Hans Wegner/ The Bear Chair
Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Hans Wegner, the legendary Danish furniture-maker, designed more than five hundred chairs during his long and illustrious career. One of them belongs to me.
In the 1950’s, Wegner was one of a small group of Danish designers who created a new look that came to be known as Danish Modern. He always worked with natural materials like wood and wool, and his furniture reflects both the natural world and abstract art; you can see traces of Brancusi and Picasso in it, as well as animals and trees.
Wegner’s furniture is neither fussy and antique, nor pop and plastic. It has won countless prizes and is now in the collections of many museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which also chose Wegner’s furniture for many of its new restaurants and public spaces. It is practical, yet profound. Wegner once described his work as a process of purification and simplification. “A chair is only finished when someone sits in it,” he said.
My parents bought a houseful of Hans Wegner furniture in Copenhagen in 1957. We had been living in London, and were on our way back to Boston, where my father, the meteorologist and astrophysicist Lewis Kaplan, had a job at MIT. We stopped in Sweden to visit Carl-Gustaf Rossby, the great Swedish scientist who had been his teacher at the University of Chicago. “Most leaders of modern meteorology are friends or past pupils of Dr. Rossby’s,” declared Time magazine in a 1956 cover story on Rossby, whose International Meteorological Institute in Stockholm was described by Time as “a place of pilgrimage for meteorologists.” On the cover, Rossby is shown smiling, surrounded by weather-maps, his head in the clouds, smoking a pipe.
I remember a long, late dinner, and then dancing to records, alone in the dark, candle-lit living room while the grown-ups stayed at the table, drinking wine, and talking about the atmosphere, the ozone layer, and the environment. Even then, Rossby was worried about the “CO² Menace,” and the effect of carbon dioxide and other pollutants on the atmosphere. He told Time, “We should have a great deal of respect for the planet on which we live.”
The next day, we went to Denmark. After gloomy London, Copenhagen seemed lovely and light, with clear skies and everywhere, a view of the sea. “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen,” we sang, all holding hands, dancing down the tree lined boulevards.
I was thrilled by the statue of the Little Mermaid in the harbor; I was six years old and had just learned to read, and was devouring the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson in a big, beautifully illustrated edition, which I carried with me everywhere. My parents were thrilled by Hans Wegner, whose work was displayed at Den Permanente, the crafts cooperative and showcase for Danish modern furniture.
Den Permanents looked more like a museum than a store. It was all glass and light, and the furniture was displayed like sculpture, surrounded by space and light. On the walls were photographs of the designers and craftsmen at work. I sat on one of the chairs and read my book, and I was pleased to learn that Hans Wegner was the son of a cobbler – just like Hans Christian Anderson!
After much discussion and calculations on napkins and other little pieces of paper where my father wrote down most of his ideas, my parents decided to spend all the money they had in the world — 3000 dollars – one thousand duty free dollars for each of us — on Hans Wegner furniture. They bought a teak dining room table and a set of “Wishbone” chairs with curved backs, inspired by portraits of Danish merchants sitting in Ming chairs; a coffee table, a tea trolley, a set of six tacking side-tables, a piano bench, and the Bear Chair.
It all came back to Boston on the boat with us, the SS Rotterdam, packed in huge wooden boxes with the words DEN PERMANENTE printed on them in big red block letters. Den Permanente: the name means permanence, and Hans Wegner’s furniture was indeed a constant in our constantly changing life.
My parents had no furniture to replace; they had proudly spent their wedding money on classical records, not china and chairs. We had lived in a series of graduate student and Post-Doc residences in Chicago, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (where we met Albert Einstein), and the dark, gloomy furnished flat in London. We were free to re-invent ourselves, and we did. Our Hans Wegner furniture was part of our identity and our family mythology. So much so that when, a few years later, a Walt Disney made a movie of the children’s classic, “Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates,” I innocently referred to it as “Hans Wegner and the Silver Skates.” Amazingly, Carl Rossby’s daughter Carin Rossby starred in the movie, playing Hans’ spunky little sister Gretel, who actually wins the prize. In the book, Hans wants to be a doctor; in the movie, he is an artist, always sketching, and there are constant references to Rembrandt and Vermeer, and lines like “The old masters used to work in black and white.”
The Bear Chair’s first home was a big Greek Revival house near Boston, which my mother, Lillian, lovingly restored and decorated with posters from our years abroad. Calm and contemplative, the Bear Chair dominated the living room with its large, sculptural presence, surveying the teak coffee table, the piano bench, the piano I never learned to play, the record player with the piles of classical records, the lithographs by Frederick O’Hara, my parents’ artist friend from Albuquerque, and books, and books, and books.
This was the model for all the living rooms in all the houses and apartments my parents lived in. Later additions included “Oriental” carpets, Japanese woodblock prints, an O’Hara oil painting of a rooster, heavily influenced by Picasso, an antique rooster weathervane, an abstract Expressionist painting my father once brought home from Finland, which grew darker every year, and books, and books, and books.
So it was in Boston, then in Pasadena, where we moved when my father moved from earth to planetary atmospheres, and landed a job at NASA’s new Jet Propulsion Lab. When everything was unpacked, the Bear Chair said, “Home.”
Looking back, I realize how much Wegner’s furniture embodied my parents’ ideals: nature, science, and art. Even the language was the same: abstract, model, design, experimentation, and especially elegance were all words used by my father and his scientist friends, and echoed in descriptions of Wegner’s own work.
Elegance and experimentation prevailed in the dining room, too. My mother was a wonderful cook, and shared recipes with the European wives of famous scientists, like Laura Fermi and Clari Von Neumann.
She served a fancy, sit-down, home-made dinner almost every night; we sat down to table as soon as my father came home from work.. When it was just the three of us, we ate “family-style”, with all the food brought to the table on platters, bowls, and trays. Pots and pans and containers stayed in the kitchen; milk and juice were poured into pitchers in the kitchen before being brought into the dining room; water in an iced carafe. The only exception to this rule was Grey Poupon mustard, which was brought to the table in its elegant little jar, placed on a silver tray and served with a special mustard spoon. We always had fresh flowers on the table, and wine, which my father served from a French wicker wine basket they had bought at a market in Provence. Dessert was fruit or ice-cream.
Our Hans Wegner dining room table was a perfect circle at its smallest, but opened up into a large oval with a set of leaves. We always kept the table in its largest form, surrounded by all the Wegner curved-back chairs, for the constant flow of guests – mostly scientists, but also artists and other interesting people from all over the world.
Company dinners began with cocktails in the living room, and ended with a fancy dessert: cakes, pies, mousses or meringues. On special occasions, my father would open a bottle of champagne, and we would all sing, “The Night They Invented Champagne.” We celebrated everything – birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Passover, Christmas, Russian Easter – around that dining room table.
After dinner, my mother washed the huge piles of dishes; usually I helped, but in the teenage years, I often scampered upstairs to do homework, sulk, or listen to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, very softly, on the radio. My father retired to the Bear Chair to smoke his pipe, listen to Mozart, contemplate the atmosphere, and dream of finding life on Mars.
My father was a dreamer, his head in the clouds. He loved all the classics: Mozart, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, the Greeks, Vermeer. He loved the Bear Chair because it was a classic, too. He used to sit, wrapped up in the Bear Chair, in great contentment, surrounded by a cloud of smoke from his beloved pipe.
My father loved his work. He was always drawing on napkins, making models, inventing, exploring, and taking joy in the process.
He loved solving problems, and he was able to fix anything, usually by taking it apart and putting it back together. Sometimes, after hours of scowling and pacing around in his study, he would emerge triumphant, exclaiming, “I figured it out!”
His outlook on life was not just international – it was interplanetary. In 1963, he designed a small infrared radiometer that flew on Mariner II to measure the clouds surrounding Venus; he had experiments on all the missions to Mars, and worked with a team of French astronomers making spectrograms from an observatory in Haute-Provence, to analyze the Martian atmosphere. Eventually he returned to Earth, studying the atmosphere of the little green planet he loved so well. He was a watcher of the skies.
When I was a child, we never went on vacations; instead, we accompanied my father on excursions to scientific conferences or visiting professorships in various fabulous places like Paris, Oxford, Norway, Moscow, Athens, an ancient monastery in Wales.
After I went to college, my parents continued orbiting the planet, touching down in Paris, Portugal, Estonia, China. Their beloved Hans Wegner furniture criss-crossed the country, waiting for them in various apartments in Pasadena, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Whenever I visited them, the Bear Chair was always the first thing I saw, and it always said, “Home.”
They landed in Boston just before my son was born. My father gave up his beloved pipe when his even more beloved grandson was born; and they spent many happy hours together, reading and putting together ever more elaborate sets of Lego — castles, ships, and space stations.
But my father, who had always been able to fix anything, began to lose his grip. His hands trembled; he forgot things. He was no longer surrounded by a cloud of smoke; but gradually we lost him to another kind of cloud, a cloud of confusion brought on by his Parkinson’s disease and worsened by the medications that were intended to help; a dark cloud of confusion that dragged him, slowly, inexorably down into dementia and finally death. The Bear Chair was empty.
After my father died, my mother moved to a much smaller apartment, and brought most of her Hans Wegner furniture with her: the “Chinese” chairs, the coffee table, the tea trolley, the piano bench. The teak dining room table was now, for the first time, a small, perfect circle. Her apartment room looks like a period room at the museum: 50’s intellectuals, with Danish Modern.
The Bear Chair came to me. I couldn’t sit in it; I could hardly even look at it. And so it was that, as the years went by, I hardly noticed how sad and shabby, stained and scratched it had become. I was proud of the chair, and occasionally told incredulous children, “This chair is in the Museum of Modern Art.”
But for me, it was purely an emblem of loss. Stage directions from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
When I read in the New York Times that Hans Wegner had died this January at the age of 92, I knew it was time to restore the Bear Chair. A friend from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts recommended Machine Age, Normand Mainville’s showroom for vintage mid-century furniture in South Boston. One snowy winter day, I brought the Bear Chair to a huge warehouse on the waterfront. “This chair is so well-made it has another fifty years of life in it,” said Normand.
While the chair was gone, I began to realize how much Wegner’s furniture represented my family’s ideals: nature, science, and art. The ingenious invention; the elegant proof; a love of nature; respect for the environment. “We should have a great deal of respect for the planet on which we live,” Rossby declared fifty years ago. We all believe that, too.
I cleared a good space for the chair in my living room, among all the classical CDs, the piano I never learned to play, the works of art, the books, and books, and books. The cloud of grief that had surrounded me since my father’s death began to lift, and I remembered the sunny days when we danced down the boulevard singing “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen!” — when the future seemed limitless, with a view of the sea.
In Spring, season of rebirth, the bulbs I planted in the earth began to rise, little green leaves appeared on the trees, and the Bear Chair was returned to me, restored, bringing with it something of my childhood, and my father’s dreams.
Older and darker now, the Bear Chair looks more than ever like a bear – not a toy bear or a bear in a cage at the zoo, but a real bear, a bear in the woods, waking up after a long winter’s sleep. Its big curved frame is made of teak, Wegner’s favorite wood — an oily wood often used in boatbuilding, with a natural oil finish that lets it breathe. It exudes something of freedom of the forest, and the spaciousness of the sea. Hidden harmonies. The music of the spheres.
I finally sat in the Bear Chair, listening to Mozart, enveloped in its big bear hug. And the Bear Chair said, “Home.”