A conversation with Louis Weisdorf
In 2011 as he approached his 80th year, Danish architect and lighting designer Louis Weisdorf (1932–2021) (pictured right in 1967 and 2011) was still hard at work at his Frederiksberg office providing architecture and design services to clients in Denmark and around the world. He took time out from his busy schedule to answer questions from Classic Modern's researchers Julia Salisbury and Sune Riishede
Classic Modern: Has it surprised you that your name has become so closely linked with your lighting designs rather than more generally with your architectural work?
Louis Weisdorf: No, it doesn't surprise me that I'm primarily known as a light designer. One reason for this is that until 1967, when I started my own studio, I was employed by a number of different companies in the construction industry, mainly architects. And it's usually the head of an architectural practice who is credited for the work. There is, however, one exception. In 1970 when I worked with Simon P Henningsen at Tivoli on a new open-air stage called Plaenen (the Lawn) and the Perlen (Pearl) restaurant, I was for once credited along with the project head Simon Henningsen. It was, incidentally, the first time the press mentioned a building in Tivoli as architecture – usually whatever we built there was regarded almost as a kind of theatrical scenery.
When I moved into working independently, it was initially lamp design that caught my interest – and made my name known. Later I worked for many years in exhibition design, especially for companies in the construction industry, and in this field you tend to have a completely anonymous role and your work has a short lifespan. I've also worked for many years with computer programs – which is another field in which you won't become well known as an architect. I did have a practice at Gammel Strand for some time, but have never been interested in building a large enterprise with a lot of employees. That preference in itself is a barrier to getting the really big jobs that confer prestige and publicity. But there are actually very few architects who are famous for their architecture. More often it's the design of artefacts specially created for the building that makes the architect well-known – the furniture, lamps and cutlery, for example. This is because such products are often subsequently marketed over a much longer period.
CM: Where did you train as an architect?
LW: I enrolled in 1949 in the School of Architecture at Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster (The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, popularly known as the Kunstakademiet, the Art Academy). It was a five-year programme consisting of two preliminary and three principal years, and when I completed my studies in 1954 I was just 22 years old, making me one of the School's youngest graduates. My name was then recorded at the Architects Association and I could call myself Architect MAA. This is what I still do, 57 years later.
Artefact design – often called industrial design – was an integral part of architectural education in Denmark. By contrast, Swedish architects, for example, after completing the main drawings for a building would hand over the subsequent planning and supervision to the builders. Danish architects would go all the way to the back door, literally. And depending on the client's wish, this could include lamps, furniture, door handles and the like. So it was natural for Danish architects to be involved with industrial design – indeed, some chose to focus almost entirely on this area, including Sigvard Bernadotte and Acton Bjørn, who I later came to work for.
During the course it was common practice to take holiday jobs in construction, and in the preliminary years we were expected to take two four-month internships at a construction site to get an understanding of custom and practice in this particular environment. In the principal years it was usual to get a job at a firm of architects. I myself spent six months working for a masonry company, where my main job was to pick up beer for the masons, but I also learned bricklaying and finishing. Later I worked at various architects' studios, where I drew everything from family houses to schools and town halls.
After completing my training, I had to do my military service, which was two years in the Civil Defence, so it was not until 1956 that I was able to apply for work as a graduate architect – which at the time was not easy to find. But just as I was about to extend my job search to Stockholm, I was offered a position at a small company in Copenhagen. Here I did the drawings for a large house at Strandparken in Dragør – one of the earliest concrete buildings – and an apartment building on Halmtorvet.
CM: You later worked with both Verner Panton and Poul Henningsen (PH, pictured left) as well as the aforementioned Simon P Henningsen. How did those connections come about?
LW: Later I took up a post as office manager for Myresjöhus in Glostrup, a company that specialised in summerhouses and later went on to build regular family homes. At that time the company was also a carpentry firm and took on various projects, one of which was the conversion of the Allé-Scenen theatre in Frederiksberg Allé. The architect was PH, who had been commissioned to design a completely new style of seat for the theatre. The problem with the existing seats was that they were arranged in rows in such a way that some of the occupants had to twist around in order to get a good view of the stage. On top of that, people vied for space on the shared armrest – just as aircraft passengers do today. PH's task was primarily to make room for more chairs. His solution was to design a freestanding chair with its own arm, which was mounted on a central foot that made it possible to turn the chairs individually towards the stage (see image, right). I made the working drawings for the chair, and enjoyed a good relationship with PH – a connection that continued after I left Myresjöhus.
This led incidentally to a funny situation when my wife took a call one day. 'Hello, it's PH. Can I talk to Louis?' said the voice. 'Oh, shut up,' she replied, thinking someone was pulling her leg. But it was no joke – PH wanted me to help with some tasks he'd taken on, in particular transforming the foreign minister Jens Otto Krag's townhouse on Egernvej in Fuglebakkekvarteret, the district in which I now live. Later I did the drawings for PH's renovations to several other houses, including that of actress Hannah Bjarnhof. I also drew up a rather special kitchen for one of his acquaintances. Everything in the kitchen was black, so I asked Poul whether it would require a lot of light. 'On the contrary,' he said, 'because once the eye has adapted to the dark room, very little light will be needed.' The theory did not work entirely as he described, because of course it takes time for the eye to adapt, and this can cause problems for someone moving back and forth between the kitchen and another more strongly lit room.
Verner Panton (left) was one of PH's friends and was also his ex-son in law. He'd probably heard about me from PH, and rang me up one day. He was at work in his studio, drawing up designs, and needed an employee. The studio was at his home in the cluster houses in Christiansgave, Rungsted. Here for the first time I met his brother Ole Panton, with whom I worked later. My first assignment for Verner was an exhibition space for his Kraemmerhus (Cone) chairs and his textiles. It was to be a glass dome, and I had previously worked with this kind of structure, based on a half-dodecahedron. It came to be situated on an old brewery site near the lakes, and was a very beautiful building, especially at night when the illuminated glass surfaces were mirrored in each other. I also did many other exciting things for Verner, including making the working drawings for a later edition of the Cone chairs and for the Astoria Hotel in Trondheim, where we designed everything – furniture, lighting, carpets, curtains, and ceiling and wall coverings – all based on Verner's design and textile patterns, as we also did for another project we worked on together for Steens hair salon in Vanløse (pictured in 1963, above right).
One day I was contacted by Simon P Henningsen (right), the architect at Tivoli and son of PH. He needed someone to help him complete the construction of a new restaurant at Tivoli, named Balkonen. The job would last only half a year, but ten years of cooperation ensued, during which time I was involved in all sorts of projects. Most were based at Tivoli, but others involved travel both within Denmark and abroad – study trips to Japan and other far eastern countries as well as the USA and Canada, for example, and many international exhibitions. At one point I established my own parallel studio in Kompagnistraede, which I shared with Ole Panton. From there one of the tasks we undertook together was the establishment of Copenhagen's children's Little Theatre. Ole also joined us for a short period at Tivoli, and later he too became involved with Lyfa and designed a pair of lamps for them. But we never designed lamps together.
CM: Was there a general awareness amongst designers working in Denmark at that time that they were part of a movement that would be viewed in retrospect as exceptional?
LW: Definitely. There was an implicit understanding that what you designed would be unique, functional, user-friendly and timeless. Unlike today, when in my opinion designers tend to think only about the look, always wanting to create something spectacular.
CM: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your lights? What prompted you to create them? Did the designs come to you in a flash, or was it a more gradual process?
LW: It is possible that some designers are inspired by a thunderbolt from a clear sky, but that isn't how it works for me. When I work with design, inspiration can come from many sources, often from places that have nothing to do with lighting. But of course also from other designers. Not to copy them – no serious designer would do that – but to learn from the way others have dealt with light from the bulb, and examining new construction methods and materials.
The Konkylie (right) was particularly inspired by Verner Panton's Vizirlampe (aka the Månependel, or Moon lamp), which consists of a number of concentric circular fins, hanging vertically. I was especially interested in the method of mounting the fins. At the time, and later too, I was deeply involved in drawing lamps built from repeating elements, looking for a solution where you could combine the vertical suspension with uniform strips. The result was the Konkylie lamp – though I must confess that it is not entirely successful, since two of the slats are fitted with one notch more than the others. My original model of the lamp was made in transparent white plastic. But the Tivoli people were so enthusiastic about the design that I had to create a Tivoli version with anodized golden fins, painted alternately red and orange inside. It was to be hung up in the trees in the Tivoli Gardens in large numbers – they wanted at least 64 of them. And Lyfa said they'd like to put it into production, along with a white version and an anodised silver-coloured version. Later an aquaintance of Verner Panton's claimed that I had copied the Vizir. So I called PH, and asked him to assess whether it was true. PH's answer was: 'I do not think that any of them are lamps, I would rather call them ladies' hats – but the ladies' hats are quite different.' A typical PH response – but now I could move on.
CM: What was the reaction of Lyfa's production department when they first saw the complexity of the Konkylie, the Turbo and the Facet/Facet-Pop?
LW: After Lyfa had already agreed that they would put the Konkylie into production, I was told (somewhat mockingly) that it could not be made. I then asked one of our partners, Knud Bjerg of the Brødrene Berg factory, who had made Simon P Henningsen's Divan 2 lamp for the Divan 2 restaurant at Tivoli, whether they could make it. They said they could – and shortly afterwards I was able to present Lyfa with a finished copy of 'the lamp that could not be made'. So Brødrene Berg ended up making it for Lyfa. The problem with the lamp was that when the slats are engaged with each other all the way around, you cannot, without further ado, get the last slat into place. Knud Bjerg found a brilliant but simple solution. The rest of my lights gave Lyfa no particular problems. Multi-Lite (above left) was a little more complicated, but there are always a few technical production snags that need to be ironed out in consultation with the designer.
CM: Can you tell us anything about Lyfa and/or the people behind the company?
LW: My contact with Lyfa began when I was an employee of Simon P Henningsen and made the working drawings for the lamps Simon had designed for production at Lyfa. So I went to all the meetings, including those with Lyfa's director Paul Levin. He was our contact, and we had a good personal relationship with him. He was very happy with the lamps we drew, so when I designed the Konkylie it was no problem getting approval from Lyfa. In this way I came to be at the heart of Lyfa, and in the following years several of my lamp ideas went into production there and were sold worldwide. Which reminds me of a funny story.
In 1974 the engineering firm Kampmann & Saxild asked me to make drawings for two Tivoli Parks for the Shah of Iran. My contact in Tehran was their chief town planner, an English engineer who had been helping the Iranians following the recent earthquake. He was very taken with the Konkylie lamps – they were considered to have a certain prestige in Iran at that time – and said he'd like to have two of them. Kampmann & Saxild offered to buy him a pair, so one day the engineer and I drove together to the city's largest lamp distributor. In the window hung a pair of original Konkylie lamps, and they were extremely expensive. Inside, the owner offered us tea and then showed us into the back room, which was full of Konkylie copies in a primitive, but affordable, version. So we just smiled nicely, trying to keep a straight face...
Lyfa's history I know little about, except that in earlier times they often took a very close look at other companies' lamps – among other things, they made replicas of PH's multi-shade lights. Gradually they were developing independent designs, but when Simon Henningsen and I came into the picture they still had a sales manager who believed that the first and most important thing before you put a lamp into production was to ask lamp dealers whether they thought they could sell it. But of course lamp dealers prefer the lamps they're used to selling – so there's no possibility for development. Lyfa's director, however, agreed with Simon and myself that you had to produce the lamps created by the designer's imagination, and it was the job of the sales manager and the lamp dealers to sell them. So there was a latent conflict between the designers and the sales manager, despite the fact that we were backed up by the board. Unfortunately the sales manager was subsequently promoted to CEO, where his conservative attitude did much to destroy the hitherto very positive cooperation. Although he was only in the post for a year, the damage was done, and while my lamps were sold worldwide they did not sell in very large quantities. This was mainly because they were used as 'prestige lights' to attract sales of the company's more traditional fixtures, and were therefore priced at a very high level.
In 1971 when I resigned my job at Tivoli to become independent, there was a sudden downturn in the economy. It must have hit Lyfa, as share dividends went unpaid for many years afterwards. It caused a lot of changes in Lyfa's management, so that from one day to the next there might be new directors, sales and production people you had to deal with. People who knew nothing about you, and vice versa – not conducive to good cooperation. At one point the majority of shares were acquired by a person who shortly afterwards merged Lyfa with Fog & Mørup, and the marketing manager from Fog & Mørup was tasked with taking care of both companies' lights. Since he preferred Fog & Mørup's lamp range to Lyfa's, he soon phased out the lights Simon and I had designed.
Eventually I had not the slightest connection with the company's management, and when in 1982 they failed to pay my invoices I decided to give up all remaining cooperation with them. This negative conclusion to nearly 20 years of collaboration led at the time to my losing the desire to work with lighting altogether. And my inclination to involve myself with the lighting industry was not helped by the fact that in 1991 I happened to become aware that Lyfa (by then called Lyskaer-Lyfa) had – without my consent and without crediting me – set up production of the Turbo under a new name, Regina. Furthermore, it was made of painted steel which made it so heavy that it had to be suspended from a wire – quite contrary to the lamp's original concept, which was that it should have the character of a Chinese rice paper lantern. The case ended in court – where I won and got Lyfa's output of the lamp stopped. A similar situation arose later with the Konkylie. Again I discovered quite by chance that it had been put back into production, in this case by a former Tivoli architect who had ordered a number of the lamps to be hung in the newly created Tivoli in Osaka. Here too it had been done without my consent and without crediting me, and again it had been given a different name, Armadillo. This case, however, was settled amicably when I gave the supplier an ad hoc production permit on the payment of a fee and was able to ensure that the design remained essentially unchanged.
CM: A final question: do you have a favourite amongst the lights you designed?
LW: The one I like best is probably the Turbo (pictured above left).
© 2011 Classic Modern and Sune Riishede. All rights reserved.