The ever-popular Clam Chair has been the most mysterious piece of furniture on the Danish furniture market for a long time - because who drew the lines on this fine piece of work? It has been attributed to Danish architect Philip Arctander, but on very weak evidence and without any real documentation. That's why two design enthusiasts decided to delve into the story, which is now published here for the first time. The two enthusiasts are the German journalist and furniture historian Oliver Fischer (@facesofdanishmodern) and American Zephyr Renner (@zephyrleifrenner), who has studied Danish furniture for years.
With its club-shaped legs, rounded armrests and unique seat shape, the Clam Chair stands out from the crowd of its contemporaries, which are more rooted in Danish furniture history. The Clam Chair brought something new to the table. Some call it cute and others naive, but everyone agrees that its unique design has made it a sought-after and costly item on the vintage market. And that alone gives the chair an aura of mystery. For years, collectors have spent large sums on the chair and asked themselves: Who designed and crafted this wonderful chair in the first place?
When the clam first came to the attention of the design market in the mid-nineties, several theories were presented concerning its creator. First, Viggo Boesen (1907-1985) was speculated to be the man behind it, then a certain Martin Olsen, and finally, in 2013, the design world agreed that the chair must have been designed by architect Philip Arctander (1916-1994) and produced by Nordisk Staal- og Møbel Central. Today, we can conclude that this is incorrect. We are now convinced that the creator of this unique chair was someone else: the Danish upholsterer, designer and furniture manufacturer Arnold Madsen (1907-1989).
Not familiar with the name 'Arnold Madsen'? Well, you're not alone. His name is one of the best-kept secrets in the Danish design world, despite the fact that he designed and produced one of the most sought-after chairs in the world. Madsen was the founder and co-owner of the firm Madsen & Schubell, which produced several successful models for the Nordic furniture market between 1945 and 1965, including the 'Pragh' chair and the MS-9, also known today as the 'Oda' chair.
So, what makes us so sure that Madsen is the man behind it?
The evidence for this is rather overwhelming. First of all, there are three reliable witnesses who unanimously confirm that Arnold Madsen is the designer: Johna Madsen (daughter of Arnold Madsen), Flemming Schubell (son of Henry Schubell, Madsen's business partner) and Ole Christian Hassing (son of Sigurd Hassing, Vik & Blindheim's sales agent). Based on their descriptions and documentation, which essentially coincide, we can conclude that the history of the Clam Chair needs to be completely reconstructed.
Johna Madsen, daughter of Arnold Madsen
Born in 1943, Johna grew up with the story of Madsen & Schubell's business adventures - and not least with the story of the Clam Chair. She has no memory of the creation of the chair, as she was only one year old when it was designed. However, what she does remember is that she grew up with the chair in the Madsen home, which was there throughout her childhood, and other family members also had a copy. Among them her uncle, which Arnold Madsen gifted him.
She recalls visiting her father in the basement workshop in Gothersgade in the heart of Copenhagen, where Arnold himself was carpentering and upholstering the small production of the chair. The chair played a major role for him. Because it was a chair that set everything in motion for Madsen & Schubell.
Until then, Madsen had lived a rather unstable life. He emigrated at a young age to America, where he worked as a sailor and unskilled craftsman. After his return, he settled in Copenhagen and trained as an upholsterer. In the early thirties, he became self-employed and in 1943 he moved into the workshop premises in Gothersgade, where he started renovating furniture for other manufacturers and customers. But soon he was working with pencil and paper himself.
Flemming Schubell, son of Henry Schubell
"My father was an experienced carpenter and worked as a foreman at the renowned furniture company Winther & Winding", says Flemming. "One day, an upholsterer showed up with a plaster seat that he needed help making a frame for. He had been around town asking the many cabinetmakers, but they had all turned him down.”
"The chair was a clam. My father quickly concluded that making such a frame would be challenging - but not impossible. The proposed back construction was so weak that a traditional joint wouldn't be able to withstand the load. So Henry developed a special joint that did not require the backrest to be connected directly to the seat. However, it was so complicated to make with a bandsaw that no one wanted to do it. So Henry made these privately and the frame itself was made by Winther & Winding", Flemming explains. Arnold Madsen and Henry Schubell saw a potential in a collaboration and shortly after their first meeting, Henry Schubell was offered a partnership, which he accepted
Ole Christian Hassing, son of Sigurd Hassing
In 1945, the production of the Clam Chair began in earnest for the new furniture company Madsen & Schubell. And they got off to a terrific start. This can be seen, among other things, by the fact that many well-known stores had Madsen & Schubell's designs in their assortment. The largest furniture store of the time, Illums Bolighus, was one of them, as were Nordisk Staal and Møbel Central. The latter has for years been attributed as the manufacturer of the chair, which is incorrect. It was a dealer of the chair.
A few years later, Madsen & Schubell even expanded their business to the growing international market and in 1953, at the large furniture fair in Fredericia, they met the Norwegian representative Sigurd Hassing, who worked for the large Norwegian furniture company Vik & Blindheim. Hassing saw a great sales potential in the chair and entered into a license agreement with Madsen & Schubell, which allowed the Norwegian manufacturer to produce their designs in Norway - including the Clam Chair.
Hassing's son, Ole Christian, recalls: "My father had to convince Arnold and Henry of the potential of the collaboration, which eventually succeeded. And our family became friends. There was a long business relationship between my father and Madsen. It was never a secret that Arnold Madsen was the designer behind it, but he had no need to put his name on it. After all, he was not a recognised and trained architect”.
Madsen & Schubell ceased the production of the chair at their Copenhagen workshop around 1953, although the chair continued to be produced by Vik & Blindheim in Norway. A 1958 catalog from Vik & Blindheim shows the chair along with three other models that are undoubtedly from Madsen & Schubell's workshop. From this period there is also an advertisement that Vik & Blindheim placed in the magazine 'Møbelfabrikanten'. In this advertisement there are four chairs, three of which are unquestionably Madsen & Schubell chairs. Can any other possible explanation be given for the fact that these four chairs belong together because they all originate from the same place?
Ad credit: @arkivalium.
Fine, but what about the documentation?
There are no construction drawings of the Clam Chair - and for good reason. As an upholsterer, Arnold Madsen had not learned to make technical drawings. As his daughter Johna says: "He did a lot of tinkering and always shaped his models with his hands. He was not good at sitting and sketching for hours. He made the first model of the Clam Chair out of plaster, which was the model he used to hunt for a cabinetmaker". Unfortunately, it no longer exists today, but Flemming Schubell, who himself joined the workshop as a cabinetmaker in 1958, confirms that it remained in the workshop for many years as a nice reminder of the founding of the company.
And there are likewise valid reasons for the lack of Madsen & Schubell advertisements; they did not sell their furniture directly to the customer. As previously described, Madsen worked with selected furniture dealers. They had carefully selected one dealer in each major city in Denmark, except Copenhagen, where there were several dealers who were allowed to sell Madsen & Schubell's designs. Like Illums Bolighus and Bovirke, these retailers advertised with their own business and name - and not their suppliers', which Madsen & Schubell was. There was an unwritten rule that furniture sold through a dealer could not be stamped by the manufacturer. This also applied to Madsen & Schubell's furniture.
But there is other substantial evidence. Among them is a song written by Madsen & Schubell employees in January 1957 on the occasion of Arnold Madsen's 50th birthday:
Under krigens mangler måtte mangen polstrer stå for fald,
(During the war's shortages, many an upholsterer had to face ruin,)
hvis man ikke ku' få men'sker anbragt i en muslingeskal.
(if you couldn't get people into a clamshell.)
Det fik Arnold lært en masse
(Arnold learned a lot from that)
og se, det gav vældig kasse,
(and look, it paid off big time,)
men for at det nu skal gå,
(but to keep it going,)
må han stadig hitte på.
(he must keep on inventing.)
’Muslingeskal’ is the aforementioned Clam Chair.
However, the strongest physical evidence is related to the previously mentioned advertisement from the magazine 'Møbelfabrikanten'. After Arnold's death, several images of his designs were found in his desk that were clearly made for marketing purposes. Among these was a cut-out photo of the Clam Chair, which is the exact same photo that was copied for the Vik & Blindheim ad with the four chairs. You can tell by the angle of the chair, the fabric and the grain of the wood. And there is only one explanation for the Madsen family owning the original photograph: Arnold Madsen is the creator of the Clam Chair.
Image of two Clam Chairs previously sold in KLASSIK.
And what about Philip Arctander?
The theory that Arctander was the man behind the Clam Chair rested on Arctander's friend, the architect Poul Erik Skriver, who confirmed the attribution - but without any documentation. Skriver, who was in his 90s at the time, has since passed away and it is therefore not possible to elaborate on his assumption. Taking his words against the above investigation, we feel convinced that the Clam Chair was designed by Arnold Madsen and made by Madsen & Schubell.
If you are interested in more information, you can watch Flemming Schubell talk about the chair on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bf0ttZAWw8I.