How Lefty Abuse Led to the Formation of a Successful Design Duo

Yet another bizarre design origin story.

People come to product and furniture design through different routes. Some go to school and get a degree in Industrial Design. Others become architects, then decide working on smaller-scale stuff is more interesting. In Europe and Scandinavia, some apprentice as cabinetmakers, then discover they’ve got a knack for design as well as craftsmanship. Still others are simply born relentlessly creative, and by pursuing their passions, fall into a series of wildly unlikely accidents that leads to them becoming designers.

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One designer I’ve met who falls into that latter category is Jory Brigham, his story is nuts. Another designer in that category is Danish designer Arnold Madsen, who passed away in 1989. He’s the guy who designed that beautiful Tove Lounge Chair with Henry Schübell; their unlikely partnership, Madsen & Schübell, produced scores of well-regarded furniture pieces in the mid-20th-century.

While trying to untangle why the Tove is often misattributed in listings, I came across interviews with Madsen’s daughter and Schübell’s son, and pieced together their fascinating backstory.

Arnold Madsen, born in a small town in northern Denmark in 1907, did not study design nor architecture; as a young man he worked as a sailor. Sometime in the 1930s, Madsen got off of a ship in America and decided to stick around, illegally. He somehow found work as a cowboy and learned rodeo riding, according to his surviving daughter, Johna Møhring-Andersen, and was eventually arrested for stealing winter clothes. When the authorities learned he was in the country illegally, he wound up in prison.

“As far as I know, he did not have a bad time in prison,” Johna recounts.

After being released Madsen made his way back to Denmark. Seeking work, he apprenticed with an upholstery firm; Madsen was good with his hands, and by 1941 had opened his own upholstery shop. “He could do everything,” Johna remembers. “He helped me sew clothes, he built things in the house – and he even lost a finger once in the process.

“My father was always experimenting with materials and making things with his hands. In our house he had a room of his own with a worktable where he would spend hours experimenting until he had an idea.”

As an example, he envisioned a chair that was shaped like an open clam. Madsen knew what he wanted it to look like, and knew he had the skills to upholster it; what he didn’t have was a knowledge of how to build the frame. He sculpted a small plaster model of what the exterior would look like, then started knocking on the doors of cabinetmaking businesses. He’d show them his model and ask if they could make a frame to help him realize the design.

Images of the plaster model do not exist, but apparently it was quite complicated; no one could figure out how to build the frame. Madsen went down his list of cabinetmaking shops, weathering rejections, and finally arrived at one called Winter & Winding. The foreman there, Henry Schübell, examined the model, then started sketching out a working drawing. Once he had it worked out on paper, Schübell told Madsen he could design the frame and his workers could build it.

However, “they had some problems with it, because it was a difficult construction,” says Flemming Schübell, Henry’s son. The key difficulty was the transition where the seat meets the back. To remain faithful to Madsen’s design, Schübell had to design a piece of joinery that was fiendishly difficult to manufacture. A piece of wood needed to be cut on a bandsaw with a thin blade that could do tight curves. The piece required two curved cuts to be made in the top, and then the piece was rotated, and two curved cuts were made in the bottom. These curves had to meet precisely.

In practice, the shop workers could get one set of these curves right, but not the other. To cut curves on a bandsaw, you guide the piece with your hands. The curves requiring right-hand guidance were achievable, but the other curves, which required left-hand guidance, were too tricky for the workers to nail. So Henry himself stepped in.

“My father could use his left hand as well as his right hand,” Flemming says, “because he was from a generation that got a beating if you used your left hand.”

In other words, Schübell was naturally left-handed, but had acquired ambidexterity through negative reinforcement.

“Arnold Madsen was so impressed by his work,” says Flemming (or Schübell’s other son, Preben, it’s not clear) “that he suggested that they form a partnership where Henry Schubell would design the furniture and produce the wooden frames which Arnold Madsen would then upholster and market.” This was in 1944. Madsen must have been persuasive, because by 1945 or 1946 (accounts differ) Schübell had quit his job as foreman of Winter & Winding, and was now one half of Madsen & Schübell.

“I had my hands on my hips first–stop copying me.”

The new firm started producing the Clam Chair, which sold well.

Another hit of theirs was the Oda chair, which used an unusual-for-the-time steel frame; Madsen “took a welding course and then spent weeks in the company factory working on the first prototype,” Johha says. “The workers thought he had gone completely mad – but he did not stop until the frame was exactly as he had imagined it.”

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Their Prague chair, a sort of successor to the Clam chair, was another success.

Madsen & Schübell produced furniture throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s out of their shop in Copenhagen, and also licensed the designs to manufacturers Vik & Blendheim in Norway and Bovenkamp in the Netherlands. The duo worked together until the mid-60s, then split to each set up firms with their own sons; the resultant ventures never reached the level of success of Madsen & Schübell.

Today Madsen & Schübell pieces are in high demand on vintage sites, but strangely, their names were apparently not well known during their original period of commercial success. Aaron FitzGerald, of London-based furniture restoration firm Dagmar Design, calls the Clam chair “one of the most sought-after and simultaneously misattributed and copied chair designs of the twentieth century;” for years the chair had been attributed to Norwegian retailer Martin Olsen and/or Danish architect Philip Arctander. Similarly, the Oda chair spent years being erroneously credited to Danish designer Nanna Ditzel.

An original Clam chair is particularly hard to come by. “We’re no longer selling vintage ones in high numbers because the supply has more or less dried up,” FitzGerald says, “and the ones that are left are incredibly expensive.” FitzGerald eventually negotiated with Madsen’s estate and has gained rights to reproduce it. They sell them here, and the asking price is about $8,400.

Source: core77

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