JL Møller - Mid century Danish furniture that remains family owned and Danish made

Jørgen Møller, the son of Niels O. Møller, founder of famous Danish furniture company JL Møller and his family visited Sydney recently on a tour of their global distributors and to announce the hand over of the role of company CEO to his daughter Kirsten Møller. Design daily took the opportunity to meet Jørgen and Kirsten and discuss how it was possible for the brand to continue manufacturing furniture out of their factory near Aarhus to the same exacting standards as when they first started in 1940's, when most other Danish furniture companies are moving their operations to countries like Poland, Hungary, Vietnam and China.

 A JL Moller marketing image from the 1960's showing the now famous Model 78 chair from 1962. The wall plaque is the company's logo.

A JL Moller marketing image from the 1960's showing the now famous Model 78 chair from 1962. The wall plaque is the company's logo.

The company was started by Niels O. Møller in 1944 using the name of the family joinery business set up by his father, Jorgen L. Møller in the 1920’s (which had been forced to close during the depression). The second incarnation of JL Møller launched its first chair later two years later and rapidly became well known for unerring quality and timeless modern designs with a series of highly successful chair designs such as the Model 71, 75 and 77 being designed between 1951 and 1959. By 1961 the business had outgrown its second premises in L.A. Rings Vej in Højbjerg near Aarhus and it was at this point that Niels O. Møller took the brave step of investing in a 7000 square metre purpose built factory. The image on the left is of Niels O. Møller and a archive image of the factory from the 60's on the right.

The business is still in this location today and has remained family owned and operated with Jørgen’s brother Jens Ole taking over after Niels O. Møller’s death in 1981 then Jorgen from him in 1994. For Jørgen the transition to head of the company was a question of loyalty to the the family name and the incredible legacy left by his father. The task was made much more difficult as Jørgen and his young family had by this time immigrated to the United States setting up furniture showrooms in Memphis Tennesee and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The sudden death of his brother at aged 50 had forced his hand but Jørgen felt that it was essential to keep the reputation for quality the JL Møller name had developed and to ensure that a Møller family member remained at the helm.

 The JL Møller showroom in Højbjerg near Aarhus, late 1960's.

The JL Møller showroom in Højbjerg near Aarhus, late 1960's.

Fast forward 23 years and at sixty Jørgen Møller was finding operating a large factory in Denmark while running a business and raising a family in the US, a rewarding but exhausting job. When his 27 year-old daughter Kirsten moved to Copenhagen a few years ago to do a second degree and decided to stay it made perfect sense to offer her the opportunity to take over the running of the company. After all, Kirsten was a economics graduate and despite growing up in America was rapidly becoming fluent in Danish.

 The world famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen with equally famous JL Møller Model 78 chairs from 1962 around the table. The restaurant is kitted out with various JL Møller chairs throughout.

The world famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen with equally famous JL Møller Model 78 chairs from 1962 around the table. The restaurant is kitted out with various JL Møller chairs throughout.

 

 

“When my brother passed away I had to make the decision to either sell the factory or run it from the United States. I was living there with three kids and a wife so this was not an easy option….I had a furniture store in Memphis Tennessee so I knew the furniture business well enough but travelling back and forth across the Atlantic was difficult to say the least. On the other hand it was a healthy company and a family company so I wanted it to live on”.

 

Jørgen Møller, former CEO of JL Møller

 

 

 A sixties photograph of the JL Møller Model 75 chair designed by Niels O. Møller in 1954.

A sixties photograph of the JL Møller Model 75 chair designed by Niels O. Møller in 1954.

While the future of JL Møller is securely in the hands of a new generation of the Møller family, it remains to be seen if the business can continue to thrive in an era when the Made in Denmark slogan has become an extremely expensive commodity. According to Jørgen Møller there has never been any question of moving JL Møller’s operations to any other country – the company has too many ties to its workers and raw material suppliers and a big obligation to its resellers and customers to keep the quality level at exactly the same standard as the brand has always been known for.

 A sixties image of the Model 79 chair designed by Niels O. Møller in 1966.

A sixties image of the Model 79 chair designed by Niels O. Møller in 1966.

“There is no doubt that Danish made furniture is expensive” says Kirsten Møller “but if you think how many years it will last it becomes extremely good value for money. We have a lot of people coming to the factory to have their original Møller chairs re woven – forty years after they first bought them. Lots of younger people are buying our product because they have inherited pieces from the grandparents or parents and want to add to it. Because we use the same machines and employ many of the same people that we did in the 1960’s, our current production chairs are absolutely identical to those we made 50 or 60 years ago”.

Not only do JL Møller use the same aging c’n’c machines first introduced by Niels O. Møller in the early 70’s but they are still sourcing their wood from the same sawmills as in the 1960’s: oak from Spessart in Southern Germany, maple from Belgium and beech from Denmark. Their teak is of the slow grown Burmese type while their walnut comes from hand selected logs imported from the US and cut to size in Denmark by their wood importer. “We go to the Danish importer of these logs a couple of hours south of our factory”, says Kirsten Møller, “and pick out the ones that best suit our needs. The art of choosing the right timber to make furniture from is severely under estimated – its crucial. In fact it’s a science.

 Archive image showing the JL Møller factory's aerial chair conveyor system.  

Archive image showing the JL Møller factory's aerial chair conveyor system.  

We do all our cutting in the traditional way - on a bandsaw. The worker who does this for us has been doing it for fourteen or fifteen years and knows what best suits the designs and how to avoid knots and other unsightly weak spots”. Jørgen Møller believes that if the company was to give up this commitment to the quality of their raw materials and the attention to timber selection that any cost savings would quickly be outweighed by a loss of business. “If we don’t have ultimate control over our materials we will loose clients. The Japanese market is extremely fickle and if they don’t get genuine Burmese Teak they will stop ordering. They are totally disinterested in products made from Indonesian or African teak”, says Jørgen Møller.

 Archive image of bandsaw cutting of chair parts. This traditional method is still continued to this day to ensure the wood grain and colour is appropriate for each specific part of a chair or table. 

Archive image of bandsaw cutting of chair parts. This traditional method is still continued to this day to ensure the wood grain and colour is appropriate for each specific part of a chair or table. 

 

We haven’t really increased our mechanisation since the 1970’s when my father acquired some of the first c’n’c machines in the Danish furniture industry. We have two giant machines that date from this time that we still use today. At the time my father purchased them they were a huge investment but it has proven to be a wise one”.

 

Jørgen Møller, former CEO of JL Møller

 

 The order board at the JL Møller factory with the chair model listed in the centre of each card.

The order board at the JL Møller factory with the chair model listed in the centre of each card.

Unlike many other famous Danish manufacturers, JL Møller is sticking steadfastly to its Danish Made roots while world famous companies such as Royal Copenhagen who began their porcelain production in 1775 have moved their operations to Thailand. Renown Danish furniture company Fritz Hansen now produce all their products outside of Denmark. Even companies such as Carl Hansen, the makers of many of Hans Wegner’s designs and the famous Wishbone chair are looking like going down that road after years of stubborn resistance with a recent purchase of a furniture factory in Vietnam and outsourcing of their paper cord weaving to factories in Hungary.

 An archive image of tables being sanded. Hand finishing remains an important part of the process to this day.

An archive image of tables being sanded. Hand finishing remains an important part of the process to this day.

 

 

“My brother had travelled in Japan for 16 years and our Japanese agents insisted that I do the same. They warned me that only the presence of the head of the family would ensure the continuation of the relationship. That meant I had to go and eat dried seaweed and raw fish – I’m not an adventurous eater - that was the worst part – otherwise the Danes and the Japanese have many aspects in common. They are a very loyal customer – we have many of the same associations we’ve had since the 1970s”.

 

Jørgen Møller, former CEO of JL Møller

 

 

 

“Jørgen had to take over when his brother suddenly died of a heart attack in 1994 and because of his family and businesses in the U.S. he chose to keep the companies ambitions quite small – just fulfilling the orders from the various markets around the world was plenty to be getting on with! We haven’t had anyone with enough time to dedicate to marketing for years, so now that I am living in Denmark I’m basically sucking up as much information on the history of JL Møller as I can and learning how everything has traditionally been done. Soon I will be in a position to suggest some changes in marketing and business strategy but as the third generation in the family business, I will largely be continuing what my grandparents, uncle and father have worked so hard to achieve”.

 

Kirsten Møller, CEO of JL Møller

 

 

 Some of the current JL Møller range. From L to R: Model 55 chair, Model 78 chair on Model 63 bench, Model 80 A stool on Model 71 chair and a second Model 78 chair. Image courtesy of Design Within Reach.

Some of the current JL Møller range. From L to R: Model 55 chair, Model 78 chair on Model 63 bench, Model 80 A stool on Model 71 chair and a second Model 78 chair. Image courtesy of Design Within Reach.

According to new CEO Kirsten Møller, there wont be any radical changes to the company’s manufacturing methods under her leadership but more of a slow modernisation of the way the company is presented. “Unlike the previous directors of JL Møller  I haven’t been educated as a cabinetmaker” says Kristen Møller. “I have a finance and economic background so have plenty to offer in management but I have a lot to learn about wood and woodworking techniques. When I started at the factory I would follow my dad around on factory tours and listen to what was being said absorbing as much as possible. Now I know a lot of woodworking jargon in Danish but don’t have a clue what these words are in English”!

Shown below are a stockpile of unfinished chair parts in the JL Møller factory and finished Model 44 trolleys designed by Niels O. Møller in 1959.

Apart from starting work on a new website and embracing social media properly, Kirsten Møller intends to engage with new markets more vigourously. In 2018 the company will be showing at the Cologne Furniture Fair for the first time in over 20 years. “For the last fifteen years JL Moller hasn’t shown at any furniture fairs” says Jorgen Møller. “During my father’s time we used to exhibit at in Kortrijk In Belgium, Utrecht in Holland, the fairs in Tokyo, Stockholm, Cologne, Earls Court in London and of course Copenhagen. When I took over the leadership of the company in ’94 this more or less stopped as it was just to complicated to organise when I was running a company based in Aarhus from the United States”.

 A sixties image of the model 64 chair (a Model 79 with arms) with woven paper cord seat left and upholstered version right.

A sixties image of the model 64 chair (a Model 79 with arms) with woven paper cord seat left and upholstered version right.

Plans also include shooting new press images in a style that reflects the timelessness of JL Møller. “When I first started working at the factory I spent days going through the archives and looking at the imagery the company has used over the years. I came across some amazing images from the 1960’s shot for my grandad by a photographer that later worked for Bang & Olufson. They are absolutely fantastic – simple, minimalistic but extremely elegant black and white images. They are extremely evocative and show how timeless the chairs designed by my grandfather are”.

 An archive image of the Model 83 chair designed by Niels O. Møller in 1974. Each seat requires 130 metres of paperboard.  

An archive image of the Model 83 chair designed by Niels O. Møller in 1974. Each seat requires 130 metres of paperboard.  

When pushed Kirsten Møller also admitted that there are a few hidden gems in the Niels O Møller archive that are being considered for release in the near future. “There are a number of coffee tables and a lounge chair that we are definitely thinking of reissuing” says Kirsten Møller. “these were either never launched or were released for just a short period of time and we believe they are really good designs that will have widespread appeal”. Quizzed about the potential for new designs by other architects and designers Kirsten Møller confesses that the time required to develop such projects is severely off-putting. “We get contacted often by architects or designers asking to do contemporary collaborations but so far we have chosen not to go down this path. The barstool we introduced recently was developed for a particular project and it was really a process of elongation of my Grandfather’s Model 77 chair that was originally designed in 1959. This took a year and a half to get right so we aren’t all that keen on creating new designs from scratch at this stage”.

 Niels O. Møller sitting in the last chair he designed, the Model 85 in 1981.

Niels O. Møller sitting in the last chair he designed, the Model 85 in 1981.

 

 

My daddy never looked at the machinery when he designed a chair. He would work on it for about a year then put it down in the basement and then a half a year later he’d get to work on it again. After about five years of the design going back and forth he would decide the design was ready and ask the foreman and the production manager to come together and say “here’s the new chair now its up to you to work out how to produce it”.

 

Jorgen Møller, former CEO JL Møller

 

 

 An artful archive image of the JL Møller factory sign.

An artful archive image of the JL Møller factory sign.

 

For more information on JL Møller go to their website here. In Australia JL Møller is distributed by Great Dane Furniture. You can check out their website here or visit their showrooms in Melbourne and Sydney.