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March 30, 2010

Great Dane

Designer Poul Kjærholm made the most of being aggressively, exquisitely simple.

The most compelling question about Poul Kjærholm may be, Why haven't more people heard of him? It's as though his impeccably crafted chairs, tables, and daybeds are simply a secret the design world has kept to itself.

Trained in classic Scandinavian woodworking and inspired by the rationalist principles of Mies and Le Corbusier, Kjærholm (pronounced keer-holm) came to prominence in the early fifties with furniture that was both functional and luxurious. A designer's designer, he was admired for his ability to pair disparate materials such as cane and steel and make the combination look inevitable. Over the next three decades, this would become his trademark.

"He was able to take cold materials and make them seem warm and natural. Nobody else comes close to him for that," says Lee Mindel, an architect with the New York firm Shelton, Mindel & Associates and an avid Kjærholm collector. For a long time, he notes, "Kjærholm's work didn't fit into fashion, but now fashion has caught on to him."

More and more, the contemporary art and design worlds are converging, and together these two groups of collectors have raised once-forgotten modern design—from the industrial minimalism of Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perri—and to the natural warmth of Isamu Noguchi—to blue-chip status. According to those who've been in on the secret for years, Kjærholm fits this evolving nexus perfectly.

Sean Kelly, a leading New York contemporary art dealer and a Kjærholm enthusiast, recounts how he was seduced by the pieces he saw in collectors' homes: "I'd go visit clients and they'd have a PK 24 lounge"—a curving steel chaise covered in cane—"and, say, a Rauschenberg or a Judd. And it always looked just right." While Kjærholm's designs possess the quality and force of sculpture, they're so subtle and understated that they don't take over a room—making them an ideal complement to art.

In December 2004 Kelly teamed up with the TriBeCa design gallery R 20th Century to mount a joint show of Kjærholm's furniture, which was exhibited alongside works by contemporary artists such as Richard Tuttle, Yves Klein, and Rineke Dijkstra. All the Kjærholms sold out, at prices from $4,000 to $50,000. "At the time," Kelly says, "we felt we might be pushing the envelope with some of the prices, but eighteen months later they're completely out of date because the market is going up so quickly." He adds that the gallery continues to place pieces with buyers and is planning a second Kjærholm show with R 20th Century for December of 2007.

New York's Museum of Modern Art clearly agrees that Kjærholm's furniture has an affinity for art. When the mu-seum reopened after its major expansion two years ago, the designer's PK 80 daybeds were installed in galleries and public spaces, while his PK 54 tables (white marble, maple, and steel) and PK 9 chairs (molded leather seats on spring steel) were among the furnishings used in the Modern restaurant.

For architect Michael Sheridan, curator of the current Kjærholm retrospective at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, the designer's rise in status has a lot to do with his approach. "With everything Kjærholm created, his focus was on stripping the piece down to its essence, its purest form," Sheridan says. "There's no excess, nothing you could take away."

Even Kjærholm's system of naming his designs had a kind of elegant rigor. He assigned most pieces a number, based on their type, preceded by his initials: PK 10 through 19 for small chairs with armrests, PK 90 through 99 for folding stools, and so on.

The consensus among specialists is that Kjærholm's fin-est work resulted from his relationship with manufacturer E. Kold Christensen, which started in 1955 and ended when Kjærholm died in 1980. (Christensen continued to produce the furniture for two more years, after which Fritz Hansen took over.) A collaborator who understood and supported Kjærholm's philosophy, Christensen shared his obsessive concern with craftsmanship and finish.

A prime example of their partnership is the PK 80 daybed (one from the sixties sold for $27,000 at Sotheby's in 2003). The leather upholstery was produced in several colors, but Kjærholm preferred the undyed version, which showcased the material's natural beauty. The steel frame underneath is held together with a combination of rubber fittings and pegs, allowing the piece to be disassembled and shipped flat. The finish is so impeccable that some owners are known to get on their knees to admire the hidden details.

In the seventies Kjærholm returned to his early training as a cabinetmaker and began working in wood again. He collaborated with Ejnar Pedersen of PP Møbler on projects like the Louisiana chair, an elegant design of interlacing strips of naturally toned maple, originally created for the theater at the Louisiana Museum. Pieces from this period are now highly desirable. Last year Wright auction house in Chicago sold a 1976 PK 12 chair for $2,100, a modest price but still above the high estimate.

Kjærholm hasn't had the kind of steep run-up at auction seen by other top-caliber designers, such as Prouvé and Mies. "Because his designs were produced in fairly large numbers"—a few hundred to a few thousand—"it's hard to see his works reaching those stratospheric six-figure prices," says Wright owner Richard Wright. Instead there's been slow, steady growth. "People want the classic, iconic pieces," he adds, like the set of six PK 11 chairs that brought $67,200 at his May 2005 auction or the six PK 9s he sold for $44,400 this past March.

The PK 9 and other pieces are still manufactured by Fritz Hansen. But though the new pieces are almost identical visually, they don't command the prices of vintage examples.

For some collectors and dealers, it's practically impossible to pay too much for Kjærholm. "He's been overlooked for so long," says Sean Kelly, "that almost whatever people are asking is too cheap." The market seems to agree: At Sotheby's June 2005 sale, a PK 24 lounge fetched $42,000 and a PK 65 coffee table $33,000.

The period when Kjærholm's furniture could still be considered underappreciated appears to be over.

Man Behind the Pictures

No one played a bigger role in shaping the perception of Poul Kjærholm's work than Danish photographer Keld Helmer-Petersen. For three decades he produced the elegantly toned black-and-white pictures that gave a distinctive look to the designer's furniture. Shot against a blank background, chairs, tables, and stools became monumental works of sculpture. The images, mostly produced for E. Kold Christensen's catalogues and promotions, are totally of a piece with the designs. "We didn't need much discussion," says Helmer-Petersen, now 86. "Neither of us would accept anything but the highest quality."

It's ironic that all the work they did together—except for a lone image of a red leather sofa—was in black and white, since Helmer-Petersen was a pioneer in color art photography. In 1948, some two decades before William Eggleston made his much celebrated forays into color, Helmer-Petersen published 122 Colour Photographs, a collection of largely abstract details in industrial landscapes. "I wanted to see what it would be like to think in color," he explains. "And I was very shy, so I liked to take pictures of things that were standing still."

That early work was more or less forgotten until recently, when photographer Martin Parr took up Helmer-Petersen's cause. Last fall Rocket Gallery in London mounted a show of his photos—along with selected pieces of Kjærholm's furniture—and 23 of the original 122 Colour Photographs were reissued in a limited-edition portfolio by London publisher Chris Boot (44-207/639-2908; chrisboot.com). A retrospective monograph, covering Helmer-Petersen's entire career, is on the way from Danish publisher Christian Ejlers (45/3312-2114; butik.ejlers.dk).

Who to Know

Paul Jackson
The British native offers a wide-ranging selection of midcentury Scandinavian design at the source. Jacksons, Stockholm; 46-8/ 665-3350; jacksons.se

Zesty Meyers
A top American dealer of modern furniture, Meyers and the Sean Kelly Gallery have access to prime Kjærholm material via the designer's family. R 20th Century, New York; 212-343-7979; r20thcentury.com

Annette Rachlin
Dealing from a private showroom, Rachlin offers new Kjærholm furniture produced by Fritz Hansen and the designer's son, Thomas Kjærholm. Furniture from Scandinavia, Washington, D.C.; 202-244-7876

Dorte Slot
With locations in Copenhagen and Paris, Slot's shop is a great source for design standards as well as for limited-production items. Dansk Møbelkunst, Copenhagen, 45/3332-3837, and Paris, 33-1/43-25-11-65, dmk.dk

Richard Wright
The leading design auctioneer in the United States sells more Kjærholm furniture than any other house. Wright, Chicago; 312-563-0020; wright20.com

The Inside Jobs

There's really no difference between Poul Kjærholm's interiors and his furniture," says curator Michael Sheridan. "His exhibition designs are an extension of the same philosophy." But some of his finest achievements, including his award-winning Danish pavilion at the 1960 Milan Triennial, have largely been forgotten. The Kjærholm retrospective that Sheridan has curated at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, should help change that, as he has devoted an entire section to the designer's interiors. (The catalogue is available in this country through Distributed Art Publishers.) One of the clearest statements of Kjærholm's thinking was a 1965–66 exhibition of his work called "Structures", held in the Copenhagen gallery owned by designer Ole Palsby. Kjærholm divided the room with freestanding walls and covered them with blown-up landscape photos by Keld Helmer-Petersen. Then, in front of the murals, he arranged the disassembled parts of all the pieces—the arms, legs, seats, tabletops, even the rubber connecting devices. In this exhibition, Sheridan notes, "you could really see Kjærholm's desire to strip everything down to its purest, most legible form. And it revealed how every part was made in the most exquisite, flawless way possible."