Artist Dossier: Poul Kjaerholm

Poul Kjaerholms furniture conveys the tension between modernity and age-old craft with breathtaking immediacy. The contradiction inherent in combining supple hand-rubbed leather with tough aircraft-industry screws is the subtext to the refined Wow! of the PK-22’s curved leg, as deliberate as a brushstroke, and the visual panache of the PK-24 chaise’s arched rattan cradled in square steel arms. But ultimately the connoisseur appeal of a Kjaerholm work resides in its structural purity, sheared clean of any concern so ephemeral as style.

The astonishingly sophisticated PK-22, created in 1956, was the Danish designer’s breakthrough piece, making him instantly famous. It won the Grand Prix at the Milan Triennale in 1957 and has remained in production ever since. In December 2007, Christie’s London sold a pair of PK-22 chairs with rattan seats made by the original manufacturer, E. Kold Christensen, for $15,206.

Kjaerholm treated machine-made steel with the same respect he accorded the finest hand-tooled material. He saw no need to reinvent traditional furniture shapes yet created pieces of striking originality. Looking at one of his chairs, “it is impossible to tell if it is 50 or 5 years old,” says Michael Sheridan, an architect and the author of the recently published The Furniture of Poul Kjaerholm: Catalogue Raisonné (Gregory R. Miller & Company).

Although his years of active production were relatively brief, from 1955 until his death in 1980, Kjaerholm (pronounced KIR-holm) has always attracted a following, chiefly among connoisseurs of perfectly conceived expressions of functional form. Today the near-obsessive refinement of Kjaerholm’s leather and steel armchairs, stone-topped tables and other minimalist stunners has made them especially appealing to fine-art collectors casting an eye toward design. Their interest is reflected in soaring prices that nevertheless seem modest considering the shrinking availability of the work.

At Art Basel in June, R 20th Century, of New York, received a rumored $200,000 to $250,000 for a rare square daybed upholstered in welted beige leather and originally designed for a town hall in Denmark. The gallery’s Zesty Meyers did not confirm the amount, saying only that it was a record high price for the furniture maker.

Born in 1907 in northern Jutland, Poul Kjaerholm wanted to be a painter, but his father insisted that he learn a more practical trade. He apprenticed with a master craftsman, Thorvald Grønbech, and in 1948 enrolled in the School of Arts and Crafts, in Copenhagen, where he studied under Hans Wegner, a key player in the Danish Modern movement, and Jørn Utzon, the industrial designer. Kjaerholm’s idols were the Dutch designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld, the modern master builder Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the American designer Charles Eames. Like many young designers, he wanted to make furniture that would be mass-produced and affordable

But Kjaerholm was too much of a perfectionist to stay that course. In 1955, when Christensen, a distinguished cabinetmaker in Copenhagen, was looking for a designer to help his company break away from producing only cabinetry, Wegner recommended his best student, Kjaerholm. Thus was launched a career-making partnership. Over the next 25 years, Kjaerholm created about one piece a year for Christensen. These were manufactured in quantities ranging from a handful to a few thousand. Once he had embarked on his career as a furniture maker, Kjaerholm’s relationship with Christensen was exclusive, although other companies produced his furniture after his death, including Kjaerholm Productions, established by his son in 2004.

An elaborate system was developed to identify his products. Each furniture type was associated with a series of 10 numbers, and each piece of that type bore one of those numbers preceded by the initials PK. Thus PK 0 through 9 denote small chairs with no armrests; PK 10 through 19, small chairs with armrests; and so on.

Although the very early pieces were not marked, an omission that can be confusing to collectors, most of Kjaerholm’s pieces manufactured by Christensen bear the distinctive double-K stamp designed by the artist. With or without a mark, the supple patina of the leather and unpolished luster of the steel indicate clearly enough that a piece was made by Christensen under Kjaerholm’s supervision.

As with several top names in midcentury design whose pieces are still in production—Charles and Ray Eames, Charlotte Perriand and Arne Jacobsen, for instance—sorting out the collectible from the readily available can be like walking through a minefield. For instance, Fritz Hansen, the Danish company that took over production of Kjaerholm’s designs in 1982, has kept a dozen pieces in continuous production, making slight alterations over the years. Although Hansen has played an important role in keeping the designer’s legacy alive, collectors, auctioneers and dealers say they generally steer clear of its items.

For this reason, the market for Kjaerholm can be variable. At a December 2006 sale at Sotheby’s New York, a chrome-plated-steel dining table from 1979 with a top of Porsgrunn marble—a mottled green and white stone embedded with fossils—and leaves made of maple sold for an impressive $54,000, in part because of the rarity of the stone and the maple leaves. At the same sale, a wicker PK-20 chair went for a surprisingly reasonable $5,700.

Availability remains a determining factor in anything to do with Kjaerholm. Some of his most distinctive pieces were instant hits, which kept them in production and rendered them more common than the unusual pieces that motivate today’s collectors. The level of intense craftsmanship—Kjaerholm spent hours each day discussing possible refinements with Christensen—and high material costs made it difficult to produce a design in large numbers. It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly how many multiples of each piece were made, since Christensen did not keep careful records. Historians guess that a few thousand of the popular PK-22 exist, but you could count the production of other chairs on two hands.

For years, Kjaerholm was mostly appreciated among architects. Minimalist architect John Pawson, an early collector of Kjaerholm, recalls being seduced by the work when he was a student in the late 1970s and saw a photograph in the Italian design magazine Domus. It was an image of the PK-24 chaise longue designed in 1965—an elegant swoop of rattan balanced on a stainless-steel frame with a leather bolster held in place by a steel-bar counterbalance in a gesture of ineffable delicacy. “It had more sex appeal than furniture by Mies,” Pawson says. Over the past decade, prices for such iconic pieces have risen steadily. In 2005, Sotheby’s sold a PK-24 made in 1972 for $42,000.

The designer lost his under-the-radar status in June 2006, when the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, in Humlebæk, Denmark, held the first major retrospective of his work: “Poul Kjaerholm—Furniture Architect.” The exhibition, curated by Sheridan, triggered a wider interest among furniture and art collectors.

Just months after the retrospective, prices started to skyrocket, says Peter Kjelgaard, of the auction house Bruun Rasmussen, in Copenhagen, who arranged a sale that October inspired by the show. A PK-61 square coffee table with a Porsgrunn-marble top went for $30,000, a set of PK-9 chairs for $60,000 and a PK-54 dining table with maple leaves for $75,000. “It was a benchmark show,” says Kjelgaard. “Just one year before, prices were a third less.”

The unexpectedly high prices flushed out many more Kjaerholm works. At the next sale, in March 2007, some sellers were disappointed as potential collectors realized that certain styles, such as the PK-22, were more common than expected. That triggered an ongoing refining period. “There is still strong demand for pieces in especially good condition with original leather or unusual fabric,” says Kjelgaard.

In the past seven years, Richard Wright, of Chicago’s Wright auction house, has sold 185 Kjaerholm items, including a set of six PK-11 chairs in rare mint condition that set the designer’s all-time auction record, going for $93,000 in December 2006. According to Wright, Kjaerholm’s is a real aficionados’ market, calling for patience and in-depth knowledge about a designer who was never really in the limelight. Available information has increased exponentially with the publication of the catalogue raisonné, coproduced by R 20th Century and Sean Kelly Gallery, in New York, in conjunction with a joint exhibition.

Still, says Wright, Kjaerholm is not an auction-house staple: “There are relatively few examples of really exceptional forms, plus a lot of repeated forms.” He adds that the special marbles do exceptionally well, including Cippolino. Particularly sought after are tables with tops made of Porsgrunn marble. “It has an almost spiritual quality,” says Wright, who also recommends looking for pieces with the original leather “soulfully broken so that it shows its life in a way Ralph Lauren could only dream about—that’s the ultimate.”  

According to Ole Hoestbo, of Dansk Møbelkunst, a leading Copenhagen gallery of vintage Danish Modern, the rare prototypes and pieces made in limited quantities—because of the unusual materials or labor involved—are the most desirable. One such rarity is the 1954 prototype of a laminated beech chair with steel tube legs created for an employee dining room of a major Danish cement company. The chair back is split down the middle and jointed with two splines; rubber shock absorbers attach the seat to the tubular legs. The client rejected the design, and only two were made: One resides in the Fritz Hansen furniture museum; Hoestbo sold the other for $150,000 five years ago.

Last winter, to go with their expansive shows of Kjaerholm’s works, Sean Kelly and R 20th Century released limited editions of four of his pieces. Working with the estate, Kelly and R 20th’s Meyers, who both discovered Kjaerholm on trips to Scandinavia and became acquainted as early buyers of his work, chose pieces that were never or only briefly manufactured: the Aluminum Tripod Chair in Rietveld-bright primary colors; the PK-12 chair, with braided-leather armrest; the PK-50 conference table; and the Reol Modular Bookcase, a late piece, made of wood slats, that was designed for an advertising agency but never made. Editions range from 10 to 100, with estimated prices from $8,500 to $30,000. The items were never a major part of Kjaerholm’s production history, and it’s not clear how they might affect the market for his other work (see The Reporter).

Reissue or vintage piece, Kjaerholm’s work continues to matter. “Other Scandinavian designers go in and out of fashion,” says Bruun Rasmussen’s Kjelgaard. “Kjaerholm has always been different.” Wright notes that in today’s market, where cabinets by Paul Evans are going for $300,000 to $400,000, a precision-crafted chair in original leather by Kjaerholm for $66,000 may be quite a bargain. 

"Artist Dossier: Poul Kjaerholm" originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's April 2008 Table of Contents.