Fritz Hansen’s pantheon of mid-century Nordic design

Egg, ant, drop: although the names of Arne Jacobsen’s chairs are small, they are among some of the most recognizable forms of 20th-century furniture. Yet Fritz Hansen, the company that first produced them – and still does today – is not a household name outside of his native Denmark, despite a back catalog akin to the pantheon of mid-century modern Nordic design.

The company will be 150 years old this year. In 1872 the founder, a carpenter, moved to Copenhagen from southern Denmark at the age of 25. A decade and a half later he had a thriving workshop making ornate furniture in the Christianshavn district, now home to advertising agencies and warehouse apartments. When Hansen died in 1902, the company with 50 employees passed to his son Christian and in the 1930s to his grandsons Poul Fritz and Søren.

As head of product development, Søren Hansen commissioned designers who became big names, including Børge Mogensen and Hans J. Wegner. But the fortunes of the company were changed by his association with Jacobsen. Michael Sheridan, writing on Danish design, says that the architect and the furniture maker were a good match in their perfectionism: “Søren Hansen supported Arne Jacobsen in his search for the ultimate intersection between technology, aesthetics and comfort.”

Jacobsen used the company’s investment in wood bending machinery to compete with German-Austrian manufacturer Thonet in the 1930s, creating a range of stacking chairs with seats and backs made from steam-formed plywood and filigree steel legs. These included the Ant and the Grand Prix, but peaked in 1955 with the triangular-backed Series 7, still Fritz Hansen’s best-selling model.

The Series 7 stacking chair in production, 1957

The Egg Chair, 1963

The Egg Chair, 1963

In the second half of the century the company collaborated with designers such as Verner Panton and Vico Magistretti, mainly on contract furniture for offices, hotels and concert halls. In 2000, it launched a campaign to bring its own brand, renamed Republic of Fritz Hansen, out of the shadows. But by the end of the last decade, revenue had fallen for three straight years. The company “had to find the recipe to become more relevant again,” says Managing Director Josef Kaiser.

Kaiser was recruited by Swiss furniture company Vitra in 2019 as part of a makeover that brought Fritz Hansen’s offshoots of lighting and accessories under the main brand and discontinued the Republic badge. Meanwhile, the private customer business makes up about 75 percent of sales, says Kaiser. “I’d like it to be more balanced,” he says, adding that business contracts lead to more feedback from architects, which inspires new ideas.

Marie-Louise Høstbo, Fritz Hansen’s chief design officer, agrees, pointing out that the company would not have sold thousands of Egg chairs if it hadn’t first worked with Jacobsen to design the handful he’s producing for the SAS Hotel designed in Copenhagen. The hotel – where Jacobsen conceived the shape of everything from the room keys to the building itself – also spawned the Swan and Drop chairs. “It’s my dream to work with architects on specific projects,” says Høstbo.

The company has opened new showrooms in Tokyo and Shanghai. But on the product side, Kaiser says his recipe for relevancy might include downsizing with fewer launches in the near term. Høstbo works with contemporary designers, including Cecilie Manz, Jaime Hayon and Studio Nendo, on tables, chairs and lamps that complement the brand’s bestsellers.

Chair Series 7

Series 7 is still a Fritz Hansen bestseller

In the archive is a one-off chair made by Fritz Hansen for his own use in the 1870s. Its spare, proto-modernist form and curved birch laminate back have the same marriage of simplicity, style and comfort that culminated in Jacobsen’s furniture. For Høstbo, the chair, called FH1, is the nucleus of the company’s design values. “We don’t work with any designer without showing them,” she says.

The company is also reissuing selected pieces from its archive. A huge basement below his offices contains a boxed example of almost every design Fritz Hansen produced. Pieces unearthed to celebrate the 150th anniversary include a previously unreleased table designed by Poul Kjærholm – another mid-century Danish titan – and others that have been adapted for the times, such as Jacobsen’s chairs upholstered in speckled fabrics by Belgian designer Raf Simons for Kvadrat.

Since 1965, the company has had its headquarters in Allerød, northwest of Copenhagen, where its founder bought a piece of forest in the 1890s and built a sawmill on the edge. Most of the production was moved to Poland eight years ago, but part of the Allerød site is still dedicated to the handcrafted finishing and assembly of Kjærholm’s tables and chairs. The cane back and seat for the PK22 chair are still hand-woven onto the matte stainless steel frame by homeworkers on the tiny Danish island of Endelave (pop. 185).

A chair designed by Fritz Hensen in the 1870s

A chair designed by Fritz Hensen in the 1870s © Strüwing

For every Series 7 chair Fritz Hansen makes, an estimated 100 unlicensed, cheaper knockoffs are produced in anonymous factories. “I hate the copies,” says Kaiser. The company hunts down counterfeit manufacturers wherever possible, he says, but also tries to educate customers. “If we find copies in a hotel, we tell them that this may not be the right image for the hotel chain. We usually have a positive result.”

The Hansen family sold in 1979 and the holding company Skandinavisk is owned by two charitable foundations. Licenses from the rights holders of his best-selling designs are secure; The contract with Jacobsen’s foundation runs until about 2070, says Kaiser.

To mark the anniversary, the Allerød complex will be revamped, with an enlarged visitor area bringing more of these chairs to light in the basement. The work will be completed by the company’s 150th birthday – October 24 – and Kaiser says Allerød will likely host a celebration for the global workforce. “We’re going to have a really good party,” he says. “And we have some nice surprises for our people. But I don’t want them to read about it in the newspaper!”

Anniversary Gifts: Reissues from the Archives

Fritz Hansen has produced a number of pieces and variants from his archive to mark his 150th anniversary.

PK61 table One of Poul Kjærholm’s minimalist masterpieces, reinterpreted in Norwegian Fauske marble.

Kjærholm PK0 chair and PK60 table Unusual exceptions to Kjærholm’s work, which is mostly steel. Rejected for production in 1952 because Fritz Hansen was busy producing the Ant chair.

swan chair One of Arne Jacobsen’s designs for the SAS Hotel in Copenhagen. Its swaying shape, like cyclamen leaves, is now released in chestnut leather along with the Egg, Lily and Series 7 chairs.

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