Form and function. These two words tend to be widely overused in furniture design discourse. But no other phrase so succinctly summarizes the hugely influential design movement known as Danish Modernism.
Wishbone Chair by Hans Wegner, 1949 (Design Within Reach)
Famous for manipulating materials into clean-lined creations that embraced the human form, this style reigned supreme between 1940 and 1960, and is still emulated today in everything from furniture to textiles. In fact, its shadow looms so large that contemporary Scandinavian designers have struggled to evolve its form language. Should they continue to make to sleek wood credenzas or run wild with a completely new aesthetic?
HAY has found just the right way to move the legacy forward. Helmed by Rolf and Mette Hay, the Copenhagen-based furniture and home accents company develops Danish Modern principles in a contemporary context. Its designs have a depth and exactitude that is clearly informed by our digital age. The lines are precise, each detail is deliberate, and the colors are expressive and invigorating—like a Technicolor version of their predecessors.
To grasp what this means for the future of Danish design, let’s peek into the past.
Architect and furniture-maker Kaare Klint was among the first to eschew the ornate turn-of-the-century designs in favor of function, quality, and a human element. He founded a furniture school at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1924, which would go on to educate modern masters like Arne Jacobsen and Verner Panton.
In the years between World War I and II, Klint and his contemporaries saw an opportunity to generate optimism for the future through design. A balance of beauty, function, and affordability became the consumer’s priority. Furniture was stripped down to emphasize its performance and quality.
Faaborg Chair by Kaare Klint, 1914 (danish-furniture.com)
Met with a dearth of materials during and after World War II, designers turned to what was readily available—like plywood made from oak, birch, and teak. Hans Wegner, Børge Mogensen, and Arne Jacobsen pioneered the use of this manufactured material, developing techniques to bend it into inviting, sculptural shapes.
Ant Chair by Arne Jacobsen, 1952 (visitdenmark.com)
Hans Wegner’s Sawbuck Chair, 1952 (Design Within Reach)
This innovative spirit wasn’t contained to the world of furniture. Also a graduate of the Royal Academy, textile designer Marie Gudme Leth is credited with (literally) transforming the face of textiles through a refined process of industrial screenprinting.
Textile Pattern by Marie Gudme Leth (designmuseum.dk)
Making It In America
By the early 1950s, Danish design was thriving across Europe. American architect and author Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. was the head of the industrial department of MoMA when he toured Scandinavia. He fell in love with the work of another pivotal figure, Finn Juhl, and featured it in Interiors magazine.
Danish design soon infiltrated the American landscape, where it reigned supreme as the fashionable home décor style until the late ‘60s when the Jetsons-style space age look took over.
Yet Denmark remains a leading producer of furniture to this day. Companies like Carl Hansen & Søn and Fritz Hansen are devoted to reissuing iconic mid-century designs, while the originals are among the most coveted antiques on the market. Though, if HAY has anything to say about it, some of the great Scandinavian masterpieces are still ahead of us.
Enter HAY: Danish Modern Made Contemporary
HAY launched its first furniture collection at the esteemed IMM Cologne furniture fair in 2003. Though keenly influenced by the masterpieces of the 1950s and ’60s, these designs are far from imitations. They are evolved—materially and conceptually—from their mid-century inspirations.
Ray Lounge Chair by HAY
The company’s home accessories and textiles follow suit. As affordable and accessible as they are unique and refined, these pieces embody democratic design. Each one is uncomplicated yet joyful, utilitarian yet artistic.
Wood Tray by HAY
This isn’t some short-lived style renaissance. HAY partners with the likely design icons of tomorrow, fostering the same spirit of diversity and collaboration that allowed Klint’s scholars at the Royal Academy to thrive so many decades ago.
Kaleido by Clara von Zweigbergk for HAY
Graphic designer and illustrator Clara von Zweigbergk’s Kaleido series of modular trays earned a Swedish Design Award in 2012.
Minimal Bed Set by Scholten & Baijings for HAY
Beyond HAY’s exclusive textiles, Scholten & Baijings’ expressive patterns can currently be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago and in galleries across Europe.
Ultimately, HAY reminds us what Danish design is all about: applying the trusted principles of the past to the bold visions of the future. Imitation is a lovely form of flattery, but there will never be another Arne Jacobsen Ant Chair. And isn’t that the point?