Poul Henningsen – The irony of fate

The irony of fate can sometimes be striking and interesting to witness. Take Poul Henningsen, for example – often just referred to by his initials alone. If anyone, PH fought to improve conditions for the working classes – better housing, better and more modern design, more fresh air and greater equality. The irony is that today PH’s own design is so expensive that the working classes – if they still existed in their traditional form – would hardly be able to afford even the lead that connects the lamp to the electricity supply.

Poul Henningsen (1894-1967) was himself a product of the working class. He was the youngest of four children. His mother, Agnes Henningsen, was an author, but one of the more liberated of the kind for the period c. 1900. Among her lovers were the author Carl Ewald, PH’s father, and the critic Georg Brandes, whom PH would have liked to have been his father! Agnes Henningsen was a leading figure in the women’s rights movement. So right from the cradle PH found himself in a world infused with lively political, literary and artistic discussion.

PH is best known for his beautiful lamps but spent a lot of his life writing – reviews, articles and debate pieces, etc. About decorative art and its role for average people Poul Henningsen for instance wrote in the Danish journal “Kritisk Revy” in 1926:

“Decorative art now as ever swings between two extremes: purely functional objects that over time have taken on a beautiful logic in their form and pure art objects that are only produced in a single example by artists whose name alone gives the object value.” … “That we have an unobtrusive and beautiful functional art dare therefore not be doubted, and modern decorative art is not in nearly so much danger as some people make it out to be. It is good that in an everyday context it is inconspicuous, as functional art first and foremost has to perform its practical task.” … “It should not be denied that ornate decorative art is as justified as painting at the easel. If it inspires an artist like Jean Gauguin to make his stoneware statues, then he’s perfectly within his rights. But it cannot be given greater pedagogical and social significance outside the circle of the artists and connoisseurs.” … “It is not because it is wrong to decorate things. There is still use for vases and blinds and small plates with a picture at the bottom so that children can eat up quicker.”… “Dear friends in the decorative arts! How can you expect that we should hold on to our esteem for you so long as swindle goes under the name of art while all the modern tasks are left undone? We do not own a decent water glass, not a plate, not a wash-bowl and pitcher set, not a spoon, knife, fork; but the better homes are littered with muck and rubbish at fantastic prices!”

The middle classes were one of PH’s favourite targets for his critique. Ironic that today it is precisely the well-heeled who are in a position to be able to afford his lamps and furniture. PH shunned tradition – today he’s part of tradition. PH was well-meaning in his dislike of “good taste” – but today his lamps are nothing if not “good taste”. That’s just way it goes sometimes!

See Poul Henningsen’s lamps at auction right now.

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