Pétur B Lúthersson - Designer of chairs


The above slideshow is from the exhibition "Pétur's chairs" at The Icelandic Museum of Design and Applied Arts, January 12 to February 12, 2002. The summary is from the exhibition catalogue.


Pétur B. Luthersson belongs to the generation of Icelandic furniture designers who came to the fore in the mid 1960s, in the wake of the groundbreaking work of Danish-trained designers such as Sveinn Kjarval, Halldor Hjalmarsson and Gunnar H. Gudmundsson. Until their advent, Icelandic furniture design had largely been the prerogative of architects or master carpenters. The prosperity of the post-war years kindled an interest in well-designed furniture and household objects in Iceland and encouraged a number of gifted individuals, who might otherwise have gone into the fine arts, to devote themselves to the design of furniture and interiors. Petur B. Luthersson was born in 1936 and brought up on the Snaefellsnes peninsula on the west coast of Iceland. At the age of seventeen he was apprenticed to the Reykjavik workshop of master carpenter Hjalmar Thorsteinsson. At that time the Icelandic furniture industry was in the doldrums, mainly due to volatile economic conditions and trade restrictions.

In Thorsteinsson's workshop Luthersson came across - and worked on - modernist furniture in the Danish style by some of the abovementioned designers, one of whom, Halldor Hjalmarsson, was actually his masters son. During his summer vacations Luthersson also got the opportunity to work for Sveinn Kjarval, arguably the most influential furniture designer of his generation in Iceland. Having graduated as a cabinetmaker, Luthersson decided to study furniture design in Denmark. In 1961 he entered the Kunsthĺndvćrkerskolen in Copenhagen, for a long time the most prestigious school of its kind in Denmark. Over the years many of Denmark's leading furniture designers had either taught or trained there. Among Luthersson's teachers were Victor Isbrand and architects Vestergaard Jensen and Ole Gjerlov Knudsen.

In 1964, having finished his studies at the Kunsthĺndvćrkerskolen, Luthersson decided to stay on in Denmark. He soon got an assignment designing interiors and furniture for a Bornholm shipping firm, courtesy of architects Gunnar Jensen and Finn Monies. In Copenhagen Luthersson also worked with his compatriot and fellow designer, Jon Olafsson, on a number of projects, among them a prize-winning lamp entitled "Hekla", which remained in production in Denmark for 15 years, as well as adjustable unit furniture for children's rooms, designed for the prestigious Domus Danica firm.

While in Denmark Luthersson followed with interest the latest developments in Scandinavian design, the constant expansion of Danish design and the gradual emergence of Norwegian and Finnish design. In 1967 Luthersson and his partner 61afsson returned to Iceland to set up their own design office. There they encountered difficult economic conditions - rampant inflation and regular devaluation of the local currency - as well as an unsympathetic attitude to the whole idea of design. By that time a 70% import tax had been levied on foreign furniture, which effectively put a stop to its importation. Shielded by this prohibitive tax, local furniture producers were emboldened to simply copy foreign chairs, tables and sofas and pass them off as their own, thus cutting out the designer. Naturally, these same producers were not overly keen to pay Icelandic designers such as Luthersson and Olafsson for prototypes or ideas that they felt they could get for free.

In spite of this uncongenial atmosphere, Luthersson and O1afsson kept their office going for almost three years, mostly by designing interiors, kitchens in particular. In 1969 Luthersson set himself up as a freelance designer, and until 1974 he worked on lamps, interiors and various prototypes for chairs. Notable products of this period are the lamps designed for mass production in spun aluminium, realised in collaboration with the Amundi Sigurdsson Metalworks.

In 1974 the first of Luthersson's furniture designs enter mass production. This was the "Tabella" line of light beech furniture, covered with a red fabric out of Icelandic wool. This furniture became very popular in Iceland, remaining in production for some 25 years. At the present moment it is being revamped and put into production again through the Reykjavik firm of Epal. Luthersson's greatest success though was the "Stacco" steel-stacking chair from 1980-81. It was designed for the firm of Husgagnagerd Steinars Johannssonar, as an alternative to a then popular steel stacking chair from the USA, to be used in public spaces such as school rooms, assembly rooms and boardrooms.

It was immediately taken up by the Danish firm of Labofa A/S, which manufactured it abroad under licence for a decade, selling over 200.000 copies of it all over the world. "Stacco" is still being manufactured and sold in Iceland. In the early 1980s, realizing that the Icelandic furniture industry had limited experience of trading on the international furniture market, Luthersson began to travel abroad on a regular basis to visit trade shows and market his own designs. Describing this personal marketing drive as a "sometimes dispiriting, always exhausting and expensive" experience, he has nonetheless kept it up until the present day. By the mid 1980s Lutherssons efforts began to bear fruit. In 1984 the German furniture producers Heinrich Brune BmbH+ Co took one an option on his "Punta" chair, which has remained in production ever since.

But perhaps more prestigious was Luthersson's association with the well-known firm of Rosenthal Einrichtung AG, which specializes in upmarket quality furniture. In 1989-90 an aluminium chair by Luthersson entitled " Teso" was accepted for production by Rosenthal. This was all the more gratifying for the designer since it involved a complicated and expensive casting process, which less ambitious firms might have balked at. Many versions of the "Teso" chair are still being produced by Rosenthal.

Shortly afterwards, in 1994, Luthersson's chair designs were also taken up by the Dutch furniture producers Huttten Selection Norm bv, specialists in furniture for restaurants, coffee houses and other public places. Hutten has produced a number of variations on Luthersson's chair designs until the present day. Discussing his attitude to furniture design - and the design of chairs in particular - Luthersson admits to a particular liking for Scandinavian, German and Italian chair design.

As to his personal philosophy, Luthersson claims that his views on chair design have not changed substantially over the years. He regards himself first and foremost as a craftsman trying to satisfy the requirements of a discerning public. A chair for him is the ideal design object, since it can easily be studied in isolation. " First and foremost a chair has to be comfortable" he says, " not a very original thing to say, I know. But see how uncomfortable some of the most striking designer chairs are. A chair is not there either to provide a solution to physical ailments; you've got physiotherapists for that. "Luthersson adds: "I am sometimes asked if it's possible to produce an original chair nowadays, whether we haven't produced all the chairs that we'll ever need. As for the first, yes, I still think we can still come up with new ideas in chair design. With regard to the second, you have to keep in mind that the average individual uses between seven and eight chairs every day. Thus, there has to be diversity in chair design, and the market is correspondingly large." Finally Luthersson states: "I find it amazing - perhaps it's very natural - that now at the ripe age of 65, I have finally mastered the basics of chair design. Thus I make fewer mistakes. I now believe that I have a firmer idea of what I actually want to achieve."

Adalsteinn Ingolfsson