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Royal System shelving by Poul Cadovius: pioneering furniture design

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 11

Lack of storage is always an issue. And when you live in a small house or flat your options are limited. But why waste your precious floor space with heavy, chunky furniture?

Danish designer Poul Cadovius came up with a brilliant solution: wall-mounted shelving units. Something that had never been done before.

Let’s talk about the exquisite Royal System shelving. The innovative concept that started a furniture revolution and left a legacy that lasts today.

Who was Poul Cadovius?

It’s unbelievably hard to find detailed information about Cadovius. Even though his award-winning designs are admired all over the world, he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page in English. Also, not a single mention in Taschen’s Scandinavian Design book. Everything I know was sourced via an ancient blog post from Retro Renovation and a press release.

STYLE TIP: Most of us live on the bottom of a cube. If we put the walls even with the floor, we get a lot of space to live on — Poul Cadovius.

Cadovius was born in Denmark and trained to be an upholsterer to work in the family business. But soon showed a keen interest in design and eventually founded his own furniture company in the late 1940s. His first commercial success was the groundbreaking Royal System shelving designed in 1948 — a year earlier than the popular String shelves.

Due to increasing demand abroad, his furniture was manufactured on licence in a few countries, including Sweden and USA. Sadly, it seems he never achieved the same level of popularity other designers did in Denmark. This is despite getting over 400 patents during his career. From shell-like bus stop shelters to retail furniture.

My little piece of design history

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 1

Vintage Royal System pieces are scarce and can be expensive. A few months ago I found this small modular wall unit on eBay, and I couldn’t resist it. The price was reasonable, and the size was perfect for my awkward bedroom alcove. It was time to say goodbye to the old B&Q shelves — no tears were shed. And a warm hello to Poul’s mid-century modern marvel.

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 9

On close inspection, you can tell it’s an early Royal System design (circa 1955). The finish is not as refined as later models. And it doesn’t feature the sought-after flush drawer handle. Despite the wear and tear, and rusty metal brackets, it’s still a fully functioning original design. When I look at it, it makes me happy. It’s worth every single penny.

Poul Cadovius’ Royal System shelving

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 12

The concept of the Royal System was revolutionary. Until then, storage furniture comprised heavy standalone pieces such as cabinets and bookcases. Given a particular room layout, you then had to arrange the furniture to optimise the limited floor space. Cadovius saw an opportunity to utilise the wall area in a way it had never been done before.

STYLE TIP: Make the most of wall-mounted shelving units, such as Royal System or String, by displaying your favourite ornaments on the shelves and hiding the clutter in drawers or cabinets.

Royal System evolved from simple shelves to complex wall units with modules like desks, tables and cabinets. Originally, there were three different rail sizes you could combine. In fact, Cadovius himself claimed the system had 16 million combination possibilities. You could have a modest unit with three plain shelves or a wall-to-wall media centre.

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 2

My good old unit has the discontinued medium-length rails. Not too tall or too short. The width is ideal for the alcove, creating a “floating shelf” effect. And the floor space is available for other storage options. I was afraid the drawers might take too much visual space. However, once installed it felt like Cadovius had designed it for me — thanks, Poul!

Quality materials

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 7

All pieces are made of solid wood. Even though it’s not unusual to find veneer units depending on the manufacturer. My unit is made of stained solid teak, a fashionable material used in Cadovius’ designs. Other types of wood you may come across are walnut, mahogany and rosewood. The brass hangers and handles have lost their shine, but still look stylish.

Skilled craftsmanship

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 8

This is where the quality of the design speaks for itself. The drawers feature dovetail joints, considered the gold-standard of joinery. It’s an excellent indicator of the overall quality of vintage pieces. You don’t see this level of craftsmanship nowadays. That’s why Royal System feels contemporary after over 50 years. Trends come and go, but quality design stays forever.

Longlasting legacy

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 14

Cadovius’ work has been copied numerous times. A sign of his innovative thinking and aesthetically pleasing designs. We know little about the designer himself. But his ideas, that we now take for granted, redefined the concept of storage furniture and interior space planning. A true mid-century modern unsung hero.

Get the Royal System shelving

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 5

Buy new

There’s only one company licenced to manufacture Royal System, DK3. And you can purchase it via several dealers. They’re mostly London-based, but you can also buy online. However, if you’re going to spend thousands, I’d have a look in-store before ordering. There’s a handy configurator tool to help you plan your dream wall unit.

There’s one important caveat. DK3’s shelves are not compatible with vintage systems. They claim it has to do with the manufacturing process. See, it must be hard to replicate the exact size of a wooden shelf in the 21st Century… Maybe one day we’ll have the technology required.

Buy vintage

If you decide to buy vintage, you’ll spend pretty much the same as brand new. With the added charm of owning a truly original mid-century modern piece. Whether you’re looking for spare brackets or whole units, you can download my free Mid-century Shopping Guide to discover the best places to find 50s and 60s Royal System shelves.

What do you think?

Royal System Shelving Poul Cadovius Midcentury Modern 3

Would you consider wall-mounted storage? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Nowadays, there’s an immense variety of designs available. But it all started with Poul Cadovius’ Royal System shelving.

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30 Comments

  1. Dave
    5 months ago

    “[I]t must be hard to replicate the exact size of a wooden shelf in the 21st Century”

    Ha!

    I enjoyed this article a lot, so thank you. The unit is a pleasingly good fit for the alcove. Is the bed teak too?

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      5 months ago

      Thank you, Dave! Glad you enjoyed the blog post. The bed it’s actually eucalyptus wood with an “acorn” finish.

      Reply
  2. Susan Earlam
    4 months ago

    You’ve got such great pieces in your home, Juan! I love your tastes xx

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you, Susie! All I got is on the blog. The rest of the house is a total mess!

      Reply
  3. Fiona
    4 months ago

    Hi Juan. Fascinating post and a gorgeous piece of furniture. I love the idea of wall mounting. I’m thinking customising other pieces of vintage furniture to make them wall mounted could be a win.

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Fiona! Oh, that’s a great tip. It could work really well.

      Reply
  4. Pati
    4 months ago

    Oh wow that shelving system and craftsmanship ! Sadly they dont make such a beautiful pieces any more and its a shame as furniture like this will last a lifetime x

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Pati! You’re right. Such level of detail is uncommon nowadays. Luckily, there’s plenty of vintage options to enjoy.

      Reply
  5. Mary| hellopeagreen
    4 months ago

    That’s a real beauty! Thanks so much for sharing the background on Poul Cadovius, I recognise the piece but had no idea who’d designed it. Right up my street style wise.

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Mary! I wish I could tell you more about Cadovius. He left such a significant legacy yet we know little about him.

      Reply
  6. Anne Marie
    4 months ago

    I love your dedication to mid century . Sometimes I wish I was so we decided to one style but I just love them all and can’t pick my favourite one 😉 Your posts are always very informative , soon there will be no Wikipedia, there will be Juanpedia 😉 And I have to agree, especially in small homes, wall units are the perfect solution 😊

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Ah, thank you very much, Anne Marie! Focusing on one style only is fun, but it’s not for everybody. Sometimes an eclectic mix is best for creative minds like yours! Looking forward to becoming Juanpedia, hehe.

      Reply
  7. Donna
    4 months ago

    Juan! Totally love everything about this. The look, the history, your journey to finding it! Would love his in my home and my husband would forever admire the dovetail joints. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your kind words, Donna! It’s funny how we get excited about design details that are only visible when you open the drawer, hehe. But that’s what makes great design.

      Reply
  8. Anna Urban
    4 months ago

    Love your very informative blog post. It such a sad story when real talent does not get equal recognition in his own country. The shelving unit is quite an ingenious idea. I would probably use it in my not so spacious studio. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Anna! Looking forward to seeing how you add wall units to your studio. You won’t regret it 🙂

      Reply
  9. Stacey Sheppard
    4 months ago

    What a lovely little unit Juan. It’s perfect for your alcove and looks fantastic. Thanks for sharing the history with us. I find you can never truly appreciate a product until you know the story behind it.

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Stacey! You’re absolutely right. That way you always look at some pieces with different eyes.

      Reply
  10. Rosanna Alicia Design
    4 months ago

    I can imagine getting shot of the B&Q shelves for these beauties wasn’t too difficult for you! What a beautiful piece of furniture – I bet it will last you a lifetime. Dovetail joints to rival the Georgian masters! Great find.

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Rosanna! The old shelves were in the house when I moved in. As you say, so glad to see them go 😁

      Reply
  11. Laura Potts
    4 months ago

    I love a good wall unit and I love the style of this one! Not my usual taste, however, it looks really stylish in your home and looks so well made. Good find!

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Laura! I see what you mean regarding the style. But when something fits in so nicely it’s just visually appealing, isn’t it?

      Reply
  12. Jenny Kakoudakis
    4 months ago

    A very well written piece, as always very informative, coupled by great photography, what more can a reader ask for! I will echo comments above about your dedication to mid century furniture and your determination to curate a wonderful collection of them, each one telling a story. Well done Juan.

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your kind words, Jenny! I’m glad you found it informative. I’m learning a lot by researching these blog posts.

      Reply
  13. Via B Design
    4 months ago

    The pictures on the DK3 website are wonderful. I love the one you have too, there’s something quiet charming about it.

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      4 months ago

      Thank you for your comment! You’re right. It’s such a charming and timeless design.

      Reply
  14. Peter Eller
    2 months ago

    Hey, just discovered you on twitter, you should check out my shelving system inspired by Cadovius, rams 606 vitsoe and others, made in Canada better quality and more affordable than DWR , cheers
    http://www.modeller.ca

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      2 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Peter! You’re shelving system looks very neat. Well done!

      Reply
  15. Michele Alise
    2 months ago

    So happy to see a post about my favorite Cadovius wall systems! A friend gifted me a knock-off wall system that I haven’t put up yet, but the style and materials are inferior. Like Fiona, I’ve often wondered how I could devise a similar system – maybe with lovely Scandinavian teak pieces – but I’m just not that handy!

    Reply
    1. Juan Sandiego
      2 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, Michele! I’m not that handy either, but you can always display your gifted wall system proudly. It’s still a super efficient use of space.

      Reply

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