October 13th, 2010
If you've heard of Poul Henningsen, then you undoubtedly know of his coveted PH5 or PH3 lamps. Henningsen (called PH by friends) achieved an early success with his first model of the PH-lamp at the 1925 the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, where he took first prize for modern lighting. Born in 1894 to author Agnes Henningsen and her lover, satirist Carl Ewald, Henningsen grew up in a tolerant and intellectual home in Copenhagen. Whether learned or innate, it seems he was destined to become an influential force in the Danish and Scandinavian design circles.
Henningsen was trained as an architect at the Danish College of Technology (1911-1917), and though he never acquired a licensed degree, he worked for a time as an independent architect, designing several homes, two theaters, and a factory. Henningsen prescribed to the functionalist ideals, ie. form follows function, which is evident in the refined rationality of his lamps. Venustas and Utilitas are not inherently linked, however; it takes a keen interpretive eye to unify them successfully. Aside from his discerning eye, he had a biting wit and a free tongue which gained him a large following (and many critics) as a writer and critic of international modern design and theory. It was his article in Kritisk Revy (Critical Review), "Tradition and Modernism" that influenced a marked change in Alvar Aalto's early housing theories. Aalto subscribe to the magazine from 1926-1928, and judging by the notes he made in the ledgers, he was particularly interested in Henningsen's articles. Prior to this particular article, Aalto had been approaching the post-war need for mass housing with a quantitative mind. He saw people as a homogeneous mass needing a checklist of amenities. A shift is evident in his article, "On the Latest Trends in Architecture: The Key Questions Concerning the Essence of Art and the Problems of Our Times; What is the Aim of the New Realism in Building Art?" published in Uusi Aura in 1928. In it, Aalto identifies and contemplates "modernism" as the new superficial aestheticism, be it the rationalism championed by Corbusier or the functionalism proposed by the Germans. Aalto concluded that architecture needed a stronger correlation between society and function, coined New Realism, a concept he derived from Henningsen's earlier article. While Henningsen subscribed to the expansive notion of modernism as a reflection of the culmination of function and technology, and the rejection of frivolous adornment, it was his magazine's belief that modernism should as well be based on study of actual daily life the function of society as a whole that has been a thread that stretches to the current socially and environmentally conscious architecture of today.
If you are able to read Danish, or are inclined to translate the essays, I've found a link with a few publications of Kritisk Revy. If anyone knows where to find any more, please let me know!
Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics