From the August/September 2019 Issue  

Tale of the Egg & the Swan

Writer Ren Miller

Two chairs with fanciful names take their place in modern design history

Imagine burrowing into a supersized eggshell with its sides curving around you in a protective embrace. Or for a more open presentation, think about gliding along a gurgling creek while sitting comfortably on a swan with its wings spread like arm rests.

Such flights of fancy came into sharp focus in 1958 with the introduction of The Egg™ and The Swan™, two chairs designed by Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971), a Danish architect who made significant contributions to modernism and to Scandinavia’s place in modern design.

Jacobsen was known for designing every detail of his architectural commissions, especially public buildings, from the structure to the furniture to choosing the type of fish swimming in ponds outside. He trained first as a mason before studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. While still a student, he won a silver medal for a chair that was then exhibited at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. That prize launched a career that took him to the heights of modern design.

Jacobsen’s work embraced a functionalist approach. And nowhere is the theory that form follows function more evident than in the sculpted Egg and Swan chairs, both of which anticipate the curves of the human body. Jacobsen designed both for the busy lobby of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen (now the Radisson Collection Hotel, Royal Copenhagen), for which he designed every detail. The chairs are a sculptural contrast to the hotel’s mostly vertical and horizontal surfaces, and some of the original chairs remain in use, though since reupholstered.

The designs are believed to have been inspired by early bent plywood chairs by Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames. However, Jacobsen pioneered the use of new materials (originally Styropore® and now polyurethane foam) that allowed him to shape curves into single-piece molded shells. Like a sculptor, Jacobsen developed the perfect shape by experimenting with clay in his garage until satisfied with the final design.

Fabric or leather upholstery is handsewn onto the shell, and the seats are set on an aluminum star-shaped base and mounted on a satin-polished steel pedestal. The base rotates so you can swivel toward others if you want to join a conversation or away if you desire privacy. They also tilt back for relaxed lounging. Matching footstools are available. Both designs were made also as sofas, though only the Swan Sofa remains in production.

Jacobsen chose Republic of Fritz Hansen of Denmark to produce the designs, and the company remains the only authorized manufacturer. Available at Design Within Reach in Paramus, New Jersey for $5,906-$18,903 for the Egg Chair and $4,662-$10,183 for the Swan Chair.