It may seem an unlikely partnering but Great Dane Furniture, an Australian importer of Danish furniture have reissued a range of entrance furniture designed by Kai Kristiansen in the mid fifties. Kristiansen now in his 80's flew out to Melbourne and Sydney for the launch of his newly named Entré range of furniture originally produced by Aksel Kjersgaard which sold for a period of eight or nine years during the mid to late fifties and early sixties.
Great Dane Furniture's founder Anton Assad began the business as an importer of vintage mid-century Danish furniture and started talking with Kristiansen around twelve years ago. What started out as tips on restoring some of Kristiansen's vintage pieces has developed into a close friendship and ultimately led to the re-release of the range originally created for Aksel Kjersgaard. Design daily was lucky enough to interview Kai Kristiansen in Sydney and learn of his respect for the work of Kaare Klint and Borge Mogensen and his life long friendship with Illum Wikkelso. Great Dane Furniture re-issued Wikkelso's V11 range of seating (sofa and armchair) back in 2011 and have subsequently also reissued Wikkelso's ML90 armchair and footstool along with his sculptural coffee table and V12 sofa. The Q&A below provides a small insight into the life of one of the last surviving designers of the 'golden age' of Danish design.
D.d: You studied under the great Danish architect Kaare Klint. What was so special about his view on design?
KK: Klint brought architecture and interior and furniture design together for the first time. He saw design as this holistic whole and his influence led to what we now know as the golden period of Danish design. He was the professor of furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy for many, many years and actually the only professor of furniture at that time. I was his last pupil and I owe a lot to his philosophy on design.
D.d: After you completed your training at the Academy of Fine Arts your first products were produced in the mid fifties for brands like Preben Schou Andersen Møbelfabrik and Magnus Olesen is that correct?
KK: Yes, I started out working with Preben Schou Andersen, Feldballes Møbelfabrik and a few others but I worked for a wide range of manufacturers including Ikea when they first started out.
D.d: Who was the most well known Danish designer at that time? It was the golden age of Danish design with Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen, Ole Wanscher, Borge Mogensen, Arne Vodder - all at the pinnacle of their careers. Were you aware this was a special moment in Danish design? Who were you most friendly with?
KK: I knew all the major designers that were operating at the time but I was particularly friendly with Borge Mogensen. He visited Kaare Klint at the Royal Academy frequently so I got to know him well. There were so many high quality designers practising at that time that international success was not easy but this has changed for me in recent years. At the time however we just thought this was normal. We weren't really aware that we were in the middle of an exceptional period of Danish design, we were just excited by how our designs were being received around the world. I think Mogensen, Wegner and I are quite close in our aesthetic as we all studied under Kaare Klint while Verner Panton and Arne Jacobsen were quite different.
D.d: How do your pieces fit into this design heritage? Your cabinets for Aksel Kjersgaard are extremely simple on first glance but the detailing is very well resolved.
KK: Entré was originally named by just a series of model numbers but as the collection was all about entrance furniture for hallways and reception rooms we have given it the name Entré. The range began in 1954/5 and was produced through to about 1963/4 but for the last few years Aksel Kjersgaard didn’t really want to pay me my royalties because he felt I had already earned enough money from the design! My lawyer put a stop to that soon enough. I later incorporated some minor details of this series into other products – the proportions, the detail of the leg - that sort of thing. Even though this particular collection had to be stopped, it lived on through other designs in a way. The current production of Entré is being done by a small factory with just 2 craftsmen. The quality is much better than the first production run and the design is being produced exactly as I had always intended. I was never particularly happy with the way the Aksel Kjersgaard versions were manufactured - there was a small leg detail that was eliminated because it was deemed too expensive. We have reinstated that in the new versions.
D.d: Was it difficult to make a career in furniture design at this time with so many big names creating so many designs - I’m thinking of Wegner in particular as he designed over one hundred chairs in his lifetime.
KK: There was no problem for me to run my studio and become established. Back then to work for two or three companies was enough to make a good living. Depending on how aggressive the particular architects were they could increase their profile and become well known outside of Denmark. I didn't really pursue this level of fame and was happy to live and work in the middle of rural Jutland rather than in Copenhagen. During the period of 1955 to 1960 I mainly worked alone in my studio but every now and then I employed additional people when things became busy. Most designers get cabinet makers to produce their prototypes but I was able to make my own prototypes because I had a workshop with the necessary equipment. For the years between 1970 and 1980 I had a workshop with two or three workers which I shared with Illum Wikkelso. Our work was very different but we were great friends and we worked out of the same building for many, many years.
D.d: What was the inspiration behind the Entré range? It is quite different from everything else going on at the time - far more geometric and minimal.
KK: It must have been a dream! To be honest designers of my generation didn't think too much about the inspiration behind our work and just went ahead and did it.
D.d: Did it ever occur to you that one day an Australian company might reissue some of your designs? What made you decide that Anton Assad and Great Dane were the right ones to do it.
KK: No, it never occurred to me that I would be launching my work in Australia but Anton is a determined man and he kept at me until I agreed. We have been talking more generally about my pieces for twelve or thirteen years but have been working on this project specifically for about three or four years. Actually I am very happy to be working with Great Dane Furniture and grateful for Anton's commitment to quality.
D.d: What was it about teak that seemed to excite the public so much in this era? Even the Australian company Parker had to start making their furniture in this wood to replicate the Danish look. Was it a case of the poor man's rosewood?
KK: I am a big fan of teak. The finish is very simple as it doesn’t need lacquer or anything like that, just a little bit of oil. It was a very natural finish. I went to Thailand two or three times a year for many years, walking through the forest sourcing the right sort of teak for Danish furniture. It had to be the right type of teak and the tree had to be the right size and be extremely consistent. Rosewood is a fantastic species of wood too. Completely different in texture and grain. I love it and have a lot of it in my own home. It's impossible to get now but I still buy it at auction whenever I can. It is prohibited to cut down rosewood but occasionally old stocks become available.......Plenty of people claim to have rosewood but it generally isn't the real thing. It has to be real palisander to be worthwhile.
D.d: Of all your designs is there one that has a special place in your heart?
KK: The Magnus Oleson 'Universe' seating was only in production for half a year but it is very special to me. It will be reissued by Miyazaki Japan within a year or so. They have already reissued my Model 121 ‘Paper Knife’ armchair and sofa, the Model NV31 dining chair (now known as the 'Handy' chair) and the Model 4110 dining chair. The quality of their production is exemplary so I am extremely happy that they are putting many of my designs back into production.
D.d: Why do you think Danes have this incredible affinity with timber?
KK: The Danish tradition for working with wood allowed the creation of some amazing designs through this era. As children we developed a particular way of using wood – it was a natural response to our education. We had special schools only for cabinet makers and that helped us develop a unique understanding of materials and techniques. I learnt timber then after that cabinet making. My father was a timber man and owned a furniture factory. After I had studied cabinet making and architectural building I decided that my main interest lay in furniture design and I enrolled with Kaare Klint at the Royal Academy.
D.d: While you are now well known all over the world for your Model 42 chair, many of the designs from this period are only known in the United States. Can you explain why this is the case?
KK: I have designed a lot of furniture for Danish furniture makers that were only available in the United States. Danish design was a phenomenon at that time and American’s in particular seemed to love it. Once Wegner's 'Round' chair was used in the Presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy Danish design took off massively. In fact, 90% of the Model 121 ‘Paper Knife’ chairs and sofas I designed were sold in the United Sates.
D.d: In the 1960's it was your FM wall storage system that seemed to really take off for you. Why do you think this was?
KK: The FM wall system manufactured by Fornem Møbelkunst was a major success but I'm not sure it is ready for re-introduction. I don’t think it will come back again. I have been approached by many companies wanting to do this but I’m not satisfied with the design….I need to make a few changes before I can give permission for anyone to make it again.