Fritz Hansen Makes Its Mark on Minnesota
The Fritz Hansen "Ro" chair
Courtesy Fritz Hansen
Among design geeks, Fritz Hansen is a household name, thanks to its iconic mid-century designs—namely, its Egg chair, its Swan chair, its Series 7 chair, and most recently, its Drop chair—that have stood the test of time. And those who have stayed at Radisson Blu hotel will be familiar with the Egg chair's curvaceous silhouette. For the uninitiated, the Danish furniture brand was founded by its namesake in 1872. In 1934, he began what would be a fruitful collaboration with designer Arne Jacobsen, leading to the aforementioned chair designs and helping win Denmark's distinction as a leader in the design world. (For a great visual history of the brand, check out Midwest Home magazine online.)
This week, Fritz Hansen VP Henrik Hjorth and sales manager Adrian Pollack pay Minnesota a visit, thanks to their relationship with Twin Cities modern design retailer AlwaysMod, which opened last March. I had the opportunity to chat with the pair about their Minnesota visit, Danish design, and the unique process that goes into reproducing a classic Fritz Hansen design.
What would you say makes Danish design distinct?
Hjorth: Do you want an Australian perspective or a Danish perspective? (Both laugh.) The funny thing about us working together is I'm obviously a Dane, so I grew up with this stuff, it's in my DNA. But Adrian is educated and has been working with Danish design for 15 years in a professional setting.
Pollack: He takes it for granted.
Hjorth: I do, I think that's true. I grew up with beautifully designed furniture, and saving up for an Egg one day when you've got money. It's part of the culture and the way of viewing good design, as an important and positive part of your daily life. Buying stuff that is really high quality in two terms—in terms of the craftsmanship, so it doesn't break down, and you can pass it down to somebody, but in terms of the design, so it never goes out of style, it's always fresh, you're always happy to see it in your home. That's something special.
Pollack: I would agree, I think quality is a huge, important part of Danish design. Because craftsmanship is the heritage. I think there's also something quite humble about Danish design, because you don't really find gaudy Danish pieces. There's a real respect for the function of the product, so there's a simplicity and an integrity to the product, and I think there's also a connection to nature as well in the products.
It seems like Fritz Hansen as a manufacturer is still going back to these designs year after year. What do you think it is about these designs that have made them so classic and timeless?
Hjorth: As Adrian says, it comes out of a humble and also a little bit of a hardcore focus on form and function and simplicity and aesthetics that goes as a line through everything that has to do with design in Danish society. It's a very egalitarian society, so bragging is probably the worst thing you can do in Denmark. Nobody brags—if somebody does, they have to move to America. (laughs) It's, take it easy, settle down, just be understated, quality over time is very much valued.
Knowing the Fritz Hansen brand, I've always associated it with the Arne Jacobson chairs, the classic designs. But you do a lot of collaborations with modern designers as well. Why is that an important part of the business?
Pollack: I think it's important to find the new Arne Jacobson, the new Poul Kjaerholm, and really nurture that talent as well. I think there are so many designers coming out of Denmark and even the world, now we're starting to collaborate with international designers, and really bring Fritz Hansen to a new age and a new audience as well, but still relying on that heritage of craftsmanship and timeless design.
Hjorth: We try to use the same principles that mid-century designers put into their work, we try to find in that collaboration with the new designers as well. But it's difficult. I mean, that time was amazing. That kind of energy that came out of that era, those decades, that's something special. And also when you develop new pieces, and you're happy about the collaboration with the designer, you're happy about the quality, and you launch it and it's a success, but you still wonder, I wonder if that's a classic? And you don't really know. After ten years, you may know.
The Swan Chair and fellow Jacobsen icons Egg and Drop at the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen
Courtesy Fritz Hansen
What's the process that goes into reissuing a design?
Pollack: The Arne Jacobson Drop chair was the most recent one. That was designed for the Royal Hotel with the Egg and the Swan chair, so it was the same time. The interesting story was, it was one of the first times this technology was ever used, this polystyrene foam, and it's amazing—it was one of the first times this material was ever used, and you have these chairs that are still relevant today. So the Drop was in the same sculptural family as the Swan and the Egg, but it was only ever made for the hotel, and we've had people asking us to put it into production for many many years, and we actually didn't know how because there were no drawings.
Hjorth: Nothing in the archives.
Pollack: So we actually worked with Arne Jacobson's grandson, and we had to borrow a chair from the archives, and strip it down, and then they actually had to figure out how to make the chair. They modeled the chair and actually had to sculpt it again.
Hjorth: They X-rayed it to see how it was constructed.
Pollack: So finally we were able to relaunch it last year.
Hjorth: But that's a really good example, because it comes out of a classic, original design, we were able to work with the family and the foundation of Arne Jacobson, and we actually developed a whole new chair out of that, a plastic version that was never done in the '50s. And the funny thing—so you have to ask yourself, I guess Tobias as he's called, would have to ask his grandfather, wherever he is, 'How about this pops? Do you like that we're doing it in plastic?' And then we'll have the dialog about that, and agree that, yes, Arne would very much like a plastic version. He was very interested in the material, but technology back then wouldn't allow for this kind of chair to be produced in plastic. So that's kind of interesting, that we can go into the archives and bring back an iconic piece and then make a new version as well as a contemporary addition.
The Drop Chair
Courtesy Fritz Hansen
Can you tell me more about your professional backgrounds?
Hjorth: I've been in the U.S. for seven years now, and I've worked with Danish design since I came. I used to work in advertising in Europe, and I've also worked with music and culture, but since I came I've been working for a Danish design company called Vipp, which is also a classic Danish design brand from 1939. So bringing that kind of design to the American market has been my thing for the last six, seven years.
Pollack: I studied interior design but I ended up in furniture, and I love furniture. I started working with Fritz Hansen 15 years ago. It was where I first started in the industry, and I've just stayed. I worked for a dealer in Australia called Cult, but I was more in the contract side. I moved to the U.S. five years ago.
Why was it important for Fritz Hansen to have a presence in Minnesota?
Pollack: Because it has such a strong Scandinavian heritage, we've been trying to find a place in Minnesota for a while. We were lucky enough to partner up with AlwaysMod. They started carrying most of our furniture in June.
Hjorth: We're always looking for partners in areas we're not represented. We only have one showroom we run ourselves [in the U.S.], in SoHo in New York, and the rest of the distribution of Fritz Hansen furniture is dependent on partners. So for us to find a partner where the brand matches, we're the same kind of high-end understanding of what these design objects can do, in an area people don't have access to our brand, that's always interesting. We had no distribution in Minnesota, so when we found [AlwaysMod owner] Ben [Horn], there was a match, and we immediately wanted to partner with him.
Pollack: We could just tell he is so passionate about Scandinavian design. We've already had some great projects here already that happened to come out of some of the amazing architect and design firms here, including 3M's corporate headquarters in St. Paul.
Hjorth: There is a market for it many places. There's only ten of us covering North and South America, so we have to focus. There's more business in certain areas, but I believe in many of the medium sized to larger cities, there's a market for our furniture. It's what we call the educated client, it's people who have a really big interest in design, they know a lot about it, they may have even studied some kind of design or arts or architecture, so they either buy it for themselves or they propose it for projects, and those projects can be small-scale, a private house or whatever, and then all the way to airports.
Pollack: Henrik's right, we have a lot of business from people who know the brand, but it's important for us to get the product into new places like this, because there is something special with our furniture. People will see it and have some kind of connection with it and fall in love with it. You have to experience our furniture to get that connection.
Hjorth: I agree, I think that's what it's interesting for us to have some kind of partnership with a brick-and-mortar. AlwaysMod is also online, but there's a place where the actual furniture is displayed, and that means we can tell a story, people can come and sit and feel the stuff, and with the more expensive things, the traditional way is they come and look at it, and they go out and say, too expensive, then they fall in love and then come back and buy it six months later. (laughs)
TJ Turner/Minnesota Monthly
What will the presentation at Tuesday night's event entail?
Hjorth: I'll be talking about Fritz Hansen in general, the whole history of the company all the way back to 1872 in Copenhagen, a long history of working with different designers, working with a designer who made the chair for the Danish Parliament in 1918, and the chairs are still there—different upholstery, same chairs. And then obviously talking about Arne Jacobson a great deal, because we have the 60th anniversary of the Series 7 chair from 1955. We have a few of those displayed at the store. I'll also talk about the Drop chair that we just talked about, which is displayed at the store, the Swan and Egg chair. It will be just a short speech, and hopefully we can move around and look at the furniture and sit in it and touch it, because that's what it's all about. It's not just storytelling—it's experiencing the actual pieces.
What's coming up next for Fritz Hansen?
Hjorth: There's always stuff going on, I'm not sure how much we can say. Not that it's military secrets or anything. (laughs) But we usually do a big launch in Milan in April, and there might be a sneak peek in Stockholm a month before, and then we bring it for the big launch in America for the ICFF trade show in New York in May. So, there are things in the pipeline. And we work with Jaime Hayon, the Spanish designer, and we work with Kasper Salto, the Danish designer, so there's a lot of collaborations going on. Some of them really take time. It could take three or four years.
Pollack: The way we launch new products, we look at our collection and see where there's gaps or something that we need to fill the collection as a whole. We're not really a company that wants to keep spraying out products all the time. We like to focus on one product and do it really well.
AlwaysMod (905 Decatur Ave. N., Golden Valley) hosts a free, public cocktail reception for Fritz Hansen with Hjorth and Pollack from 5–7 p.m. (presentation at 5:45 p.m.) Tue., Oct. 20., The event includes the opportunity to register for the chance to win an Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen Drop chair valued at $468. Refreshments provided. Visit alwaysmod.com to register for this free event.