Design Milk was lucky enough to be given a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Carl Hansen & Søn factory in Denmark’s Gelsted by third generation owner Knud Erik Hansen.
“Carl Hansen was started in Odense by my grandfather,” Knud Erik Hansen explained. “He felt the best way to support a big family was to have his own business, so from the minute he had finished his apprenticeship, he started. He wanted to supply a first-class product at a decent price, and people liked him, so he was quite successful – he built up a nice business.” That was in 1908 – and over 100 years later Carl Hansen and Søn is still dedicated to making first-class products at a decent price.
The company achieves that today in the same way its founder did a century ago, by combining traditional cabinet-making techniques with the most up-to-date machinery of the day.
Knud Erik Hansen’s father, Holger Hansen stepped up to take over the family business in 1934 when his father’s heath declined. “My dad didn’t want to, but he had to get into the business when he was only 23 years old,” he explains.
Despite his initial reluctance, Holger was keen to realize some of his father’s ambitions. “He was aware that he now wanted, as a young man, to get into series production, so he needed a good architect. There was one in Copenhagen who designed furniture – his name was Hans J Wegner.”
The relationship between Carl Hansen and Søn and Hans J Wegner proved to be absolutely pivotal and in fact for many years, Wegner’s Wishbone Chair was the only product Carl Hansen and Søn produced.
“In 1949 Wegner came on his bike from Copenhagen, which is a really long way!” says Knud Erik. “He came with four drawings – the No. 22 which we put into production last year, No. 23 which we have just released, No 24 which is the Wishbone and the No. 25 which is the woven back and seat chair – very complicated chairs to make.”
Hans J Wegner had an artist’s temperament and was not commercially-minded. His designs were often “very complicated” to make, so in Holger Hansen, he had found the perfect partner. “He understood that they needed each other,” says Knud Erik Hansen. “From 1953-1965 Wegner was really productive, because he was walking around the factory and the showroom – he would move around the furniture, and he would get all these new ideas. He would start drawing and he was very happy.”
After the war, Holger Hansen started investing in export and soon built an international reputation for Carl Hansen and Søn. “The American market was huge,” says Knud Erik Hansen. “It was very big, very successful for us – especially in the early to mid 1950s. Dad was on the front page of all the Danish newspapers the first time he went to the States.” Business was booming.
Sadly in 1962, Holger Hansen died suddenly from heart failure in front of his wife Ella and young family. Knud Erik Hansen was just 10 years old, his older brother Jørgen Gerner was 15. Within just 24 hours of her husband’s death, Ella Hansen had made a courageous and unexpected decision – she would take over the family business until her young sons came of age. With no prior involvement in the company outside of social functions, she used her husband’s life insurance to pay the company’s creditors – leaving her with nothing, but ensuring the company’s solvency – restructured the company and enlisted the help of longstanding accountant Jul Nygaard.
“My mother was very charming,” says Knud Erik Hansen. “She was very small and didn’t speak any languages, but she was a very special person and people loved her. Whether they were French, German, American, she talked to them in Danish and she sold furniture. So we survived that way for 20 years.”
She kept the business on an even keel for 20 years until Jørgen Gerner took over, having served an apprenticeship at another furniture company before working within Carl Hansen & Søn under accountant Jul Nygaard.
Something Jørgen Gerner and Jul Nygaard agreed on was a cautious approach and this was reflected in the way the business continued to be run. Luckily the Wishbone chair was in such demand that it continued to sell without a catalogue, price list or any marketing or promotion. Even when the waiting list extended to two and a half years, people would still queue up to buy these iconic chairs.
Knud Erik Hansen realized at a young age that he couldn’t work with his brother. “He’s a very nice person, but we were every different,” he explains. “We have always been very good friends but we could never work together. We found that out by buying a sailing boat together – the first time we took it out, people thought we were drowning. They came out with rescue boats!” So he embarked on a very different career – firstly in the shipping industry, and then as a marketing director and managing director, working all over the world.
When his brother decided to retire, Knud Erik Hansen brought all the experience he had gained back to Carl Hansen & Søn. “I took over a company that employed 20 people, made one chair with a two year wait time, and had a lot of angry customers,” he says. “I immediately changed everything. I built a top factory with the most modern machinery you could buy and got that wait time down to six weeks. By 2008, I was employing 165 people.” They survived the 2008 global recession and since then have grown at a steady rate of 20% year on year.
That success is in no small way down to Knud Erik Hansen’s hard work and dedication, but also his instinct to follow the template set by his grandfather and his father – to make quality furniture at a decent price by combining traditional craft techniques with modern technology.
Throughout the factory tour, he talks with as much pride about his latest CNC-cutting machine, as he does of the weavers who have been carefully assembling the seat of the Wishbone Chair for decades. He invests in both Danish heritage companies such as Rasmussen and new state-of-the-art equipment for the factory. And he won’t rest until Carl Hansen & Søns has been passed onto his sons, and he sees the company pass into its fourth generation.