For more than 150 years, Danish furniture brand Fritz Hansen has fostered the nation’s gifted designers. Now it is finally building an archive to celebrate its history.
For Danish furniture company Fritz Hansen, taking stock of its archive, which spans more than 150 years of work, involves tracing its significant role in the evolution of Scandinavian design. Now, as part of its ongoing revamp of its headquarters, it has opened an exhibition space called the Design Hall to celebrate this legacy and inspire the next generation of designers. A 30-minute drive northwest from Copenhagen in the town of Allerød, the smart glass-and-concrete structure, which was once the brand’s factory and sits next to a forest of birch and pine, welcomes schoolchildren, architects, furniture dealers and design enthusiasts, who are able to visit the hall by appointment.
“We are too shy about our presence in Danish design history,” says Christian Andresen, Fritz Hansen’s former head of design. “The Design Hall is a way to reinforce Fritz Hansen’s identity,” he says as he walks monocle through the inaugural exhibition, which showcases the game-changing chairs that the brand has produced since 1872. The archival pieces – including the likes of Arne Jacobsen’s Series 7, pk25 by Poul Kjaerholm and the China chair by Hans J Wegner – are presented in chronological groups and are placed according to various themes such as functionality, techniques and student-teacher relationships between designers. The curatorial approach offers visitors a chance to track the evolution of both the brand and its designers.
Despite having a catalogue of about 15,000 furniture and homeware designs, the Fritz Hansen archive, which until now had been stored in the basement of its headquarters, currently holds only 350 physical pieces. Andresen hopes that the Design Hall will help to inspire an effort to properly conserve and document the catalogue by acquiring missing collections and showing forgotten hero pieces, such as the lounge chairs designed by Jørn Utzon for the Sydney Opera House, bringing them out of storage and giving them a chance of top billing. Among the more surprising discoveries from the archive so far is a comical nutcracker depicting Thorvald Stauning, a Danish prime minister who was first elected in 1924 – a far cry from the elegant minimalism associated with Nordic design.
The Design Hall is not intended to be a navel-gazing exercise. As tempting as it might be to celebrate Denmark’s mid-century icons in aeternum, the Fritz Hansen team hopes that this new presentation of the archive will inspire the current crop of designers, who constantly have their work compared to an internationally adored canon of mid-century furniture.
“When [contemporary designer] Cecilie Manz created her ‘coat tree’ in 2000, she described it as something that disassembled heritage and tradition and put it back together again,” says Marie-Louise Høstbo, Fritz Hansen’s creative design director. “This is how we want to use the archive. For many Danish designers and architects, it has been a burden to try to surpass the likes of Arne Jacobsen, Hans J Wegner and Poul Kjaerholm. But the generations we work with now know that we have to keep evolving.”
“It would not be right to stay where we are and just rely on our assets. That would be too easy”
This dedication to staying curious, while continuing to produce and occasionally reinterpret Jacobsen’s Ant, Swan and Egg chairs, has helped to keep Fritz Hansen at the forefront of design. It’s also an approach that honours the company’s pioneering spirit. Allerød is where steam-bending techniques were refined in the 1930s, allowing for the mass manufacturing of plywood furniture. “It would not be right to stay where we are and just rely on our assets,” says Josef Kaiser, Fritz Hansen’s ceo. “That would be too easy.”
Any discussion of Scandinavian aesthetics soon takes an obligatory turn towards the socialism and democratic values expressed through the region’s design and showcased in its kindergartens, churches, town halls, libraries and theatres. “Danish design is part of the welfare society,” says Høstbo. “We grew up with it so it was always there, with [urbanist] Jan Gehl also making sure that we have smartly designed streets.”
“This Nordic way of designing atmospheres is omnipresent to the point that people might not see it anymore,” says Kaiser.
With this keen sense of social responsibility drilled into the Danish psyche, the idea of opening the Fritz Hansen archive to the design community and, eventually, the public more broadly, came naturally. Kaiser hopes that the work on display will help potential customers, design enthusiasts and designers to better understand the brand’s mission to continually improve people’s quality of life through smart design.
“We need a person or a brand to like and trust us for them to want our furniture in their home or work environment,” he says. “If we can support that journey by showing who we are, I’m pleased with the investment and decision to open the hall.”