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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.Want more? Don't miss the subscriber-only articles in the newsletter Join the mailing list