Jalk’s GJ Chair, a plywood perfection
Once referred to rather condescendingly as a fine example of ‘the strong weaker sex’ by a critic at the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild Exhibition, Grete Jalk took the early plywood experiments of the Eameses and Alvar Aalto to a whole new level.
Imagine the early sixties. Plywood had fallen out of favour with the design establishment. Designers were hell-bent on creating chairs that could be mass produced in the new plastics, and then in comes a Dane, and a lady at that, whipping up a laminate chair with more sinuous curves than the design cognoscenti had ever seen.
Jalk managed to create the illusion of a single piece of wood taken to breaking point with a multitude of backwards and forwards folds. In reality, two pieces of teak and pine laminate were bent on one plane, folded and double-bolted at the bottom of both sides, with folds in the laminate designed to strengthen the chair while allowing some flex too.
Disillusioned with her studies in philosophy and law, Jalk took up cabinetmaking with Karen Margrethe Conradsen before honing her craft under the watchful eye of Kaare Klint at the furniture school he founded at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
Testament to her talent she beat some of the great masters of the time, bagging first prize in the 1946 Cabinetmakers’ Guild competition in Copenhagen the year she graduated.
Jalk would go on to become a regular at the Cabinetmakers’ Guild. She designed and arranged numerous exhibitions while also editor of Danish furniture and interior design magazine Mobilia with Gunnar Bratvold from 1956 to 1962 and then again after his death from 1968 to 1974.
Her four-volume tome about the work shown over forty years of Cabinetmakers’ Exhibitions, 40 Years of Danish Furniture Design, is a bible for furniture fans and a collectable in its own right.
But, as much as she was revered by her contemporaries, Jalk did not become recognized on an international scale until her He Chair and She Chair won first prize in a competition organized by London newspaper the Daily Mail in 1963.
After the winning chairs were lost in a fire, Grete Jalk re-created the female of the chairs that would become her legacy- the GJ. Jalk’s own small apartment in Copenhagen had one in the bedroom and two in the living room that sat with the matching nest of tables on a honeyed coir floor in front of a wall-mounted antique Yugoslavian rug.
Although it was only ever manufactured in a run of about 300, the GJ continues to inspire designers. Lange Production in Denmark took on the manufacture of the chair in 2008 and now reissues this most coveted of all bent-ply chairs, desirable as much for its rarity as its extraordinary design.