"THE ONLY DANISH REBEL who
died the year before the youth revolt and is still thriving".
That's how Paul Hammerich describes Poul Henningsen (1894-1967) in
his PH chronicle "Lysmageren" from 1986.
PH himself put it this way: "I'm sort of a foundling. I grew up a
little in Vordingborg and then a lot in Roskilde". POUL HENNINGSEN
(PH) WAS THE FOURTH CHILD of writer Agnes Henningsen, but his
father was not her husband and father of her three older children
Mads Henningsen. PH was the result of a romance between the liberal
writer and journalist Carl Ewald. POUL GOT HIS FIRST WORKD BENCH AT
AGE THREE, which - in Paul Hammerich's words - "would make the boy
the artisan of the century in Danish cultural history". The work
bench was a gift from "Father Hansen", his aunts husband, who was a
It was in their home in Vordingborg that Poul spent part of his
childhood. The craftsmanship he learned here was decisive for his
life as an artist and designer. In the book "Tænd" the story of the
PH lamp (Gyldendals publishing house) one can read the following
about his work ethic: "All problems are dealt with hands-on, but he
supplemented with theoretical considerations and
PH DID SOME PAINTING in his early years, but soon decided to put
away the paint-brushes and easel. He trained to become a carpenter
and then applied to a technical school to become an architect. He
had to wait a year to be accepted, and this time he spent training
to become a stone mason. This - supplemented with courses he took
at the Politechnical Institute - became his professional ballast,
which he administered in a very versatile way.
Today he is known as an architect, and we know his lamps, his
furniture and his vaudeville lyrics. Still, it is hard to
understand how much this spiritual lighthouse meant to his own
time. HE WAS AN ARTIST who was so broad and did not let himself be
confined and put in a box..
He was a designer. A vaudeville lyric writer. A provocative,
cultural author (in the newspaper Politiken). He wrote poetry and
theatre plays. He was the editor of various publications such as
"Kritisk Revy" (1926-28) and the Consumers' Counsil's publication
"Tænk" (1964). He directed a movie on Denmark.
All in all, he was a culture radical, a sharp and critical
speaker/debater against the bourgeoisie. PH was not somebody you
could ignore. Not that he was uncritically loved - he has also been
described as the most loathed man in Denmark. There is often a
price to pay when one voices ones opinion publically.
ARCHITECT AND CULTURE RADICAL: Poul Henningsen was born into
culture radicalism by his mother. All activities were always
characterized by a strong, social engagement, which was probably
lit via his childhood friend Olof, who lived in a street called
Bredgade, which was the slums of Roskilde in the beginning of the
As an architect, Poul Henningsen was very occupied by the idea to
create multi-level apartment housing, which would give the working
class better conditions. In the 1940s he wrote, "To me the biggest
architectual challenge is the design of a two-bedroom appartment,
so that it is suitable for human living and can be the foundation
of a fulfilling life".
GOOD DESIGN FOR THE PEOPLE: Poul Henningsen was very
occupied by functionalism and its characteristic, simple style and
he was one of the pioners of functionalism in Denmark. It was
important to him that things functioned - be that within housing,
furniture or city planning.
Throughout his entire life he denounced what he perceived as
artistic ambitions within the otherwise very well-acclaimed
His starting point was utility - good design for the people. On
this issue he wrote, "Utility before beauty - just like timeliness
comes before spirituality" - and he continued, "We do not desire a
new form unless it is dictated by the objective". (Kritisk Revy,
THE FAMOUS PH-LAMP was created early in his professional
career. Already in 1925, the "Système P.H." resulted in a gold
medal at the World Fair in Paris. Some would had felt set and
confined with such an early success. For Poul Henningsen it was
more liberating than anything, because the medal gave him a
certain, financial stability for the rest of his
STEEL TUBE FURNITURE With the 1920s came reinforced
concrete and steel constructions within construction, and it almost
revolutionized shapes and ideas. Functionalism started to become
popular and at the World Fair where Poul Henningsen was honored for
his lighting ideas, Le Corbusier gained much attention for his
sculptural building "Pavillon de L'Esprit Nouveau".
From his hand came also steel-tube furniture. And the same, new
idea also also occupied the minds of the German Bauhaus designers
led by the director of the Bauhaus school (1924-28), Marcel
IN DENMARK Poul Henningsen was inspired by this development
- but again it was not just the design that was important. In the
beginning of the 1930s, he designed a number of steel-tube
furniture which was presented at the fair Dansk Købestævne in 1932
in Fredericia, Denmark as, "timeless in its design and
followed ergonomic principles".
The furniture received enormeous attention due to "its practical
design and destinctive, bold and yet elegant shapes". There was a
lot of praise from critics, but it was not a sales success - which
supposedly was not a surprise to Poul Henningsen. He knew very well
that his design was ahead of its time.
BACK IN PRODUCTION: The PH lamp is still on the market and is a
success. The same may be said a bout many other PH designs, which
the recently established company Poul Henningsen AS has acquired
the rights to from the PH- Fonden (the PH Foundation). The first
focus is the Snake Chair, which is made from a single piece of
steel-tube with a leather seat and back - very bold and daring in
its form at that time. Then there is the Pope Chair, the Arm Chair,
the Dining Chair, the Sprawl Chair, the Café Table, the Dinner
Table, the Axe Table and the fameous Grand Piano.