Wishbone chair: The most iconic 20th century design

With its instantly-recognisable form, characteristic curves and precise lines, Hans Wegner’s masterful Wishbone chair is one of the most iconic and influential 20th century designs. Defying precise classification, Y chair was described as a classic of mid century modern style, an iconic representation of the core postulates of Scandinavian style, a masterpiece of Danish Modern and a typical Organic Functionalism design. This variety of labels being applied to the Wishbone chair only prove the innovative and almost revolutionary nature of this design which seems to be a part of its own class. At the same time, they serve as a lasting testament to Hans Wegner’s creative genius. This Danish designer was very well-versed when it comes to the dominant design traditions and philosophies that shaped the context in which he created, so most of his designs defy precise classification, relying instead on a collage of distinct elements.

Blending minimalist elegance of Scandinavian style with organic softness characteristic for Organic Functionalism design movement, Wegner managed to create a truly unique design that continues to charm with its simple elegance and flowing form marked with impeccable balance and stylish symmetry. Clean simple lines that make up this iconic design obscure the complex joinery system which serves as yet another reminder to Wegner’s exceptional woodworking skills, while the precisely curved backrest paired with hand-woven paper cord seat ensures exceptional seating comfort which was certainly revolutionary at the time when this design first left the workshops and started carving out a place for itself on the mid century designer furniture market.

Aesthetic of the form and not the ornaments

Just like most of mid century Scandinavian designs, Wishbone chair lacks any conventional ornaments, but instead relies on its flowing and sculptural form for the unique aesthetic appeal that is at the heart of its unwavering popularity. Simple, functional and subtle, this stylish wooden chair doesn’t need much more than its fluid and organic lines and shapes to impress. Wood as the dominant material is yet another classic Wegner signature move, but at the same time it adds a very discreet rustic appeal that creates an equally subtle, but impactful contrast with its undoubtedly modern form.

Inspired by History

Hans Wegner’s Y chair was first designed in 1949 under the designation CH24. As a last and arguably the most distinct addition to his series of chairs inspired by portraits of Danish merchants sitting in traditional Chinese chairs from the Ming dynasty era, Wishbone chair has been praised as the jewel in Wegner’s crown of outstanding designs that earned him the title ‘Master of the Chair’. Originally produced by Carl Hansen & Søn from 1950 onwards, this iconic model rich in history is in continuous production ever since. Wegner’s fascination with the Ming chairs which provided him with the original spark of inspiration was further developed through his experience and involvement with the leading design styles of the 20th century. As such, the Wishbone chair relies on the legacy of Europe and Asia alike, fusing the both in a masterful manner in a truly iconic piece that has stood the test of time with its timeless elegance.

Hans J. Wegner – ‘The Master of the Chair’

Born on 2nd of April 1914 in Tønder, Denmark, Hans J. Wegner showed an interest and exceptional talent for working with wood at an early age. As an apprentice to the famous Danish cabinetmaker H. F. Stahlberg, Wegner gained valuable experience and developed an affinity towards woodworking. This early experience had a profound impact on his whole career with wood remaining the quintessential element of almost all of his designs (with just a couple of notable exceptions). Finishing apprenticeship at the age of 17, he changed several universities before settling down at the Danish School of Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen. There he further developed his skills as a craftsman, but also as a designer. But, maybe more importantly, through new acquaintanceships he got an opportunity to work together with some of the biggest names of Danish design – Erik Møller and Arne Jacobsen.

During the war years, Wegner collaborated with yet another famous Danish designer, Børge Mogensen at the company called FDB Furniture, specialized in the production of low-cost but high-quality designs. With this additional experience, Wegner finally began shaping his own vision of furniture for the 20th century, resulting in the foundation of his own workshop. Throughout his long and fruitful career, Hans J. Wegner designed more than 500 chairs, with more than 100 of them achieving notable success on the market. And despite the versatility of his designs, his affection for chair design, alongside his masterful skills in this field earned him the title ‘The Master of the Chair’.

Revolutionary design

Even today, the unique flowing shape of Wegner’s Wishbone chair looks exceptionally stylish and very distinct. But, back in the early 1950s, it was considered absolutely revolutionary. With the curved back legs joining the semi-circular top rail, the whole shape of the chair seems to be flawlessly balanced, making the lines appear as if they are flowing. But, this organic appeal is further developed with the carefully planned proportions which ensure not just stylistic harmony, but also exceptional comfort, perfectly adjusted to the requirements of dining chairs for the modern century.

Challenging production

The backrest and the armrests of the Wishbone chair are masterfully combined into a single piece which is yet another cutting-edge innovation introduced into mid century furniture design by Hans Wegner. This piece is at the same time the most challenging wooden part of the Wishbone chair when it comes to production. The carefully planned proportions of the design leave no room for error and the processes involved are long-lasting and require an expert level of woodworking. For flawless results the traditional steam-bending process is used to bend a single piece of wood into the desired form. The whole procedure can last several days, with temperature and stress applied being carefully controlled at all times. This is the only way to create the precise curved backrest of the Wishbone chair without compromising the integrity of wood or making the outer layers wrinkle or crack.
This one-piece armrests-backrest piece is supported and given stability by the characteristic Y shape that earned this masterpiece its name – Y chair. This element also plays an important role of providing additional support to the back and thus ensuring optimal comfort and allowing the chair to be used for long periods of time without discomfort or back pain.
But, woodworking alone doesn’t suffice for a premium quality Wishbone chair. Equal care has to be given to weaving of the characteristic paper cord seat (yet another Wegner signature). A total of 120 meters of paper cord string are used for one Wishbone chair seat and it can take several hours for an expert craftsman to complete just one seat. With 14 distinct curved wooden parts and the hand-woven seat, each Wishbone chair will be in production between 3 and 6 weeks, depending on the type of wood used and, of course, experience of craftsmen involved.

Wishbone chair changes and variations

Wishbone chair is an iconic model which is produced in line with the original design specifications. As such, it has no official variations, although some creators tried producing lookalikes of the different types (with Wishbone barstools being maybe the most popular and well-received variant). However, Wishbone chairs produced today do come with slightly different dimensions than the original. The change in size of the chair was explained by an overall increase in the human average height, so the new specifications will allow this timeless classic to retain its comfort and practicality in the 21st century.