TO PEOPLE who spend their money skiing in Aspen or buying Porsche sports cars, it may not be world-shaking that the era of Danish teak furniture may be coming to an end. But to interior-design buffs, the news is roughly equivalent to hearing that Raleigh is planning to make bicycles out of brass.
Teak has been to mid-20th century modern what mahogany was to the Victorians. Teak has a certain cult quality. Like the early sport-car enthusiasts who blew their horns at one another, people with teak furnishings acknowledge their mutual regard for the common taste.
It would be an exaggeration, like the report of Mark Twain's death, to say that as of tomorrow, there will be no more teak. Scan, the local co-operative furniture chain and the largest teak importer in the country, still imports about $10 million of teak every year, and 70 percent of their sales are teak, though they report a slow but growing demand for oak.
On the other hand, in Denmark, the young avant-garde designers are not designing for teak any more. And the young Danish buyers aren't buying teak.
Why? Well, after almost three decades, teak doesn't look new to the Danes anymore. They are tired of looking at it. The brief flurry just before the oil crisis, when it looked as if Italian plastics might usurp the Danish domination of the international furniture market, scared the Danes into getting up from their laurels and trying something different. And the sales figures in the last two or three years, the Danish Embassy says, points to a Danish revival.
What's different is lighter-colored woods: principally oak, pine, and beech. Teak, of course, is a mellow, rich wood, of a russet tone. If walnut is brunet, oak is blond, teak is auburn.
"Today 90 percent of our designs, and I think of most other young designers in Denmark, is in light woods" in contrast to the darker teak, said Danish architect Johnny Sorensen. He was in Washington recently with his partner, Rud Thygesen, for an exhibit of their furniture at the Danish Embassy. "There is a clear shift to lighter woods all over Scandinavia," agrees Robert Gowell, founder and head of Scan. "Teak has been popular over there since the end of World War II and people are tired of it. Teak is seen as old-fashioned. I can name at least 15 factories where the sons of owners are taking over, and they all want to do something new."
It's not all a matter of design, the change in the designer's eye. There's also a cold economic factor. The Danish designers are preparing themselves for the day when they can no longer afford to buy teak. Far Eastern countries are beginning to strongly control the export of teak - a la the Arabs and their oil. The price of good quality teak has risen steeply. And massive delays are reported in the shipment of teak to manufacturers.
Oak, pine, beech and some other lighter-colored woods are grown in Scandinavia, so there's a saving on importing. As yet, the oak furniture that's reached Washington has not been cheaper than teak. But as the United States is hoping to become more independent by using coal, so the Danes are looking to home-grown supplies.
Gowell suggests that teak furniture may continue to be manufactured, and perhaps sold cheaper, by Danes, but not in Denmark. "Recently, several new factories have been set up in the Far East by Danes, using local materials and workers. We recently bought 1,800 chairs from a Singapore factory to retail for $44.95. They were in every way comparable to a similar, Danish-made chair we sell for $69. The fact that Danes are designing the furniture and overseeing the quality control gives us the confidence to buy them.
"It's easy to understand why the Danes are looking for alternatives to importing teak, manufacturing it in Denmark and exporting it again. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the teak-producing countries aren't about to follow the lead of the Arabs with their oil and ban the export of teak as raw material. Also, the Danish inflation rate makes manufacturing more expensive in that country."
"Home Furnishing Daily," a trade publication wrote in their lead story of Oct. 2 that retailers are finding shipments of teakwood - furniture to salad bowls - behind schedule and higher priced. The newspaper says, "One reason imported wood is becoming so scarce in the United States is . . . government restrictions placed on wood manufacturers in Thailand, sources say. As of January of this year, the Thai government demanded licensing of all wood-related manufacturers and placed strict controls on the amounts of teak exported."
Danish teak was originally designed to furnish the large number of apartment buildings hurriedly built to house Europeans after World War II. The scale had to be light, small, easily moved. But the designer's real triumph was to make it look warm, casual, homey - so that a sterile, filing cabinet-like concrete high-rise apartment would give the illusion of the European dream of a cottage in the woods. The other great success was that the Danish designs were easily adaptable to less expensive machine manufacture, unlike most of the pre-war Swedish modern furniture and the Baubaus designs that then required much expensive handwork.
Many Americans first saw teak furniture when they served in Europe after the war. The post exchanges carried the furniture. And the canny Danes did a land-office business in catalogue sales, shipping to all sorts of obscure corners of the world. Many foreign-service families bought their teak furniture by catalogue.
Teak came to the United States in mass quantities later. First it was by custom order and then in small furniture boutiques, all with some version of Scandinavia or Denmark in their names. The official stamp came with an exhibition of the Arts of Denmark at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Oct. 14, 1960, organized at the insistence of architect and critic Edger Kaufmann Jr.
In Washington, teak has been more popular than in many other parts of the country because of the international composition of the city and because of Scan. Since it began here in 1960, Scan has imported some $75 million worth of teak furniture.
The new designs shown by Thygesen and Sorensen here recently, though comfortable to sit in and fresh to look at, in a way seem rather old. They have a distinct kinship to the early modern designs. A stool reminds you of Alvo Aalto, the Finnish architect, who designed his famous laminated stool with the light colored legs and the dark seat, in 1938. They also owe a debt to Danish designer hans Wegner and his rush-seated side chair of 1949. (In turn, Wagner was inspired by an antique Chinese chair in a Danish museum, and who knows who influenced the Chinese.)
Thygesen and Sorensen's newest design, a double-tapered laminated S-shaped chair, is, they admit, an "answer" to architect Marcel Breuer's ubiquitous Cesca chrome and cane chair.
(One close resemblance led to trouble. Their curved-section plywood divider wall with its plant shelf is a clear steal from an earlier design for a child's low playchair.One person shook his head at their wall and said, "It's too high to be safe for a child.")
What does seem to be new is the craftsmanship of the furniture, manufactured and distributed by Rudd International, a local firm headed by Alan Rudd. The furniture seems to be very sturdily made, in contrast to much you see today. Rudd, at a party at the Danish Embassy to show off the furniture, stood on it, bounced back and forward, but still the chair stood serene and steadfast. Rudd sells largely to institutions and commercial establishments and through architects and designers.
Sorensen and Thygesen were students together in the Danish School of Arts, Crafts and Design in 1966. They opened their design office together that year. They have won many Danish cabinetmaking competitions for their craftsmanship. Last month, a peppermill designed by the office was chosen by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for its collection of good design. In 1969, a suite of their light with sitting-room furniture was given to King Frederik IX of Denmark for his 70th birthday.
At the Danish Embassy preview, visiting Lise Oestergaard, minister for trade and aid in the Foreign Ministry, told a story. When she was appointed to the Foreign Ministry a few years ago, she looked at her offices in a great old Copenhagen castle. And she threw out all the traditional furniture. She replaced with definitively Danish furniture by Thygesen and Sorensen.
Shortly after, the prime minister took a look at what she'd done. He went back and had his office decorated in Danish modern.