Trusteeship UN Council Chamber, 1965. Visit the UN Photo Gallery for more photos.
Designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer, the UN headquarters was completed in 1952 and remained mostly untouched until four years ago. That’s when it was announced that the complex would be fully renovated by 2014. The changes include improvements to safety and functionality, as well as energy-saving measures to make the decades-old world headquarters LEED-certified. The renovation includes a significant facelift to the Trusteeship UN Council Chamber, originally designed by Danish architect Finn Juhl. At the age of 38, Juhl experimented with furniture, color schemes, carpeting and wall coverings to create a “total interior plan” for the Chamber, where the whole space and its details work and play together.
Preserving what Juhl created was paramount to the Danish Arts Foundation, so in December 2010 it held a design competition, inviting five of Denmark’s leading furniture designers to create new chairs and tables for the Chamber, all of which had to be in keeping with Danish tradition and the legacy of Finn Juhl yet mindful of modern materials. The Danish Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, in cooperation with Danish Realdania Foundation, provided the necessary funding for the UN Council Chamber renovations.
Kasper Salto and Thomas Sigsgaard won the competition with a furniture collection that focuses on Finn Juhl’s technique of designing sculptural, free-form furniture that molds to the body. Salto’s and Sigsgaard’s secretarial chair both meets and holds the body. Its wood shell is divided in two, giving it a springy effect. Recalling several of Finn Juhl’s chairs, the seat and seat back are padded with leather and provide comfort for long meetings. The legs are laser-cut steel. For their two tables, Salto and Sigsgaard created two variations of the same design and altered the depth and curvature depending on function. For the delegates, chairmen, and press, molded wood tabletops are mounted on load-bearing veneered MDF “ribs,” while the secretarial table has a sandwiched aluminum tabletop, veneered and edged with wood.
Salto and Sigsgaard founded their own company in 2005 after studying at The Danish Design School and The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts – School of Architecture, respectively. They are part of a new generation of Danish design, one that relates to the school of Danish Modern but is also more experimental in form, materials and expression, as evident in Salto's Little Friend Table. We had the opportunity to catch up with the young designers shortly after they won the UN Council Chamber Contest:
DWR: What features of the UN Building do you find to be most influential in your design?
Salto and Sigsgaard: One of the great challenges in the competition was to relate to Finn Juhl and the Trusteeship Counsel Chamber. Because the furniture is made specifically for that space, we looked at the whole Chamber, as well as Finn Juhl’s work in general. But the fact that the Chamber is in the UN building influenced us in the direction of remembering that this "meeting room" may be the most important one in the world. In many of our decisions we had that in mind.
DWR: Why are Danes such successful designers?
S&S: In "the golden age" of Danish design (1930s), we believe that the designers had a close professional relationship with the manufacturers. They inspired each another and debated back and forth about everything, simply because they respected each other and knew that good design is a result of a process involving all influences to the end product – so no compromises had to be made, and no one could say: “Why didn’t we think of that?” We still believe and respect that.
DWR: Describe your design process. Being that there are two of you working on the same project, how do you collaborate?
S&S: A decision has to be a result of at least two possibilities. And if the thoughts behind the possibilities are well thought over, the decision becomes strong and logical. We have a big whiteboard in our office; when words are not enough to describe what we have in mind, we use our best tool: drawing! We respect and know each other very well. We can see when we hesitate in the drawings or use them to point things out.
DWR: What were the goals or principles that guided your designs?
S&S: Our design process is based on careful research before we start creating the actual products. In the UN competition we looked at eight major things in random order: a meeting situation, a meeting chair, a meeting table, the UN, Finn Juhl, sustainability, The Trusteeship Council Chamber, and Danish design in the 1950s. What guided us the most was Finn Juhl’s way of shaping his designs to the human body – especially the chair, which we shaped after that observation.
DWR: How many times did you revise your design until it was just right?
S&S: To be honest, revising is something we do all the time, but there are some bigger evaluations during a process, and one of them was when we found out that the chair could not be made in one piece, even though we were using the rather new 3D veneer. By shaping the place the chair would crack ourselves, we turned the challenge into an advantage. By doing that, we now have a chair that moves with the body, and the back is designed to be comfortable when sitting for a long time. For future production, it’s now possible to make the chair with different back heights.
DWR: How is Finn Juhl's influence evident in your design?
S&S: Our chair was inspired by the way Finn Juhl shaped his designs to the human body. But also, Finn Juhl in general inspired our use of wood.
DWR: Were you fans of Finn Juhl's work before entering the UN Council Chamber Contest?
S&S: We knew of his furniture, but what really surprised us when getting more into his works and life was that he more or less is the inventor of the term Danish Modern.
DWR: Describe your reactions when you learned that your design was declared the winner.
DWR: What's next for the two of you?
S&S: We are now working hard to get all the thoughts and concepts into this world! But we have other things waiting, things that have been on hold…
Congratulations again to Kasper Salto and Thomas Sigsgaard. We look forward to seeing the renovated Council Chamber, slated for completion in 2012. All furniture will be produced by Onecollection.