The story behind the renowned Clam Chair

Written by Niklas Søgaard the

The ever-popular Clam Chair is arguably the most mysterious piece on the Danish furniture market. But for some months now a new theory about its origin has been circulating. According to this, the Clam was not designed by Philip Arctander, but by the furniture upholsterer Arnold Madsen, and it was produced by Madsen's company Madsen & Schubell. The proposition is made by two enthusiasts and researchers who have studied the subject in depth and present hitherto unknown evidence. Oliver Fischer is a German journalist and furniture historian who usually publishes his findings on his the Instagram account @facesofdanishmodern, among others. Zephyr Renner from the USA has also been studying the history of Danish furniture design for years. He publishes his findings in various places on the internet under the name @movablemodern. This is their investigation.

 

With its club-shaped legs, rounded armrests and unique seat shape, The Clam Chair stands out from the mass of its mostly solemn and elegant contemporaries. Some call its design naive, others cute, yet others say it would look good in a child's room. However, an original Clam might be too expensive for that by now! For years, the prices paid for it on the vintage market have been rising and they have reached magnitudes that few other pieces can match. That alone gives the chair an aura of mystery. But its mysteriousness is also due to the fact that its history of origin was unclear for a long time. Buyers spent vast sums of money on the chair and asked themselves: Who designed and produced this wonderful object?

 

Since the Clam first gained attention on market in the mid-nineties, various theories have been put forward. First Viggo Boesen was suspected to be the author, then a certain Martin Olsen, and finally in 2013 the design world settled on a story that the chair was designed by architect Philip Arctander and produced for a retailer called Nordisk Staal- og Mobelcentral. But today we can say that none of this is true. New research has revealed that the originator of the Clam was someone else: the Danish upholsterer, designer and furniture manufacturer Arnold Madsen (1907-1989).


You have never heard the name Arnold Madsen? You are not alone in this. His name is one of the best-kept secrets in the Danish design world. Although some of the chairs he has designed and produced have already become classics. Madsen was the founder and co-owner of the company Madsen and Schubell, which produced numerous successful models for the Danish furniture market between 1945 and 1965, among them the Pragh chair and the MS-9, which today is known as the "Oda Chair.” 


   

Portrait of Arnold Madsen, Clam Chair


So, what makes us certain that Madsen also designed the Clam?

The evidence that supports this is overwhelming. Above all, there are three witnesses to events of the time who unanimously confirm Madsen's authorship: Madsen's daughter Johna; Flemming Schubell, whose father was Arnold Madsen's business partner; and the Norwegian sales agent Ole Christian Hassing. On the basis of their descriptions, which essentially coincide, the history of the Clam can be completely reconstructed.

 

Madsen's daughter Johna, born in 1943, grew up with the history of Madsen and Schubell - and with it the history of the Clam. She might have no memory of the birth of the chair because she was only one year old when it was designed, but she tells of her father's descriptions. "My father was a furniture man, and the chair belonged to him and to our family," she says. In the 1950s it was part of the furniture in the Madsen house. Also her uncle owned one, which Arnold had given him. Above all, her father reported how he developed the Clam in his basement workshop in Gothersgade, says Johna. The chair played a major role for him, because it was the chair that started everything for Arnold Madsen.  

 

Arnold Madsen, Clam Chair, private



Madsen had lived a rather unsteady life until then. He had emigrated to America at an early age, working as a sailor and unskilled worker. After his return, he settled in Copenhagen and trained as an upholsterer. In his early thirties, he became self-employed and in 1943 moved into workshop premises on the outskirts of downtown Copenhagen in Gothersgade. He was ambitious. Instead of just refurbishing chairs and sofas from other manufacturers, he began to design his own furniture. 

 

This is where Flemming Schubell's story begins.
"My father was an experienced carpenter and worked as a foreman at the furniture company Winther & Winding," he says. "One day an upholsterer named Arnold Madsen arrived there with a chair design for which he needed a frame. Numerous cabinetmakers had rejected the request."

 

The chair was the Clam. Henry Schubell saw that the chair frame would be difficult to make. The backrest construction that Madsen had come up with was so unfavorably positioned that a conventional joint would not have withstood the load. Henry Schubell agreed nevertheless and developed a special connecting wooden element that did not require the backrest to be joined directly to the seat. "But the connector was so difficult to make with just a bandsaw that no one else could do it. As long as Winther & Winding produced the frames for Arnold Madsen, my father had to make all the connectors himself," says Flemming Schubell. The effort was worth it for both. According to Schubell, Arnold Madsen was so impressed by Henry’s skills that he offered him a partnership. 

 

In 1945, the Clam went into serial production as the first model of the new furniture company Madsen & Schubell and it obviously struck a chord immediately. This can be seen, among other things, in the fact that many well-known stores soon included Madsen & Schubell in their product range. Illums Bolighus was one of them, as were the Messen department store and the Copenhagen furniture store Nordisk Staal-og-Møbel Central. A few years later Madsen & Schubell even expanded their business to the international market. In 1953 they met the Norwegian representative Sigurd Hassing, who worked for the Norwegian manufacturer Vik & Blindheim, at the furniture fair in Fredericia. Hassing concluded a licensing agreement with them, which enabled Vik & Blindheim to produce designs by Madsen & Schubell in Norway. The deal also included the Clam. Hassing's son Ole Christian remembers: "My father convinced Arnold Madsen of the cooperation. Our families became friends. There was a long business relationship between my father and Madsen and there is no doubt that Arnold Madsen designed the Clam," says Hassing. "My father talked a lot about furniture. He often mentioned Arnold Madsen, as well as the Clam. Both belonged together."



Arnold Madsen, Clam Chair, advertisement
 Ad photoArkivalium

While Madsen & Schubell stopped production of the Clam at their Copenhagen workshop around 1953, the chair continued to be produced in Norway. A 1958 Vik & Blindheim catalog shows it, along with three other models that can be clearly credited to Madsen & Schubell. From this period is also an advertisement that Vik & Blindheim placed in the magazine Møbelfabrikanten. In this ad there are four chairs, the three uncontroversially credited Madsen & Schubell chairs are united in one picture - together with the Clam. Is there any other explanation than that these four chairs belong together because they all come from the same designers?

 

 

But you may ask: Where is the proof like construction drawings or advertisements?

 

Construction drawings of the Clam do not exist and there is a simple reason for this.  As a furniture upholsterer, Arnold Madsen had not learned how to make technical drawings. "He did a lot of tinkering and always formed models with his hands," says Madsen's daughter Johna. The Clam he made from plaster. The model with which he went in search of a carpenter is missing today. Flemming Schubell, who joined the company as a carpenter in 1958, confirms, however, that it stood in the workshop for many years as a reminder of the company’s origins.

 

And ads? Madsen & Schubell hardly ever placed any. There is also a simple reason for this: they did not sell their furniture directly to customers. Instead, Arnold Madsen maintained business relationships with Denmark's leading furniture dealers. In every city except Copenhagen, there was only one store that was allowed to sell Madsen & Schubell, says Flemming Schubell. And the dealers had no interest in advertising the name of a manufacturer. They preferred to advertise with their own name - and often even attached their own tag to furniture pieces. In fact it was an unwritten rule in those days that furniture sold through a dealer was not to bear a mark from the maker.   

 

Arnold Madsen, Clam Chair, song text


But there is other substantial proof. For one thing, there is a song that Madsen and Schubell employees wrote in January 1957 on the occasion of Arnold Madsen's 50th birthday. In this "Ode to Arnold Madsen" it says:

 

Under krigens mangler måtte mangen polstrer stå for fald,
(During the shortages of the war, many reupholsterers stood to fall,)

hvis man ikke ku' få men'sker anbragt i en muslingeskal.
(If one could not place people in a clam shell.)


Det fik Arnold lært en masse

(Arnold learned a lot from that)

og se, det gav vældig kasse,
(and look, it gained good profit,)

men for at det nu skal gå,
(but to keep it going,)

må han stadig hitte på.
(he must keep on inventing)

 

The 'muslingeskal' in this song is the Clam Chair.

But the clearest physical evidence is related to the ad from Møbelfabrikanten. After Arnold's death, photos of his furniture designs were found in his desk, which he obviously had made for marketing purposes. Among them is a cut-out photo of the Clam. It is exactly the same photo that was copied into a halftone for the Vik & Blindheim ad. The pattern of the wood grain, the fabric, the angle are all a perfectly matched fingerprint.  And there is only one explanation for the fact that Madsen's family owns the original photo: Arnold Madsen is the creator of the Clam. 

 
Clam Chair by Arnold Madsen from KLASSIK Copenhagen 

And what about Philip Arctander?

Fundamentally the credibility of the Arctander story rested on the word of Arctander’s friend, the architect Poul Erik Skriver, who is said to have confirmed the attribution. Skriver, then in his 90s, has since passed away, one can't ask him anymore. Beyond his word, there is nothing to support Arctander's authorship.

 
Watch Flemming Schubell talking about the origin of the Clam Chair:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bf0ttZAWw8I