How to start a design revolution
Feb 24, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
It’s hard to imagine a time when clean, crisp Scandinavian designs weren’t popular in America. In fact, the internet was abuzz when IKEA announced they would no longer mail their annual catalog this year. (As if 2020 wasn’t enough of a trial!) I take for granted that many of our modern designs pay homage to the sleek creations made seventy or so years ago. But the journey from then to now was hardly a straight line. There was nothing written in the stars that destined Americans to fall in love with this aesthetic. The ingredients for starting a design revolution are the same as for any great project in life: hard work, determination, and a little bit of flair. So how did this all happen? Let’s look at this movement through the lens of a special chair – a chair without legs.
I adore the Hanging Egg Chair. I love sitting in furniture where you feel enveloped, safe and cozy. The wicker cocoon designed by the husband and wife duo (Nanna and Jørgen Ditzel) embodies the comfy cozy vibe I admire. With just a simple chain securing it to the ceiling, everything about this chair invites you to retreat to its interior oasis. I imagine this chair would be the perfect spot to dream up your next big idea. The Ditzels first conceived of a chair without legs when they took an inventory of the furniture legs cluttering their own domestic landscape. They saw the verticality of the home as an untapped asset. Why does furniture have to live on one plane alone? Who’s to say we can’t have multiple levels? These are the sorts of fun questions designers get to explore, but many of these questions go unanswered. Lack of funding often plays the villain to the designer’s heroic curiosity. I suppose this may have been the case for the Hanging Egg Chair, but luckily something extraordinary was set in motion 37 years earlier, in 1919.
Frederick Lunning showed an appreciation for art from a young age and he was soon apprenticed to a book seller in Vejle. When Frederick arrived on the scene the town was establishing itself as a popular scene for the artistic community. What a time to be young and at the start of things! Upon finishing his apprenticeship, Frederick made the decision to venture further afield, selling books and art in Odense (the country’s third largest city). In 1919 he made the fateful move to Copenhagen, landing a role with famed designer Georg Jensen. Frederick was only 21 when he took over as the store manager. The future looked bright, the path level and sun-filled. But big ideas rarely grow in the untilled earth – a little chaos is needed. The chaos for Frederick was Denmark’s Great Depression. During turbulent financial times, expensive home goods are sacrificed first. Filled with a shop but no customers, the outlook was not good. It was the time for boldness and for risk. So with this overstock of fine silver in tow, Frederick arrived in New York City determined to open up a new market.
He first set up shop in the lobbies of the finest hotels in the city – knowing this would be a natural environment for his clientele. The gamble paid off. By 1923 he graduated from the lobby into a proper store, becoming the only American seller for Georg Jensen’s creations. Frederick weathered yet another financial storm and was able to setup shop on posh Fifth Avenue in 1935. The shop’s inventory expanded, establishing Frederick as the expert of Scandinavian designs. WWII did create some challenges, but following the war he took on the role that would become his legacy – ambassador for up & coming designers. And this is where his vision intersects with the Ditzel family.
In 1951, on the eve of his 70th birthday, Frederick established the Lunning prize. The prize was intended to showcase young and promising designers from Nordic countries, to encourage them in their work, and to allow them to study abroad. Winning the prize not only meant an infusion of cash, but the chance to exhibit their designs in the flagship Fifth Avenue store.
On the fifth anniversary of the prize, the Ditzels were one of the recipients. They ventured to Mexico and Greece with their prize money. The nature-loving lifestyle of the people they met blended with their original study of dimensional living. The Hanging Egg Chair was the culmination of these influences. They collaborated with Robert Wengler for the design, who was regarded as the best wicker artisan in all of Denmark. The chair is intentional in its simplicity: a circular cushion, a simple chain, the texture of the weaving. The chair is confident in its own shape and is ready for you to complete the masterpiece by sitting in it. In one of my books I have a great picture of their daughter, Dennie, enjoying the chair. It’s one of those pictures that brings a smile to your face. Would the Ditzels have pushed the boundaries of furniture design without the support of the Lunning prize? I have no doubt they would have found a way, but the question is: would we live in a world without this masterpiece? It’s a gamble I wouldn’t want to take!
Frederick Lunning understood that young talent had to be fostered and when people are invited to have a front-row seat to new creations it’s good for business. The Lunning Prize had a twenty year run before it ceased in 1971. Take a look through the list of winners and it’s easy to see the huge impact of this program. Tell me, dear reader, does Frederick’s grit inspire you to start a design revolution of your own?