Great Danish Designers 101: Peter Hvidt and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen

30 November, 2016 1 comments Leave a comment

Peter Hvidt trained as an architect and cabinetmaker in Copenhagen. He created his influential Portex chair in 1944 but would realize his biggest achievement in 1950 with the AX chair, designed in partnership with architect and furniture designer Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen. The two worked together for 31 years, designing pieces for renowned Danish manufacturers like Fritz Hansen, France & Son, and Søborg Møbelfabrik.  Scandinavian Modern notes that a common feature of the partners’ work was the construction of designs in solid wood, including “classics” like their storage units, day beds, and tables that are still highly sought after today. (Scandinavian.Modern, R & Company)

Hvidt and Mølgaard-Nielsen: Innovations in Solid Wood

Peter Hvidt was born in 1916. He studied at the School of Arts & Crafts in Copenhagen and taught there from 1942 until 1945. Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen, born in 1907, trained first at the Aalborg Technical School before moving onto the School of Arts & Crafts. He continued his studies under Kaare Klint at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts between 1931 and 1934. The two men formed their own design studio in 1944 and would work together until 1975 when Hvidt retired. (Scandinavian.Modern, R & Company) According to Galerie Møbler, the pair designed no less than 256 pieces of furniture together. Their most iconic piece was the AX Chair, introduced to the world in 1950 and exhibited as part of the 1951 “Good Design” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art:

AX Chair by Peter Hvidt and Oral Mølgaard-Neilsen

Image from Pamono.ca.

The AX chair was the first ever to use double curved laminated wood in the seat and back. To understand the significance of this accomplishment it helps to know the process. Laminating involves gluing several thin layers of wood together. Bent lamination adds another element, requiring the woodworker to glue the strips together over a rigid form to create a curve. The woodworker has to design the form and then determine the right thickness for the various layers. Canadian Woodworking gives an example: a typical ¾” curved piece of laminate would require six strips of 1/8” wood. If, however, the curve is tight or the wood is thicker, adjustments have to be made. Thinner strips would be required for tight curves to ensure the wood could bend without breaking any fibres. The closeup below shows the curve of the seat and thickness of the laminate the designers created. 

Closeup of AX Chair by Hvidt and Molgaard-Neilsen

Image from Pamona.ca.

In the era when Hvidt and Mølgaard-Neilsen worked, they would have had to create their own laminate layers by cutting the wood and then planing it to get the desired thickness, ensuring a consistent thickness as well. The innovation in the AX came via the double curves in the seat and back. The seat of the chair curves up slightly at the back and downward in the front where a person's legs would bend over it. Similarly, the back of the chair curves inward at the bottom and outward at the top.  Bent laminate had been used before, but not to create opposing curves in a single piece as was done here. The effect is impressive, from the perspective of both comfort and aesthetics. With its subtle, symmetrical curves, the AX chair paid special attention to the needs of the person sitting in it. The double curves also contributed to the streamlined, flowing appearance of the chair, giving the seat and back the look of gentle waves.

AX Chair, Closeup of Curved Back

Image from 1stdibs.  

The AX contrasts with the Portex, an earlier incarnation of a solid wood armchair designed in 1944 by Hvidt. The Portex had a fairly straight seat, while the back had a traditional concave shape. While it may not seem as innovative as the AX, the Portex was significant because it was the first stacking chair produced in Denmark.(Scandinavian.Modern)

Portex Chair by Peter Hvidt

Image from 1stdibs.  

The AX Chair had one other novel element: the seat and back could be removed for shipping. Easier shipping meant increased exports to the US and Europe, which helped put Danish designs on the map. The AX was also a very versatile design that was produced in different variations, including reversible leather seats and back, and versions with fabric upholstery and no arms, like the one shown below. (Galerie Mobler, Scandinavian.Modern)

AX Chair with Fabric Upholstery and No Arms

Image from 1stdibs.

Fabric, like that used in the AX, was one way Hvidt and Mølgaard-Neilsen experimented with texture. Like many designers of the mid-century period, they also incorporated leather in their designs. This daybed is one example, with its leather seating resting on a solid teak frame. For contrast, the designers included a tabletop made of travertine marble.

Teak and Leather Daybed with Marble Table by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen

Image from 1stdibs.

They also used cane to add visual interest to their solid wood furniture, as seen in the sofa below.

Sofa with Cane Accents by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen

Image from RetroStart

Cane makes an appearance in this tapered teak coffee table as well:

Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen Coffee Table with Cane Inlay

Image from RetroStart. (VHB has a table of similar shape in stock now.)

The surface of the Minerva coffee table is also inlaid with cane:

Minerva Coffee Table by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen

Image from RetroStart

With its unique shape and aesthetic, the Minerva table could stand alone. It was, however, part of modular sofa set, easily adaptable for spaces of various sizes. Together, all three pieces form a large sectional couch. For smaller spaces or just to create a different look, the sofas could be separated without losing their sense of connectedness:

Minerva Sofa Set by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen, Sofas Together

Minerva Sofa Set, Sofas Separated--Designed by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen

Images from Pamono.com.

This modular coffee table is another famous design from Hvidt and Mølgaard-Neilsen. Its flowing shapes and extreme versatility are hallmarks of Danish mid-century design:

Modular Circular Coffee Table by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen, Shown Whole

Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen Modular Circular Coffee Table, Shown in Two Sections

Modular Circular Coffee Table by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen, Shown in Individual Pieces

Images from 1stdibs

The emphasis on modular furniture and practical, functional elements was quintessentially Danish. Hvidt and Mølgaard-Neilsen created many pieces with these traits. Working with Søborg Møbelfabrik, they created a line of storage units using solid teak timbers, like the modular bookcases below.(Scandinavian.Modern)

Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen Modular Teak Bookcase

Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen Modular Bookcase, Units Separated

Images from 1stdibs

Rosewood coffee and side tables included a pull-out tray and drawer for storage:

Rosewood Coffee and Side Tables by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen

Image from RetroStart.

And this dresser could be transformed into a vanity, complete with a hideaway mirror.

Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen Dresser with Vanity

Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen Dresser with Vanity, Mirror Open

Images from 1stdibs.

Another of the designers’ coffee tables showed both practicality and a flair for design. Sold this year by VHB, the table had a unique triangular shape and could be fully collapsed, making it easy to move and store to create extra space.

Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen Triangular Folding Coffee Table from VHB

Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen Triangular Folding Coffee Table, Folded. Image from VHB.

Images from Vintage Home Boutique. 

Dining tables were also versatile, as seen in this drop leaf design.

Drop Leaf Dining Table by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen

Drop Leaf Dining Table by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen, Folded

Images from 1stdibs.

In all of their work, Hvidt and Mølgaard-Neilsen showed a typically Danish tendency to experiment with shapes, whether in the legs of the dining table shown above or the AX chair and Minerva table. This tendency was also clear in the partners’ teak dining chairs with their semi-circle backs, diagonal stretchers, and rounded arms. The woven grass seats, like the cane in the pieces shown above, added texture and a striking contrast to the teak. Scandinavian Modern notes that these dining chairs are, to this day, one of the most popular Hvidt and Mølgaard-Neilsen designs:

Teak Dining Chairs with Woven Grass Seating by Hvidt and Molgaard-Nielsen

Image from Scandinavian Modern

In the 1960s, the firm started by Hvidt and Mølgaard-Neilsen turned increasingly to architecture, designing housing projects and bridges. Peter Hvidt died in 1986 and Oral Mølgaard-Neilsen in 1993. Their company operated until 2009, when it was split into two separate architecture firms, one of which is co-owned by Peter Hvidt’s son Henrik.  (Wikipedia Translation of Danish Sources)

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