The fascinating tale of Danish Modern

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The timeless craftsmanship of skilled architects and the imagination of enterprising individuals are the main actors in the global success story of Danish furniture design, and although their creators are gone, icons like The Egg and the Wishbone Chair continue to sell in places around the world

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For it’s 60th anniversary in 2010, Hans J. Wegner’s Wishbone Chair was released in 12 new colours. Photo credit: Carl Hansen & Søn

The year is 1949 and from his furniture workshop in Odense on the island of Funen, Carl Hansen has gained wide recognition as a skilled craftsman. So much so that Hans J. Wegner, a young aspiring architect at the time, chooses the workshop to produce his designs.

“He visited us on his push bike all the way from Copenhagen and he brought with him three models, number 22, 23 and 24,” tells Knud Erik Hansen, the grandson of Carl Hansen and the managing director of Carl Hansen & Søn. “Number 24 is the Wishbone Chair. They were supposed to be relatively simple to make but they turned out to be anything but. They were very avant-garde at the time and something that had never been seen before.”

Despite protests from Carl Hansen, who had been making sturdy mahogany furniture in his workshop for almost four decades and thought the new designs looked like garden furniture, his son, Holger Hansen, insisted on taking on the designs and production started in 1950. “The chairs were very hard to sell. All the interior design magazines of the time, the newspapers and the museums were all ecstatic about the new designs, but people weren’t buying them,” explains Knud Erik Hansen.

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Hans J. Wegner with a miniature model of the Wingchair. Photo credit: Carl Hansen & Søn

In an attempt to sell the furniture, Holger Hansen travelled to the USA in 1953 and met with some of the Danish emigrants who had left the country in the 1930s to sell Georg Jensen silverware and Royal Copenhagen porcelain. They instantly liked and understood the designs and the USA became the first large export market for Carl Hansen & Søn , quickly followed by Germany and Scandinavia.

The 1950s and ’60s were also defining decades for one of Denmark’s other famous furniture manufacturers, Fritz Hansen. Established in 1872, the company had gone from being a traditional cabinet maker to an industrialised furniture manufacturer, which by the 1950s also collaborated with Wegner, as well as other young and promising designers such as Kare Klint, Børge Mogensen and Arne Jacobsen. What really propelled Fritz Hansen’s growth, however, was the introduction of Arne Jacobsen’s The Ant in 1952, followed by the No. 7 Chair in 1955 and The Swan and The Egg in 1958, also by Arne Jacobsen.

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Series 7 and The Egg. Photo credit: Fritz Hansen

“Arne Jacobsen has had a great influence on Fritz Hansen and not least on the Danish furniture tradition and what we call ‘Danish Modern’,” says Jacob Holm, managing director of Fritz Hansen. “His way of thinking and the materials and colours he used have greatly influenced the company. It’s not like there is a ghost sitting in the hallway, but his spirit is definitely here.”

Both Carl Hansen & Søn and Fritz Hansen today count Japan as one of their biggest markets. “This is where we have to explain the least about ourselves to the clients,” says Holm. “All we need to do is to show them the furniture and they understand immediately. There are many similarities in terms of design, form and materials but also the minimalism and the functionalism.”

The father of these ideas is arguably Kaare Klint. Although he hasn’t enjoyed the same commercial success as Arne Jacobsen and Hans J. Wegner, he nonetheless created the foundation from which they emerged.

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The Wingchair and Wishbone Chair. Photo credit: Carl Hansen & Søn

“It was all about the simplification of furniture,” explains Knud Erik Hansen. “Kaare Klint was a very strict architect who had very clear definitions of how a chair was to be made, how long the seat should be, how tall the chair should, the angle and slope of the back and so on. He set the standards for that. By comparison, when Wegner designed a chair he wanted it to be comfortable but it was still with the simplification in mind. That is very evident in the Wishbone Chair, where Wegner took inspiration from the Chinese Emperor chair and developed it over three models until he reached the Wishbone Chair.”

In 2011 Carl Hansen & Søn acquired Rud Rasmussen, until then a family-owned furniture workshop established in 1869. The workshop, which produces furniture designed by Kaare Klint and Mogens Koch, has occupied the same address for 144 years and even today produces most of its furniture by hand. The longer production time and the working environment in the workshop necessarily place a limit on production and the higher price point means furniture produced there can never become as commercially successful as the Wishbone Chair or Arne Jacobsen’s The Egg, for example. Knud Erik Hansen explains the relationship between the architect and the manufacturer was one of shared interests.

“Wegner’s designs varied depending on which manufacturer he was designing for. He didn’t give us furniture that had to be handmade because he knew we were a progressive company that could produce high quantities. That line has blurred somewhat today because we produce furniture that wasn’t designed for Carl Hansen based on the fact that they are not in production anymore and I think it’s a shame.”

The commercial success of Danish Modern is no doubt due to the enterprising nature of both Fritz Hansen and Carl Hansen and their respective descendants. While unique in design and functionality, Arne Jacobsen’s The Ant and Series 7 owe much of their success to the lamination techniques developed at Fritz Hansen, and some Paul Kjærholm’s designs were also breathed into life when, in 1982, Fritz Hansen took over the production from E. Kold Christensen. The Wishbone Chair suddenly got a new customer base when it was released in 12 new colours to celebrate its 60 years anniversary and the Wing Chair, The Egg and the Series 7 have all since been reinvented in new colours and materials.

China is the next big destination for both Fritz Hansen and Carl Hansen & Søn. Despite rampant intellectual property rights abuses, or maybe because of them, Chinese customers are increasingly interested in the original, timeless designs of good quality.

“I went to China, and for the first time all doors opened before me,” says Knud Erik Hansen. “Previously it was always “we can’t sell your furniture here”, but I think there is a growing understanding of quality in China. People have had enough of cheap copies made of bad quality materials that last for a couple of years before they have to buy something new. So there is also a new element of sustainability, at least amongst the more well-educated and travelled.”

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Fritz Hansen’s showroom in Milan showcases Arne Jacobsen’s The Egg among other models. Photo credit: Fritz Hansen

Sales to Asia make up 15-20 percent of the total sales at Fritz Hansen, according to Jacob Holm, who estimates that figure may rise to more than 25 percent in the next five years. The majority of sales are still classics such as The Egg, the Series 7 and Paul Kjærholm’s PK22, but new designs such as the Favn Sofa by Spanish designer Jaime Hayón are also gaining ground, as are designs by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, produced by Carl Hansen & Søn. The trick for Fritz Hansen and Carl Hansen & Søn, it seems, is still to find the most talented, promising designers, just like they did when the names on their books were Kaare Klint, Arne Jacobsen and Hans J. Wegner.

is Bangkok-based journalist