This is the fifth article in our Designer of the Week series, which comes out every Tuesday. Last week we featured Gunta Stölzl.
If you head north from the Copenhagen metropolitan area, you might find yourself in a small suburban district called Ordrup, a small agricultural village with only a few relevant landmarks and the Øresund strait to the east, which serves as the border between Denmark and Sweden.
There’s not too much to do in Ordrup, The Netherlands, but if you ever go there (as a mid-century modernist fan), you might be happy to know that it is the birthplace of Poul Henningsen, the creator of the famous Artichoke ceiling lamp, the crown jewel of the PH lamp collection.
Born in 1894, Henningsen was much more than just a furniture designer. He also delved heavily in journalism, political commentary, and architecture. A graduate of the Tekniske Skole in Copenhagen, Henningsen studied architecture at the Polyteknisk Laeranstalt but failed to graduate (like many furniture designers from his time).
Literary work and early designs
Henningsen is often separated from other Danish designers because of his literary career. He was an avid left-wing thinker who advocated for a simpler, more natural, and more open way of living. His 1933 book What About Culture? was a controversial publication that denounced the snobbism and overly moralizing Danish society of the era.
However, he began working on furniture designs as early as early as 1932, when he included the Snake chair on a bedroom space that he was commissioned to create. With a single, coiling tubular steel frame and two thin pieces of upholstery, the resemblance between this chair and other furniture pieces from Bauhaus designers, for example, was unmistakable.
As a much more liberal, cosmopolitan, and artistic thinker than other designers from that decade, Henningsen’s style was provocative and experimental in a way that was pretty ahead of its time. He did many freelancing jobs that included both architecture and interior design, and those gigs would provide him with the opportunity to create the PH line of furniture.
The PH-lamps and later work
The PH collection of furniture includes everything from dining chairs to a grand piano, but Poul Henningsen is mostly know today for creating the PH-lamps, and more especially the so-called Artichoke ceiling lamp, which is a much more recent creation.
I dare say that this is the quintessential mid-century modernist lighting fixture after the Castiglioni Arco Lamp.
Experts have praised its masterful ability to diffuse the light in a room while carefully concealing the light source. In fact, it was one of the first lamps designed in Denmark where you couldn’t see the bulb at all.
Henningsen had to flee Denmark during World War II, as his political stance often included blunt (and much-needed) opposition to fascism.
He reportedly crossed to Sweden on a rowboat, where he continued writing and designing until his eventual return. He died in 1963 in Hillerød, only a few miles from Ordrup and the coast.
Most people agree that Henningsen’s most important contribution to furniture design is the fact that he made modern lighting palatable. The ideas for the lamps started in the early 1920s and 1930s, when most people were still getting used to the idea of an electric lightbulb, as opposed to a mild, warm kerosene lamp, for example.
The idea for the 1958 Artichoke lamp actually stems from these early lampshade designs, which helped make modern lighting warm, useful, and desirable in Europe.
There’s a lot more that you can learn about Poul Henningsen by clicking on the various links I’ve provided. Follow the red to get the whole picture. Henningsen was a truly revolutionary artist and designer, and I’ll surely be mentioning him (and the Artichoke) in several other future articles.