Ant Chair – The design that propelled Arne Jacobsen’s name into furniture design history

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Milica Sterjova
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Among the many masterpieces of furniture of the great Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen is, unquestionably, the Ant chair. The chair was initially designed in 1951 for a Danish pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisc, who wanted a compact and light chair for their new canteen. Novo Nordisc ordered only 300 chairs so the chair’s early days weren’t exactly successful.

In 1952 Jacobsen turned to Republic of Fritz Hansen for the chair’s production. The Danish furniture design company had already collaborated with Jacobsen on his furniture designs on previous occasions and they had the knowledge and tools needed for the molded plywood seat that Jacobsen had imagined. Fritz Hansen were already looking for a new chair design which would help them compete with Herman Miller’s products designed by another two titans of furniture design, Charles and Ray Eames. They found it in Jacobsen’s unusual and bold chair. Fritz Hansen were a bit skeptical about the design but apparently, Jacobsen offered to buy all the chairs if they didn’t sell so they went forward with production.

The Ant chair would later shoot the names of Jacobsen and Fritz Hansen into the elite of furniture designers. It predates all of Jacobsen’s other iconic designs and it was his first international breakthrough. The chair’s original name was the Model 3100 but it later became known as the Ant (Myren in Danish) chair because its form resembles that of an ant with its head raised.

Ant chair designed 1952 by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. Author: Arkines. CC BY-SA 3.0

It has been said several times that the Ant chair resembles, maybe too much, the designs of Egon Eiermann’s chairs from those years and the works of Charles and Ray Eames. Some consider the similarity a result of common inspiration while to others the resemblance seems just a bit suspicious.

Ant chairs at Aachen University of Technology canteen. Author: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F031429-0003 / Gathmann, Jens / CC-BY-SA 3.0 de

Regardless of the skeptics, the chair was, and is a masterpiece. It is made from a single piece of laminated wood with 9 layers of molded veneer and 2 layers of cotton textile in between. The seat flows into the backrest and it is really comfortable. Fritz Hansen’s experience of over 80 years in bending wood proved essential in the matter of the chairs being stackable. Stacking chairs weren’t really a common thing in the 1950s so the form of the chair and the mastery of folding plywood helped create a multifunctional chair, not only for the canteen but also for people’s homes. The legs were originally made of plastic and later replaced with chromed steel tubes.

Ant chair with four legs. Author: Toni. CC BY-SA 2.0

The Ant chair was initially designed with only three legs. Jacobsen viewed this characteristic as essential and non-negotiable. The three legs helped stackability and chair legs wouldn’t get tangled in the crowded canteen. Unfortunately, the three legs proved to be the chair’s major flaw. At the time, this construction was regarded as highly unstable. There were even numerous complaints from people claiming that they had fallen off the chairs. Jacobsen was obliged to create a four-legged version of the Ant chair in 1955. However, on Jacobsen’s demand, this new version wasn’t officially marketed until the late 1970s after he had already died. Another disadvantage was that the chair didn’t have armrests.

Selection of Danish Modern chairs, Danish Design Center, Copenhagen. Author: Tuey. CC BY 2.0

Jacobsen was very practical in his approach. Regarding the design, he declared: “I based my work on a need. What chairs are needed? I found that people needed a new type of chair for the small kitchen dinettes that are found in most new buildings today, a little, light, and inexpensive chair. It can be stacked by inserting the chairs into one another, consequently saving both time and energy”.

Chairs on display at MOMA in New York City. In the background Modell 3107 in black and The Ant by Arne Jacobsen. Author: Petri Krohn. CC BY 2.5

The Ant chair is 65 years old, and in spite of its unimpressive beginning, is included among the best selling designs of the Fritz Hansen company. It is available in several color schemes and is a great peace of furniture to have. Unfortunately, unlike Jacobsen had imagined it, it isn’t exactly cheap. Like many other pieces designed by Arne Jacobsen, the Ant chair has found its way into several museum collections including the ones at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Design Museum Danmark in Copenhagen.