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Poul Henningsen (1894-1967)

Poul Henningsen (1894-1967) was a world famous Danish architect, designer and writer. He is best known for his designs in lighting, particularly his world famous PH lamp or Paris lamp. PH as he was often called was born in 1894 in the town of Hillerød north of Copenhagen (København). He is the son of the famous Danish actress Agnes Henningsen, and his biological father is the satirical Danish author Carl Ewald. However, PH spent much of his life believing that his father was Mads Henningsen.

Poul Henningsen trained as an architect at the Frederiksberg Technical School from 1911-14 and later the Copenhagen College of Technology, yet he never graduated. He was a self taught inventor and designer, and through his writing he became known as a sharp critic of art, architecture and society in general. PH opened his own office in 1919 in Copenhagen. He employed two other architects in his studio; Hans Hansen and Mogens Voltelen. Both helped put the finishing touches on the world famous PH lamp.

Henningsen would design several family houses, a part of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, a factory, and the interior of two theatres. Besides working as an architect Poul Henningsen wrote articles for different newspapers and periodicals. He wrote a number of revues for Copenhagen theatres, he wrote poems, and he was an editor for the magazine "Kritisk Revy" (Critical Revue). From his writings Poul Henningsen was known his sharp criticism of society and architecture.

Poul Henningsen’s name would become synonymous with Danish lighting design. Henningen’s interest in lighting came about because he thought that light which was cast from a light bulb was impossible to work with. He found the light to be blinding, since he grew up with the soft glow of petroleum lamps. He wanted to design a lamp that would give off the same soft and relaxing light as a petroleum lamp. To achieve this goal Henningsen began experimenting with light in the attic of his house. He painted all the walls black, and mounted tracks in the floor for a baby carriage. He placed a candle on a plate in the baby carriage. He then placed a grease stained piece of paper around the candle, and he would then measure the strength and curves of light that shined through the grease stain. He called this technique “Fotometer”, and he used it for thousands of readings when he was designing new lamps. 

The result of all his hard work finally emerged in 1924, when Poul Henningsen designed his multi-shade lamp which soon became known simply as the PH lamp. The curves and positions of the three shades perfectly determined the distribution of light and focus the glare downwards. At the same time the glass shades allow a soft, pleasing light to fill the room. There is little doubt that Poul Henningsen achieved his goal of producing a lamp that would duplicate the lighting effects of a petroleum lamp. In 1924 the PH lamp won a competition at the Paris World Exhibition, and to this day it is often referred to as the "Paris lamp". The lamp would propel him to stardom in the design world, he had created a product which could be mass-produced making it affordable, and he himself became a very wealthy man. For the rest of his career Henningsen would maintain the principles of the Paris lamp when designing new lights.

Poul Henningsen was very passionate about lighting and felt that everything in the home is unimportant compared to the positioning of the lighting. He once said, “It doesn't cost money to light a room correctly, but it does require culture”. It has always been his idea that the PH-lamp should be built for the home it is constructed with the most difficult and noble task in mind, lighting in the home. PH’s aim was to beautify the home and to make the evening as restful and relaxing as possible. However, the lamp first started appearing in offices and public buildings, and it was here that the lamp gained wide public acceptance before the lamp began filling homes throughout the world.  

Table lamps, floor lamps, chandeliers and wall mounted lamps soon joined the famous hanging lamp all with the 3-shade design. The shades were now also available in copper and glass with various degrees of transparency and a variety of colours. Poul Henningsen had succeeded beyond a doubt in his project, and the PH lamp or Paris lamp became a household name.

Even today the PH lamp remains one of the finest examples of the perfect lamp fitting in regards to style, and the softening of light. It is staggering to think that the PH lamp design is over 80 years old, and the lamp still feels as modern today as it did when it was first designed.

Henningsen could easily live off the income from his famous PH lamp (Paris lamp). He used some of this freedom to write plays and movies for the Danish public. In 1935 he wrote on of the most controversial Danish documentaries ever. The movie was an everyday picture of Denmark in 1930, and it was financed by the Danish Foreign Ministry. The movie was meant to open the world’s eyes to Denmark as a tourist and import-export country. In April of 1935 the movie first premiered in Copenhagen for the press and a variety of special guests. Apart from positive reviews from the Social Democrats and the Works magazine (Arbejder Bladet), the movie caused fury with the rest of the audience. Many in the audience were offended by a scene from Amalienborg Castle (Amalienborg Slot) (home of the Danish Royal Family) which showed a number of guests getting out of the same car, followed by a scene showing Danish Tuborg beer bottles on an assembly line. Another scene showed a farmer working in the fields wearing short pants; (Perhaps none of this may sound offensive today, however keep in mind that this was the 1930’s). In June of 1935 the Danish Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen held a meeting to decide whether or not the movie should be allowed for public eyes. It was decided to remove 18 out of 120 scenes. It was also decided to replace the offensive ‘Negro music’ which was written by Bernhard Christensen with some old Danish song treasures. The edited version was finally released in Odense in November, 1935. This edition was again shortened, however by 1962 both editions versions of the movie were no longer to be found.

Henningsen was an atheist who hated the church. He was an advocate of sexual freedom, and against unnecessary details in buildings. In his mind things should reflect their function. This idea reflects the buildings he designed in Denmark.

In the 1930s Henningsen attempted to warn people about the dangers of Nazism; especially in his 1933 book, “What about the culture” (Hva Mæ Kulturen). The book is a hard criticism of the contemporary cultural environment in Denmark. He especially criticised the Social Democrats, and viewed them as being lazy and apathetic. He ends the book with a warning against the hidden fascism which lay in the culture and politics of Denmark at the time. During the war he had to tone down his direct criticism of the Nazis. The Nazis had him under constant surveillance, and all of his writings were a subject to censorship. In 1943 he fled to Sweden where he continued his writing. After the war he was an advocate of humane treatment of German war refugees.

As an older man Henningsen suffered from Parkinson's disease, and when he passed away in 1967 he had his body donated for medical research. Upon his death he had designed more than 100 lamps, many of which are still in production by the company Louis Poulsen. Aside from designing lamps Henningsen designed a range of furniture which is still being produced today by the company Poul Henningsen. In 1958 PH designed another famous lamp called the “PH Artichoke Lamp” (Koglen).

Furniture and lamps

  • PH-lamp (1925)
  • PH Grand Piano for the Andreas Christensens factory (1931)
  • Snake Chair (Slangestol) (1931)
  • PH Spiral Lamp (1942)
  • PH 5 (1958)
  • PH Artichoke (Knoglen) (1958)

LastUpdate: 2016-09-01 10:58:58