Hans Wegner, the Danish designer who is now 81, is the chairmaker of modern chairmakers, a sort of Enzo Ferrari of the wooden chair. Wegner has designed plenty of other things, but for him the wooden chair is a life-long obsession, and he still turns out new designs from the workshop at the house he built near Copenhagen in the early Sixties and has lived in ever since. The modern yellow stone-and-wood structure is as finely crafted as one of his chairs, and is lined with sensible-looking built-in shelves and cupboards.
"Chairs", he says, "can have individuality. Designing sensible cupboards is also important, but you can't give too much character to every piece of furniture. Some things must form a background."
One of Wegner's most assuredly beautiful designs is the Wishbone Chair of 1950, named after the forked uprights that support the curved back. The shape is a direct descendant of a rounded Chinese chair, but Wegner's is more than just a reworking of a centuries old pattern. It manages to be modern yet firmly planted in tradition, spartan and luxurious in a way that's characteristic of Wegner at his best.
Along with Arne Jacobsen, Wegner was one of a handful of architects and designers responsible for shaping Denmark's take on modernism - a sort of organic functionalism that became internationally famous in the post- War decades. Now he belongs to a breed that is almost extinct, the modern craftsman. The marriage of traditional cabinet-making and rigorous modern design is the essence of his work, and has a lot to do with the time he grew up in - a transitional era when modern technology and mass production took over from hand-craftsmanship.
Wegner was born in 1914 in the small village of Tonder in southern Jutland, where he grew up surrounded by forests, workshops and craftsmen. His father was a master cobbler, and Wegner's instinct for materials and tools grew by osmosis as he played on the floor of his father's workshop. At 13, young Hans was apprenticed to the cabinet-maker down the street, where he hoped to become a carver or sculptor and made tortured-looking figurines. It was in Copenhagen - where Wegner went to do his military service and where he stayed to study, first at the technical college and then at the School of Arts and Crafts - that he came into contact with modern design and the latest developments in the Bauhaus and Vienna, France and the United States.
Throughout the Forties, Wegner produced new designs and had them made by a skilled cabinet-maker collaborator, a way of working he continues today. In his austere early work, he concentrated on "stripping the old chairs of their outer style and letting them appear in their pure construction". The results included the Peacock Chair of 1944, for which Wegner took a traditional Windsor Chair, stripped it of period detail and exaggerated the back so the spindles fanned out like a peacock's tail.
At first, Wegner and his colleagues considered themselves lucky to sell the prototypes. The breakthrough came in 1949 with the Round Chair, which left tradition behind and joined the modern world. It wasn't an immediate success. At the annual Copenhagen exhibition of cabinet-makers it was hardly remarked on. It was only when the chair went on show in America and appeared on the cover of a magazine that it took off, and Wegner's international career was launched. What appealed to Americans was the craftsmanship and skills which had already disappeared in the States. A Chicago club ordered 400 Round Chairs, and American manufacturers tried to woo Wegner to work with them. He turned down the offers, saying that his chairs were designed to be made by Danish craftsmen, a principle he has stuck to ever since.
Today, 80 Wegner chairs are still in production. He works with seven Danish factories, and only one chair is made abroad - in Italy. The Wishbone Chair is still made by the Danish factory which produced the first models in 1950. They now make between 12,000 and 14,000 a year, the nearest Wegner gets to mass production, with machine-turned parts assembled by hand. Wegner's attitude to materials is similarly straightforward: he prefers to use "wood from the sorts of trees that grow outside one's door", mainly oak, beech and ash, and often leaves the wood unvarnished so it wears in - acquiring a rich patina with age.
Wegner says he considers a chair "is only finished when someone sits in it". Now the British public will have a chance to do just that at an exhibition of Wegner chairs at the Crossley Gallery, near Halifax in Yorkshire, where they will be 30 or so on display.
He says that he usually designs "something I want for myself". Was his Valet Chair, designed in 1953, an example? Made for hanging clothes on, the back is shaped like a coathanger for a jacket and the seat lifts up to reveal a shallow drawer where you could deposit the contents of your pockets; angled open, it becomes a hanger for trousers. The Valet Chair looks strangely anthropomorphic, but manages to be elegant and functional - and infinitely preferable to those ubiquitous, ugly trouser presses.
The exhibition 'Hans Wegner' is at The Crossley Gallery, The Dean Clough Galleries, Halifax (tel 01422-344555) until 27 August
Wegner chairs are available from Cale Asscociates, 355 Portobello Road, London W10 (tel 0181-960 9027)