In the Pantheon of Scandinavian designers, Finn Juhl is often overlooked in favor of other masters like Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto. No less important, Juhl pioneered a sculptural, biomorphic approach to Modernism, and was responsible for bringing Danish design to America.
Juhl was trained as an architect, but had started designing furniture by his mid-20s, part of a generation of young Danes who were rebelling against the heavy, traditional, historicizing styles in favor of a new, modern aesthetic. One of his earliest works was the Pelikan chair (1939), whose sculptural shapes are reminiscent of both natural forms and abstract art. The piece diverged so drastically from conventional design that it was very poorly received at first.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, Juhl was as interested in form as in function. "A chair is not just a product of decorative art in a space," he said. "It is a form and a space in itself." His attention to form led him to design chairs where the seat is separate from the frame (images 5, 6 & 8) and sofas constructed out of floating shapes (image 7). You can also see his attention to form in the smallest details of his work, like the curve of a wooden arm. Juhl cited sources ranging from Alexander Calder (image 7) to primitive weaponry (image 6 - my personal favorite Juhl design), unafraid to break with the more rigorously abstract strain of modernism that was more prevalent at the time.
More than just a sculptural stylist, Juhl deeply understood his medium, and was able to simultaneously address form and structure. Sanjay Thakur, a furniture designer and craftsman who works at Design Within Reach, describes the Model 45 chair (image 5) in these terms:
The Model 45 is a masterpiece of logic and elegance. The diagonal braces give the frame great rigidity which allows a surprising slenderness throughout the design. The joint of the armrest to the front leg for example, is less than an inch of weak shortgrain — it would break if there were any flex at all in the frame. For Juhl, the engineering is a means to pursue a more beautiful form — in this case a form that is at once incredibly stable and yet seems poised for action.
In 1951 Juhl became the de facto spokesman for Danish modern design in America: Edgar Kaufman jr. put his work in MoMA's Good Design exhibit in Chicago, and Juhl was also commissioned to design a meeting hall at the United Nations. Juhl's UN commission was very popular, and it is credited with creating a buzz around Danish design in the US.
Recently, his work became available through Design Within Reach. It is — ahem — hardly within reach, pricewise, but is incredibly beautiful, and still holds up after all these decades. Juhl's home, which he designed in 1941, is now open as a museum, and has hardly aged at all (images).
Sources: For more information on Finn Juhl, check out danish-furniture.com and onecollection.com. DWR has some great background info on its product pages, as well. To browse Juhl designs for purchase, check out DWR and 1stdibs.
Images: 1 & 4 Juhl's own home, via MetropolisMag.com (click through for more images and information)
2 Pelikan chair (1939) via takesunset
3 Finn Juhl via onecollection
5 Model 45 chair (1945), $9000 at DWR
6 Chieftains Chair (1949), $11,500 at DWR
7 Baker sofa (1951), $12,000 at DWR
8 Armchair, 1951 at MoMA