When we think of archetypal Danish design, Hans J. Wegner quickly comes mind. Carl Hansen & Søn offers a very good example of how much a talented and visionary designer can mean for a business.
Wegner, now revered as a design legend across the globe, came to prominence with the help of cabinetmaker Holger Hansen, second generation in the family business founded by his father Carl Hansen. The relationship between the two would prove to be fortuitous both financially and creatively: under the auspices of Carl Hansen & Søn, Wegner became esteemed as a disruptive designer and Hansen as a purveyor of cutting-edge, architectural furniture.
Surface spoke with Knud Erik Hansen, Carl’s grandson and the son of former CEO Holger Hansen, about what it’s like being the third-generation Hansen helming his family business, and the joys and challenges that come with the territory.
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Danish design is such an iconic, sought after aesthetic and your dad, grandfather, and the company had a lot to do with that. What would you say is the company’s contribution to that space?
Well, it’s our bread and butter today. Their foresight and their way of contacting and being in the market made the foundation of Carl Hansen & Søn and, of course, we are still very grateful. Without their foresight, we would have been a furniture manufacturer like everybody else—that’s very good furniture, but not the style and the quality of what you get out of an architect like Wegner.
Today, we have purchased a number of smaller Danish companies that had relationships with other architects such as Poul Kjærholm, so today, we have all what you call the Golden Age architects in our portfolio.
I know that the company sources materials with sustainable methods, which seems to be a long-standing value. Today, we’re seeing a trend in new start-ups making sustainability a brand hallmark in order to appeal to certain demographics. But for Cal Hansen, it’s always been part of the brand DNA. I’m wondering why?
It is a profound love for wood, and Denmark has a lot of wood despite our small size. That’s actually a long story, but we had kings here in Denmark that saw wood as a fantastic material to build ships in heavy oak. Therefore, we cultivated the oak, we worked with making oak a straight-forward tree growing up in the forest, instead of standing out in the middle of a field, which is normal. They are actually grown like you grow corn in the United States, we grow trees [that way] here in Denmark also. It gets these beautiful straight chunks which is fantastic for shipbuilding. Today, it is fantastic wood for furniture-making. The wood and the sustainability and, can you say, the cultivation of our forestry is dates back to the year 1700 and is a long, long, long tradition in Denmark. Therefore, [sustainability] is not something very unusual for us.
We have stuck to the old principles of using material from Denmark that we had growing out of the backyard. We have no oil, no iron, we have no raw materials besides water, our brains, and our hands. So the trading and manufacturing of wood is 100-percent natural for us.
Today it has worked that we, of course, are some of the world leaders in sustainability, in working with environmentally friendly products, and also windmills. We are the biggest windmill producer in the world. Therefore, the environment is becoming a very interesting and a very strong part of our every day. I think most Danes enjoy it. We don’t make anything made out of plastic or other artificial products and have never done so—only nature’s own product. Then, of course, all our waste goes into big burners and from April until September, every single house in this little city is heated up entirely by the waste of Carl Hansen & Søn. Everybody saves about $500 a year from using our waste instead of gas for heating. It shows you every single little grass inch of bush that comes into the business is being used for something. We don’t waste anything. It all has a purpose and this is extremely nice to work with. Fifty percent of our electricity in Denmark is made from wind power and sun energy. In another 10 years, we will be up to 75 percent. In another 30-50 years, we will be 100 percent without any form of CO2 in our production, so that’s great.
Yes, we are ahead of you there, and we are certainly very much ahead of everybody else in the whole world.
Elaborate on why the initial 1949 collaboration with Hans Wegner, which was at your father’s direction, was so critical to the brand and how it continues to inform the brand’s aesthetics and overall ethos.
He contacted Wegner through an exhibition in Copenhagen in 1947. Wegner was making some very unorthodox furniture at that time, when you think about 1949. Everything in those days was square, and upright; you sat at the table in the high back seat chair and [it was] not very comfortable. Here he came with his organic, round furniture and things like that, which didn’t fit in. That was far too avant-garde for that time, but my dad loved it, and he was a young man. He was, I think, a year older than Wegner when they got together. They two things in common: one was they were both excellent carpenters and the other part was they loved wood. That is about it. Because my dad was, it turned out later on, a brilliant businessman and Wegner was an outstanding architect.
They needed each other, and they understood that. Whether they unconsciously understood it, I don’t know. I think my dad did, but Wegner may not have. They became very friendly, and in 1949, he came over to us and had five products which he wanted us to make. Whether it was actually Wegner that came on his own free will, or it was Mrs. Wegner, I don’t know, because Mrs. Wegner was interested in the trends of what happened in early ’50s, what you call mass production, where you have many products going in one go, and I’m sure my dad was on that track. He wanted also to [mass produce] furniture, and that was a whole new thing at the time, which Wegner may not have been too pleased with. But Mrs. Wegner could see at least, a financial development was going that way. The opportunities were there for Wegner to make a little bit more money, but I don’t think Wegner himself, understood that. That, in tandem with my dad, made it a very close relationship and a very good relationship which still exists. We work still with Wegner.
Next year, we have a 70-year anniversary, which is unheard of in this trade. So, we are still very close to each other and we make a lot of Wegner furniture now in the big factory we have here and export to 59 different countries in the world.
This is a super random question, but I love the company’s logo. Has that always been the same since the beginning?
From the beginning, no. It was designed by Hans Wegner, and it was implemented in 1949 when he came to us. It must have been one of the first things he did for us in the early ’50s. My brother changed it and had another logo for about five years. And then when I took over the business, I went back to the original logo, which I love as much as you do. It is a very nice logo.
I’m wondering what was the brand’s, the company’s first product?
The first product must have been a dining chair. My grandfather made heavy, mahogany furniture with feet, made one-by-one. People came to him and wanted him to make a dining room, so he designed the dining chair, the dining table, the side tables, the cupboards for a dining room. He designed all the furniture that went into that particular dining room, and when another customer came, he went out again, measured the room, and made new, [bespoke] furniture. In those days, he designed all the time, he was sitting there making drawings, and the carpenters made what he designed.
This has changed a lot now. Now it is much more an industrial production, where we have a fixed amount of products we are making, being made, of course, still by carpenters, but there’s still a lot of craft. There are also heavy, big machines that automate the heavy work which, in the old days, was made by hand and wore out the people that were doing it. Today, we do all the finishing of the furniture, from assembling until completion of the furniture, it’s all by hand. Up to assembly, it is made in a very industrial way; it has to be, because it’s very heavy work.
I know that you’re the third generation from the family to helm Carl Hansen & Søn. I’m wondering how you feel about your relationship to your legacy: was it ever something that intimidated you, or were you always looking forward to inheriting the company?
No. In my family, it’s been the tradition to give the company to the oldest of the next generation, and the oldest was my elder brother, who took over the company in 1987. My father died when I was only 10 years old, so my mother took over and ran the company for about 20 years, and then my brother came in. It was very traditional in those days, you were earmarked for the position, and you had basically very little choice as the oldest, whereas I was the younger and I had much more freedom.
I could join if I liked, or I could find something else. For some other reason, I didn’t really wish to work together with my brother. We are very good friends, but we are also very different. I could see there would be a conflict in the way we work and operate. It’s always been like that, but we are not in any kind of dispute with each other, it’s just brothers. Brothers are very different, as I’ve learned later on in my life.
So he took over the business, and I had the freedom, and I went into another company to learn what I know today. That company was called the East Asiatic company—at that time, the largest company in Scandinavia—which did shipping, trading, industrial production and everything you mention, from rubber boots to assembling cars. I joined there in 1969, and I stayed there for 26 years. And I was working abroad in South Africa and also in the Far East in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China. I’ve had a fantastic life. But then I got back to Denmark and I became the Managing Director of Tempur-Pedic, the mattress people, which, at that time, were all made in Denmark, and I was there for about five years. Then Tempur was sold to an American company. The Americans moved the product development, the accounts, the chemical development…
So I thought, “This is a very professional job that should be left to an engineer.” I found an engineer and then I quit my job in Tempur, and I left it.
I went to my brother, and in the meantime, my mother had died, so I owned actually 50 percent of Carl Hansen & Søn, which was a small company with about 20 people employed. And I said to him “You can buy my shares. I’ll go back to the Far East. I still have a lot of connections in the Far East, especially in Hong Kong. I loved Hong Kong so … I still love Hong Kong.”
But my brother said he didn’t want to take over my share. I should take over his shares, he said, because he wanted to retire. He was only 57, but he didn’t want to continue. Then I spoke to my wife about it, and we agreed that I should have a try at it.
To come back to your question, and that is, of course, how I felt when I got in to the business. As you can hear, it wasn’t really my idea to get into our family business. I actually wasn’t really interested. But when I got into it, Surface spoke with Knud Erik Hansen, Carl’s grandson and the son of former CEO Hogler Hansen, about what it’s like being the third-generation Hansen helming his family business,” I knew there was a lot of potential in the products, and very quickly it grabbed me, and I loved it. I started having contacts with the customers and I saw the company growing, which is exactly what I wanted.
You start thinking of your family. I am the last generation that has known everybody from Carl Hansen and up to my father and mother and my brother and whoever that has run the company. You start thinking about them, thinking, “What would they have done and would they be satisfied with what I’m doing? Would they be proud of me or would they not?” It’s a lot of fun, I can tell you, and you really get respect for their foresight, taste, and intelligent way of running a business. Of course, they were running it for the next generation, and I’m doing the same. I’m looking for the fourth generation to get ready, and when they are ready, I will then retire. It’s up to the next generation to prepare for the fifth generation, I hope, or they can do what they like but I mean I will do whatever I can to tell them about it so that they are feeling proud of what we have done in the family and also seeing that perhaps their children can take it over.
So it does grow on you, I can tell you. I could sell the company today, if I wanted, for an absolute fortune, but I’m not doing it. I’m giving it to the next generation, and the next generation can do what they like.