How an iconic 17th-century Chinese chair came to inspire a pair of Danish classics and a host of contemporary designs

Hans J. Wegner designed a series inspired by Chinese chairs from the Ming dynasty. One of these chairs, the Wishbone Chair, produced by Carl Hansen & Søn since 1950, went on to become Wegner’s most successful design of all time.

The Ming dynasty is known as the golden age of Chinese furniture design, and its reputation and influence have spread far beyond China. Its era, from the 14th to the 17th century, was one of history’s most orderly, stable and prosperous period, which led to growing towns and cities and, with them, high demand for quality craftwork. Ming style fuses the Chinese ideologies of Confucianism and Taoism followed by the literati, and the millennia-old expertise of craftsmen, who saw design as a way to bring about harmony in life by creating simple, precise and elegant designs inspired by the natural world.
In terms of chair design, part of this involved the art of shaping lines, both straight and curved, with the chair back forming a continuous horizon to the curved hand rest to produce an aesthetic known as yuanhun (roundness or wholeness). This can typically be seen in the Ming-style round-back armchair, also known as the ‘basket-back’ or ‘U-back’ chair. The decorative scepter is a symbol of power and good fortune, while the floating armrests represent honor. Together with the cube-like base, the chair is also a three-dimensional representation of tianuyan defang, a Chinese cosmological concept meaning ‘round heaven and square earth’.

Records suggest that China had been exporting these types of chairs as early as the 17th century. Since then, they have been both appreciated and emulated by leading European designers. The most important examples of this are the ‘China’ chair (produced by Fritz Hansen) and the ‘Wishbone’ chair (produced by Carl Hansen & Søn), both created by Danish master Hans J Wegner in the 1940s. Many believe that Wegner’s inspiration came from antiquity in the collection of the Danish Museum of Industrial Arts. Taking its cues from the freedom of movement that it allowed its users, Wegner’s modern interpretation of ancient Chinese chairs represents both his passion and knowledge of the culture and the pinnacle of Danish craftsmanship at that time. The two designs went on to become Wegner’s most globally successful works and helped to define the essence of Danish as well as modern design.

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