Finn Juhl was a Danish architect, interior and industrial designer, most known for his furniture design. He was one of the leading figures in the creation of "Danish design" in the 1940s and he was the designer who introduced Danish Modern to America.
He was born on 30 January 1912 to an authoritarian father who was a textile wholesaler representing several English, Scottish and Swiss textile manufacturers in Denmark, and a mother who died shortly after he was born. From an early age he wanted to become an art historian, already as a teenager spending much time at the National Gallery and in spite of his young age receiving permission to borrow books at the library of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, but his father disapproved his aspirations which he considered flimsy and convinced him instead to pursue a career in architecture. He was admitted to the Architecture School at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts where from 1930 to 1934 he studied under Kay Fisker, a leading architect of his day and noted lecturer.
After graduating, Juhl worked for ten years at Vilhelm Lauritzen's architectural firm, where he had also apprenticed as a student. In close collaboration with Viggo Boesen, Lauritzen's closest, Juhl was responsible for much of the interior design of the national Danish broadcaster Danmarks Radio's Radio Building, one of the firm's most high-profile assignments during those years. In 1943 he received the C.F. Hansen prize for young architects.
In 1945 he left Vilhelm Lauritzen's company and set up his own design practice, in Nyhavn in Copenhagen, specializing in interior and furniture design. However, his work in furniture design began earlier than that.
Juhl made his debut in 1937 when he commenced a collaboration with cabinetmaker Niels Vodder which would continue until 1959 and exhibited at the Cabinetmakers' Guild Exhibitions, the 11th of its kind. Therefore, his early chairs were originally produced in small numbers, eighty at most, because the Guild-shows emphasized the work of the artisan over the burgeoning industry of mass production. However, they were almost all reissued later in his career.
The Guild Exhibitions were an important venue for the young designers who sought to renew Danish design, turning their backs on the traditional historicist styles, heavy and with ornaments and plush, instead creating modern furniture which fitted the new trends in architecture. The projects was highly controversial and Juhl's first work met much criticism. His Pelican chair, designed in 1939 and first produced in 1940, was described as a "tired walrus" and "aesthetics in the worst possible sense of the word". In spite of the initial criticism, Juhl's work began to influence the style of homes abroad throughout the 40s. In Denmark, however, his popularity did not reach that of his peers, Børge Mogensen and Hans Wegner, who were less radical in their designs and relied more on Kaare Klint, leader of the furniture school at the Academy and the nestor of modern Danish furniture design.
In 1948 Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., leader of the Department for Industrial Design at Merchandise Mart in New York, toured Scandinavia. He intentionally did not visit only the big Scandinavian exhibitions, but being impressed by Juhl's work he presented it in a large article in the Interiors magazine. In 1951 he participated in the Good Design exhibition in Chicago. In connection with the show he was quoted in Interiors for stating that "One cannot create happiness with beautiful objects, but one can spoil quite a lot of happiness with bad ones". The work he did for them—24 pieces including chairs, tables, storage units, sideboards and desks—represented his first successful marriage of modern mass production to his traditionally high craft standards.
At the Milan Triennale in the 50s, he won a total of five gold medals, further adding to his international reputation. During this decade he continued to design more specifically for the mass market than had been the case in the 40s.
Juhl also designed refrigerators for General Electric, glassware, ceramics, a line of furniture for the Baker Furniture Company of Holland, Michigan, and was the interior designer for the United Nations Trusteeship Council Chamber in New York City.
In the '60s and '70s he experienced a declining interest in his designs. In the '80s and '90s the interest resurged. In 2000 Finn Juhl's widow Hanne Wilhelm Hansen passed on the rights to his designs to the company Onecollection. In 2010 one of his sofas, the 57 Sofa, relaunched by Onecollection, won a Wallpaper Design Award in the Best reissue/sofa design category.
Today, the company Onecollection has changed their brand name to House of Finn Juhl. The company has a growing collection of Finn Juhl's designs, which today counts more than 40 relaunched pieces.
His work also included numerous assignments within the field of interior design. Shortly after opening his own office, he received several commissions to do interior design at some of the premier addresses in Copenhagen, Bing & Grøndahl's shop on Amagertorv (1946), now housing Royal Copenhagen, and Svend Schaumann's florist's shop on Kongens Nytorv (1948). In 1951–52 he designed the Trusteeship Council Chamber in the United Nations headquarters in New York City. He also collaborated regularly with companies such as Georg Jensen and Scandinavian Airlines, his work for the latter including both ticket offices and interiors of planes. He also had many assignments as an exhibition designer.
In 1942 Juhl designed a house for himself, today known simply as Finn Juhl's House, and had it built with money inherited from his father. Over the years it was increasingly furnished with creations of his own design.
He married Inge-Marie Skaarups on 15 July 1937 but they divorced. From 1961 he lived in a common-law marriage with Hanne Wilhelm Hansen, a member of the family behind the Edition Wilhelm Hansen music publishing house. She survived him but after her death in May 2003 their home, which she had left unchanged after his death, was made into a historic house museum, today operated as part of the Ordrupgaard Art Museum whose premises it adjoins.
Juhl gave a soft edge to the lines of wooden modernist chairs, favouring organic shapes which often took the wood to the limits of what was possible. He generally used teak and other dark woods, unlike many of the other proponents of the Danish Modern movement who often used oak in their designs.
He was influenced by the abstract sculptor Jean Arp, an influence which is seen already in his early Pelican chair but it remained a motif throughout his career. Also influenced by tribal art, Juhl exhibited the Chieftain chair with photos of weapons from anthropological studies.
One of his hallmarks was the floating back and seat which is seen in most of his chair designs, usually upholstered, in contrast to the hard wood of the bearing elements. The full back and seat, seeming to hover on their supports, start to emerge in the chairs from 1945 and 1948.