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Poul Henningsen often referred to as PH was a world famous Danish designer, author, architect and critic, considered by many as one of the leading figures of Danish cultural life of Denmark between the World Wars. He was an architect and the lighting designer behind some of the most famous designer lamps, including the Artichoke and large and very popular series of pendants, floor and table lamps. He was also the filmmaker behind “The Film of Denmark” from 1935, a revue writer and an intellectual who did not hold back when it came to social criticism.
Early Life and Career
Poul Henningsen was the illegitimate son of author Agnes Henningsen and satirist Carl Edward, born on 9th September 1894 in Ordrup. He grew up in a tolerant and modern home, decorated in traditional Victorian style with heavy, ornamented, dark furniture. PH spent some of the years of his childhood in the care of a carpenter family in Vordingborg where he became acquainted with the craftsmanship and the use of tools.
Henningsen started several studies at the technical school in the period between 1911 and 1917. At first, he was studying technical building construction but later switched to mechanical engineering. In 1914, he passed the exam for Polytechnic Institute where he spent three years studying architecture, but he never graduated, trying, instead, to develop his career as an inventor and a painter in the late impressionist style.
As he grew older and frequented Copenhagen, he often thought about lighting in the homes he observed while walking the streets of the capital after dark. He often talked about how the lighting was either too dark or with a sharp, uncomfortable glare.
Dark decoration, a legacy from his family home, and the bad lighting he observed in Copenhagen inspired PH’s initial idea for what would later become PH series of lamps. Interestingly, while his main objective was to create lamps for the use in private homes, the first produced PH lamp was actually used in a public space.
Poul Henningsen's PH Lamp Series
Poul Henningsen spent more than ten years developing the PH lamps. He strove to create lighting that was welcoming and functional, focusing the light where it was needed.
Despite his many talents, and a long line of different products, PH lamps probably remain his most famous design. His efforts to create the optimum lighting were, according to many, fully successful due to his notion that the light should always come before the appearance, with the shape of the lamps accommodating the lighting and not isolated aesthetic appearance.
PH started his first design studio in 1919 and it was here that the vast majority of his lamps were created, with the first one being produced in 1924. Over the decade, the popularity of Poul Henningsen designs increased, with the timeless classics such as the Artichoke and PH-5 still hanging in many homes today, both in Denmark and around the world.
"The Film of Denmark"
Poul Henningsen also worked as a filmmaker behind “The Film of Denmark” from 1935 which hasn’t been met with unambiguous positive criticism. The film was commissioned in the 1920s, but by its release in 1935, the social circumstances have changed due to interwar instability, so in many people’s opinion, PH painted all too idyllic picture of Denmark. But perhaps PH was just engrossed by the faith in the future and new opportunities provided by the increasing industrialization. Moreover, the film was a project sponsored by the Foreign Ministry that hoped to market Denmark as a tourist destination and promote the country in that way.
Another common objection to the film was that it was too socialist and not in line with the nationalist and proud image that high society of the time had of Denmark. The film was more concerned with the working and ordinary Denmark than the higher class, and some of the original scenes were censored, including the one where PH discretely makes fun of the king.
Despite the mixed responses, “The Film of Denmark” is an important part of the history of Danish cinematography and it certainly exemplifies Poul Henningsen’s role in social critique at the time.
During the time he was working on “The Film of Denmark”, PH also wrote a number of revues and socially critical texts. Due to his harsh critique of the Nazi ideology, he was forced to flee to Sweden in 1943, similar to another famous Danish designer, Arne Jacobsen.
According to many, Poul Henningsen can be considered the first lighting architect. While light has been an essential part of urban life for centuries, PH was the first to expand its understanding, to ponder about how the lighting could be “shaped” to create different moods in a room, especially how to produce a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. Hi firmly believed that lighting is an underestimated, yet vital part of modern décor.
PH was inspired by the idea of progress and his optimism and faith in the future were essential in his designs, but they also played a crucial role in shaping his political views. His work in the domains of film, writing and design were instrumental in communicating his views to the broader public and while the pursuit of the glare-free and thoughtful lighting was his primary driver, Poul Henningsen sought to influence many aspects of the Danish culture. Progress, change, positivism and simple life permeated PH’s philosophy and are embodied in his designs which inspire designers to this day.
With great attention to details, PH tried to work around the somewhat uncomfortable glare of, at the time new invention, the light bulb. Combining science and creativity to envision a set of new crafting techniques and visual expressions, PH created cutting-edge designs which remain popular to this day.
Glass Hall Theatre in Tivoli Gardens
While Poul Henningsen remains synonymous with a modern approach to lighting and lamp design, he is also the architect behind the Glass Hall Theatre in Tivoli Gardens. This famous theatre in the heart of Copenhagen is a balanced mix of creativity and architectural precision. As an icon of Danish popular culture, the Glass Hall Theatre was designed with the functionality as a primary concern – a common approach in Danish Modern movement and something PH viewed as a core element of both architecture and design, but also of contemporary art in general.
As a strong adherent to the philosophy of architectural functionalism, Poul Henningsen paid great attention to the thoughtful and careful combination of function and aesthetics and saw that approach as an epitome of social progress. As one of the leading Danish intellectuals at the time, PH communicated his views to the public, both through his designs and architecture, but also through his texts that capture the essence of his worldview and personal philosophy. In his own words, “The craftsman must never forget that he is an artist, and an artist must never forget that he is a craftsman”.
But, not only did PH create with both functionality and aesthetics in mind, he also saw his endeavours as instrumental in bringing progress and prosperity to the Danish society. He emphasized the importance of the active engagement in the project of progress. As he wrote, “The future comes by itself, the progress does not”.
Poul Henningsen and Louis Poulsen
When talking about PH’s lighting design, one most mention the manufacturer, Louis Poulsen, with whom PH had a lifelong collaboration. Louis Poulsen holds the rights to the production of lamps to this day and has played a central role in the development and popularization of the PH lamps.
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