Arne Jacobsen is known throughout the world for the beauty and elegance of his designs, all part of a body of work that is both timeless and enduring. Among his many accomplishments is the design of St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England, which first opened its doors in 1962. Thus, it seems fitting that as part of the College’s 50th anniversary celebrations, the iconic Oxford chair from Fritz Hansen—originally designed by Jacobsen for the College’s dining hall—received a bit of an update.
“We cooperated with the staff at Fritz Hansen on the Oxford chair’s redesign,” says James Bennett, home bursar for St. Catherine’s. “We wanted to celebrate our Danish heritage, but also Arne Jacobsen as an architect and designer of furniture and other products.”
Bennett adds that the Oxford chair has always held a special place within the hearts and minds of faculty and students—not to mention the spaces that make up St. Catherine’s. The Oxford high-back chair is used at the High Table, where fellows of the college dine, and in the Long Dining Room in the Senior Common Room, where the fellows take lunch. A low-back version of the chair is also used in the Governing Body Room, where fellows discuss matters related to the running of the college.
“The chairs are used in areas that are central to the life of St. Catherine’s,” he says.
And while the original’s influence remains unchanged, designers from Fritz Hansen and college administrators discussed how they could celebrate the past while still looking to the future.
“There is a fine balance when one redesigns such an iconic piece,” says Christian Rasmussen, design director for Fritz Hansen. “To redesign a classic is always a matter of the right timing, so it is more a matter of following market trends to make sure the product is relevant to your audience. The 50th anniversary of St. Catherine’s was the primary reason for this effort, but we also felt that the timing was right for a new version of the chair that was a little ‘warmer’ and slightly more retail oriented.”
Rasmussen notes that Jacobsen’s family, holders of the intellectual property rights on the chair, had to approve everything that was done in the redesign. The process of three-way collaboration was tricky, and eventually required roughly two months for the redesign and three months for the technical development and tooling.
“Working with a classic collection can be extremely challenging,” says Rasmussen. “You can’t just do anything, so there is a lot of back and forth. You have to create a new member of the family with the same DNA.”
In comparing the redesigned Oxford chair to Jacobsen’s original vision, it is easy to see the relationship between the pieces. The original chair, first manufactured from laminated wood, is now offered in a fully upholstered version, which can be found in conference and meeting rooms, homes and offices. The redesigned chair blends the best of both worlds in a mid-height configuration with upholstery on the base of the seat and the back rest. The upholstery’s three options—light blue, petrol blue and orange—highlight the elegant curves of the veneer shell while adding comfort.
“The shell in the Oxford chair is normally hidden because it was fully upholstered,” says Rasmussen. “We wanted to show the quality of the wood in the redesign. The oak and walnut veneer is beautiful.” He adds that for orders above 50 pieces, customers can also choose a version with a chrome base and armrests. In a nod to efficiency, the redesigned chair is also available with casters for ease of movement in office settings.
Rasmussen says that the armrest was the most challenging part of the redesign. “The armrest is hidden in the fully upholstered version, but is obviously not in our version. It had to be extremely strong while appearing light and elegant, which is not always an easy equation to solve.”
Released to the world in October 2012, the newly envisioned Oxford chair has received raves from those involved with St. Catherine’s College and from those outside of the institution. Bennett says that some of the College’s alumni purchased the new chair after seeing it as part of an anniversary exhibition. For his part, Rasmussen says he hopes that the new wood variant will become a fully integrated member of the Oxford family over time. Given the legacy of the original and the care put into its redesign, it’s safe to say that the newest member of the Oxford family will soon earn its own place as a classic.
Janet Wiens is a freelance writer based in Memphis,
Tenn. She was formerly a marketing manager for HNTB
and now works with industry clients to address their
marketing and public relations needs. She can be reached at email@example.com.