Poul Henningsen

Poul Henningsen
Poul Henningsen
"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 cabinet maker.

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 calculations".  

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 20th centyr.

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 Scandinavian design.

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, 1927).  

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 life.  

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 Breuer.  

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.