Leading Danish designer Ebbe Gehl thoughtfully crafts beautiful furniture for the John Lewis Design Collective that combines functionality with contemporary Scandinavian style
Although Ebbe Gehl is one of Denmark's most established and successful contemporary furniture designers, his name will ring few bells this side of the North Sea. Despite this low profile, he has perfected a style that in many ways epitomises what's so appealing about Scandinavian design.
'When you think of Scandinavian design, you have a picture in your head of what this looks like,' says Gehl. 'But I try not to think that way. I try to think of solutions to problems.' That said, it's almost impossible to look at Gehl's work and not see the influence of his culture and environment.
The designer's formative years coincided with something of a crossover period in Scandinavian furniture design history. As traditional craft skills and modern mass production methods began to merge, a new design aesthetic that centred on simplicity, minimalism and functionality began to take shape. In this tradition, Gehl started out by doing a cabinet-making apprenticeship in Copenhagen before studying furniture design at The School of Arts and Crafts in the city (now renamed The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design).
It was 1962 and Denmark was riding high as a powerhouse of modern design, punching far above its weight on the international scene with names like Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl leading the charge.
'It was a very exciting time,' Gehl recalls. 'Everything in Denmark seemed to be about "design".' However, his predecessors' success caused Gehl and his generation a few headaches. 'In many ways, it was difficult for us because we were constantly measured against them. And it was like that for the first 10 or 20 years of my career.'
Despite this disadvantage, Gehl successfully emerged from the shadows of these giants to forge his own career. Two years after graduating in 1965, he headed to Scotland where he helped to launch the furniture department at Edinburgh College of Art. He stayed for three years and fell in love with the city, making several life-long friends. By the time he returned to Copenhagen in 1970 – 'I realised if I didn't leave Edinburgh, I would end up as a school master!' – he joined forces with his college friend Søren Nissen, and the pair have worked together ever since.
For nearly 20 years now, Gehl and Nissen have run Naver Collection, a hugely successful furniture brand that's popular around the world. Some of the strongest current pieces hark back to the mid-century period, from the slim, tapered furniture legs that kick out at elegant angles, to the boxy forms that these legs support.
'It's interesting how certain shapes and themes that were popular in the 1950s and 60s are inspiring us again,' Gehl observes. 'When times are less secure, like now with the economy, we tend to go for well-known and secure things. It's like an old melody being played on a new instrument.'
The Scandinavian love affair with wood is also evident with Gehl's generous use of walnut, oak, beech and cherry – materials that he often mixes in his designs with steel, glass or stone.
For the past 15 years, Ebbe Gehl has produced designs for John Lewis; his recent Mira range in pale oiled oak is another example of the alluring mid-century Scandi style he does so well.
However, his latest range for autumn, which includes The Desk (below), has a more contemporary feel. It's a handsome piece made from solid oak and stainless steel, and incorporates subtle details that will appeal to those of a minimalist bent, from hidden compartments to collapsible memo boards.
As with everything Gehl designs, the impact of the finished product has been thought about from the outset. The European oak is from a carefully controlled forest, any glue is water based, and the top surface has been treated with linseed oil. Even the steel base is made from recycled materials.
'I'm influenced by many things,' he says. 'I admire the simple and clean, farm-inspired furniture that the Shakers created in the United States. And I also like how designers such as Verner Panton worked with so many different materials – plastic and glass, for example. He wasn't caught up with the traditional way of thinking.
'Although he turns 71 this year, Gehl shows little sign of slowing down and is still adapting to new ways of working. His designs begin as a sketch, which is worked and reworked, then loaded on to a computer (with the help of his assistant) for yet more finessing. 'It's wonderful,' says Gehl, 'but a computer can't do anything you haven't asked it to.'
And in some respects, his ambitions are humble. 'I want to make furniture that is as nice as I can make it. I want to make a nice piece that has people saying, "I like this".'Ebbe Gehl's pieces are part of the John Lewis Design Collective, which champions great design created by both new and established talent from the UK and beyond. Click here to find out more.