This week we are pleased to offer for sale this gorgeous set of original Hans Wegner’s model 512 folding chairs, produced by Johannes Hansen.
In our blog spots we try to find new information regarding the history of production and design of items rather than repeating what is already well known and endlessly cited. We consulted with a few Hans Wegner specialists to discuss these chairs to see if we could dig up some insight or bits of information to impart to readers and would-be buyers of the pair we currently have available.
The available facts about these chairs are very concise and brief, but endlessly documented. The chair was created by Hans Wegner in 1949, and a few years later it picked up by Knoll International (along with other Wegner designs) under license to import to the American market. The chairs which were produced by Johannes Hansen until the late 1970’s. The current models of these chairs are produced under license by P.P. Mobler have been updated slightly in construction because as with all items designed in the 40’s and 50’s, it was not possible to imagine what 30,40,50 or even 65 years of use would reveal about the design and so subtle modifications in how joints were made or shaped have changed.
As it would turn out, P.P. Mobler (as with Hans Wegner “The Chair”) would take the 512 model and adjust a few of the joints and construction in order to ensure they would last even longer – even though the vintage ones are still in brilliant shape structurally. So there are slight differences between the originals by Johannes Hansen and the ones today produced by P.P. Mobler although both are made to the highest standards, period.
The folding chair by Hans Wegner is an exceptional piece of furniture and as with all Hans Wegner models, has a sculptural element to it so that from any direction it is a beautiful chair, yet every sculptural element is vital to construction. Of interest to us was what seemed to be a very much lop-sided provision to the USA market of the Folding Chairs in the 50’s produced from oak, rather than teak. It seems very few examples (such as with these) were provided to the market.
Oak is a strong wood as is teak, however teak was more expensive to obtain than oak. In Europe there was a good amount of old oaks available and it made sense to use oak as the main product. Keep in mind that Hans Wegner made sure all the chair furniture was solid without veneers, so this meant a lot of waste, so having oak on hand made it ideal – and oak had been mastered by the northern Europeans for hundreds of years.
Teak had to be obtained and most danish designers rarely used solid teak and instead used veneers as solid teak was just too expensive. Once the furniture in Europe began hitting high-gear throughout the 60’s and 70’s, arrangements for the import of sufficient teak lumber was solved and so we see more solid teak appearing through the years after the 50s’. Sadly though, the teak as with rosewood was quickly exhausted and younger and younger trees were cut that were weaker, lacked the grain and decades of resin/oil make-up that can only come from age.
It is suspected, but can not be confirmed, that due to the teak having to be ordered in as opposed to the oak, that Hans Wegner folding chairs in teak were a special request or option available, or that Knoll International opted to simply import a vast majority of the chairs in oak. Teak is very strong and ideal for furniture, having resins and oils in the wood that give it the ability to slightly flex and bear loads – whereas oak is far more rigid. If you bend a teak chair, it will give a little, oak will generally break but takes more stress to get it to that breaking point. Teak is also as with rosewood much more resistant to insects and rot, thus planks on ships, patio furniture and furniture exposed to changing weather patterns are more ideal in teak than oak. In addition to this it is unconfirmed but suggested that rather than teak, sometimes paduk was used. Paduk is another wood that had to be imported, but varies from teak in several respects, firstly, it has a linear grain and is even stronger than oak or teak, but it also had another property in that it darkened with age and the patina on paduk is unlikely to hide the grain. It would seem attributions of teak and paduk for the folding chairs is mixed due to the grain of both seeming quite close.
In searching on-line you will find instances where furniture produced from oak that is designed to take unusual loads suffers breaks. We have found several examples of Hans Wegner folding chairs in oak that have had the fronts, rails and bottom bridge fail. This is a result of constant stress over the years and sadly, due to the growing weight of the average American. Changes by P.P. Mobler and Hans Wegner later reflect this.
This pair of chairs are in good condition for their age, featuring very few marks to the chairs, and what is more, the split reed used on them is all original, most vintage folding chairs have new split reed applied to them and in reality is a smart thing to do, the reed dries over the years and if you find a genuine vintage Wegner chair from the 50’s with brilliant reed, it is usually new even if the seller does not state so – and frankly is a good idea.
This pair of folding chairs are produced in teak or paduk.
Some puritans seek out vintage furniture with the original reed but are also aware that reed 65 years old is old reed and will need to be maintained via the occasional water spray to allow the reed to soak in a little humidity. Reed is harvested from humid climates (as is teak, paduk and rosewood) and is best maintained with humidity, thus the choice of teak or paduk with reed is a wise mix as paduk/teak’s properties means that it can exchange humidity without the downfalls oak has (humidity and oak are bad bedfellows).
The original owner of these two chairs was a noted mid-century architect and kept them well maintained and oiled, so the wood is in great shape. There are two minor splits of the wood from mishandling rather than load bearing and are for all purposes near invisible. Movement in the frames of all 1950’s Wegner chairs is to be expected and should be present. In these examples you can see how the seat side rails have settled, pulling a fraction away slightly from the cross rails – which is actually a good thing. The back legs feature leveling from dragging also. Having settled, they are unlikely to move again, and because of the strength & elastic nature of teak, are still totally sound. The new P.P. Mobler chairs take this movement into account and have increased the girth in some areas (particularly the bridge that folds beneath the seat and where the front rail connects to the sides) to account for the eventual movement.
The original owner also had ottomans with the set but they were damaged a long time ago, though the owner had the good sense to keep to keep the reed from the ottomans to use in case of small repairs were needed on the chair’s reed weaving. Thus this pair have a some strand segments swapped out yet is all the same age and identical, there is no antiquing of the reed.
The comfort experienced by sitting in the chairs is not matched by other copies. The reclined back is the perfect angle, the broad width of the chairs fantastic, and the fact that every chair has over a thousand feet of split reed used is quite something. Hans Wegner could have nearly halved the amount used but insisted the back had to have it’s entire own face of reed not in common with the front of the back, and so of course this meant using a vast amount more of the product.
It is not unusual for Wegner design produced by Johannes Hansen to be unmarked, especially in the early years. The branded logo seemed to become something specific to the chairs made for import by Knoll (probably upon their insistence) due to similar, inferior designed chairs being sold in the America market in the 1960’s. It was important that Knoll differentiate between these high quality chairs and the cheaper, poor quality imitations coming from Japan and Yugoslavia. The reality is that it was not in the nature of the Danes to take exceptional lengths to mark their furniture, their craftsmanship spoke for itself. The work had to be the calling card with Wegner even refusing the name his chairs.
True to form, copies of the Wegner folding chair are almost innumerable, but of interesting note is that there has never been a copy done that comes close to the genuine article. It does not require a trained eye to even spot the copies, just understanding and seeing a genuine piece will suffice. The primary reason you do not see real fakes (meaning precise copies) of this particular model is that it is just too much work to replicate it, and because no machine could do it, it would require a master wood worker to do it and even then they unlikely to succeed. Hans Wegner was notorious for having the shop redo pieces over and over until they were perfect – there was no second best in any piece.
No two pieces of vintage Wegner will ever be the same, each piece is crafted to fit into another so much so that one piece from the same line may not work as a part on another – that is how precise they are produced, lathed and formed by hand in all instances which is why today even a modern P.P. Mobler chair is still exceptionally expensive as the same techniques are still deployed today.
It is true to say some pieces of furniture have the designer name built into the price, but a few exceptions exist where you are really paying for the workmanship first and foremost. Nakashima, Maloof, Esherick, Powell & Wegner, you will pay well for the originals and it is all about the craftsmanship of the work.