colleague of Kjaerholm, once remarked on Kjaerholm’s perfectionism, calling his furniture ‘upside-down cathedrals,’ meaning the structural details, at which Kjaerholm most painstakingly toiled in refining to sheer infallibility, remain utterly inconspicuous, just as the magnificent roof details of Gothic cathedrals are ever unseen by mortals, but only there for ‘the greater glory of God.’ — It is exactly this unpretentious modesty of design that exempts Kjaerholm from Modernism, me thinks. Of course, it is easier to conjecture this modesty knowing that Kjaerholm was, as a person, a soft-spoken, self-effacing, kindly professor (not a self-congratulatory manifesto-writer). He was also deeply rooted in his Danish heritage and considered himself a craftsman first, leaving terms like ‘designer’ or ‘architect’ for others to apply.

And indeed, others have applied these terms, especially ‘architectural’ to his work. While in the earlier part of his career, he did try out more ‘sculptural’ designs (like the Eames-inspired laminate chair of 1952), adopting forms that push out and penetrate the space around them, his later works became almost exclusively ‘architectural,’ not only in the self-contained sense, wherein the design embodies a coordinated equilibrium between the vertical and horizontal planes and sensitivity to structural tectonics, but also in the integrative contextual sense, wherein the piece includes and accentuates the room in which it stands. It is this last aspect that makes Kjaerholm’s pieces really amazing, like retroviruses that, once inserted into the host architecture, edit themselves into the host’s DNA, becoming an ineluctable constituent of the overall architectural totality.

Kjaerholm’s works represent an upper limit in minimalist design. Going any further would only yield ‘performance art’ pieces, a.k.a. ‘jackassery,’ and not authentic *furniture* that people actually use and enjoy. If we imagine the entire universe of design possibility as forming a ‘possibility space,’ then these sorts of minimalist works occupy one region of that space. Kjaerholm did a gorgeous job of fleshing out these possibilities. Someone had to do it, and aren’t we lucky it was him? Let us be jealous that it wasn’t any of us, but let’s accept that it’s sufficiently done now. The vast, cavernous majority of this possibility space remains opaque to us, yet unexplored and unrealized. Young designers, this is where you are needed, where you ought make a name for yourself. Pay homage to the great Kjaerholm, and do not waste your talent being a suckup copycat.

Some more lovely examples of Professor Kjaerholm’s artistry:

This 1953 steel-wire chair appears as an artifact from a topological multi-vector plot-graph TRON-world landscape; it is a continually folded plane, undulating concavity & convexity in a sexy strip-tease of pure essentialism. One has to wonder how much Bertoia and Platner were inspired by this chair.

This 1961 tripod-base chair exhibits a strong columnar effect, dramatized at the junction of those sweeping, organic, curved lines against the foil of the chair.


The PK11 chair emerges as if deduced like a lemma from of the axiomatics of the table, as if Kjaerholm had coded a complex proof into furniture.

1961 PK41 folding stool: A dramatic spatial reduction of an ancient Greek stool, the twists in the legs at once rigorously utilitarian and yet playfully impish with graduating reflective light and candor of form.

1955 PK22 chair: Based on the ancient Greek Klismos chair, this piece meticulously modulates a subtle concave curve in the back with a muted convex curve in the seat, underpinned in contrast by a pronounced subjascent double arch. As with the the PK25, only the elfin feet provide relief from the stern intensity of the rest of the piece. Another beautiful example of originality informed by the idiom of tradition.

1965 PK 24 chaise) PK described as “the equally valid, equilibrium principle” — organically curve plane hovers freely in the room while it just tangents the horizontal and vertical in equilibrium. the minimal base supports the curved plane with an almost invisible fingertip touch and the transition is conveyed by a thin steel friction strip. the effect of the contrast between the powerful curved plane and the modest right-angled support is unexcelled. PK demonstrated here what a few but well-calculated effects can achieve. the rudimentary frame creates a monumental effect in the supple upper part.

Arguably his 'signature' piece, the PK24 Kjaerholm described as "the equally valid, equilibrium principle"

Kjaerholm here achieves an amazing synthesis of organic progression of force, which is transferred to the steel like a vibration through the ether, until the movement is collected in a comfortable spring-form, which delivers this force with a warm

PK27 chair, 1970: This chair softens the usual rigor, adopting wood and a more relaxed, if not funky-esque, vibe.

PK22 easy chair: a tip of the hat to the standard Danish idiom, Kjaerholm here presents his own flavor of the now classic Danish midcentury type.

PK0 moulded plywood chair, 1952: A man-crush love sonnet to Charles Eames, this shell chair presents an even more organic and sculptural rendition, 180 degrees from what would become Kjaerholm's oeuvre.

**Thanks to Michael A. Sheridan for his fine book Poul Kjaerholm, and to 1stDibs.com for pictures.

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