The Hansen LegacyVisiting the Home of Knud Erik Hansen
A difference in climate is responsible, he believes, pointing out that in Denmark a good deal of time is spent indoors; “therefore our house, the furniture, lighting and everything, has to be special."
The spacious interiors of Hellerup Manor House, on the Danish island of Funen, provide plenty of clues as to who lives there. In rooms painted ochre and red, or panelled with white-painted wood, antiques and curios from the Far East and Africa are found side-by-side with some of the finest examples of Danish 20th century furniture. Predominant among them are the distinctively elegant designs that Hans J. Wegner made in collaboration with cabinetmaker Carl Hansen and his son Holger: the Wishbone Chair, the Shell Chair, and the woven chord lounge chair.
The late 17th century house is the home of Holger Hansen’s widely travelled son Knud Erik, the current CEO and owner of the Carl Hansen & Son. As the third generation of his family to run the company, he occupies a position previously held by his grandfather, father, mother and brother.
He took up the reins of the family business in 2002, the same year he bought Hellerup Manor. As one might imagine, furnishing it has not been an entirely private project; the house has become a testing ground for new designs and showroom for the company products. “I always see the furniture first in my own house,” Hansen tells me over the phone from Copenhagen, “or visualise how it might fit and whether I would like to have it there. So it is part of my own taste, what we are producing.”
Does he believe this taste has been inherited or learned? “I think it has been sitting in the back of my mind for 107 years at least, perhaps even longer,” he says jovially. “It is part of the culture in our family.” Knowledge of the company, which was founded in 1908, “came in with mother’s milk,” he continues, remembering his parents’ conversations around the supper table. “My brother and I were involved in the business from when we were born.”
But expectations for the two boys were very different. Tradition dictated that the elder son, Jorgen Gerner, would take over the company, so like his father and grandfather before him he trained as a carpenter. When he eventually took over from his mother in 1988, his younger brother was across the other side of the world, climbing the rungs of a major international shipping company with furniture very far from his thoughts.
It becomes clear from our conversation – which keeps veering back to profits and turnovers – that Knud Erik thrived on his time abroad, enjoying the cut and thrust of international business, strategy and sales. He was barely involved with the family company during the 21 years he lived overseas, and never intended to take over. He was actually trying to sell all his shares in the company when Jorgen Gerner announced that he wanted to retire. Only then did he start to consider the role.
Knud Erik’s distance from the family business seems to have been its salvation, and not just because of the business acumen he was accumulating. Living in the Far East and South Africa made him appreciate the Danish ability to furnish a house. “The houses there were so beautifully made, but inside, they were terrible,” he recalls. “They were not furnished at all in the way I would do it, and therefore I brought my own furniture with me. Not much, but people admired it.”
A difference in climate is responsible, he believes, pointing out that in Denmark a good deal of time is spent indoors; “therefore our house – the furniture, lighting and everything – has to be special.” The Danes call this concept hygge. A word that is difficult to translate directly into English, Knud Erik elaborates: “Furniture, light, carpets, food, drinks – everything has to blend into each other. You have to take your time, not be moving around or jumping about, just sitting down, talking, enjoying your life and spending time together.”
Achieving hygge depends, he says, on ensuring that your environment isn’t too distanced from nature, which is partly why Carl Hansen & Son furniture is all made from natural materials: wool, leather, paper yarn, and wood. “If you have steel, plastic, aluminium in your house you have achieved absolutely nothing,” he says. “You get so stressed.” Many of the architect designers that the company has worked with in the past – including Wegner – were trained principally in carpentry, and “wouldn’t dream of using any other material for furniture making.”
When Knud Erik took over, the company employed just 17 people, sold to retail stores mostly in Denmark, and only manufactured the Wishbone Chair, alongside a few other Wegner-designed items. Knowing the caliber of the wood and the simplicity of the designs would be appreciated abroad; he prepared the company to start exporting internationally, buying a larger factory and modernising the machinery. Designs from the past were revived, including those by Mogens Koch, Kaare Klint and Ole Wanscher, and the company began working with young designers and carpenters. Illustrating Knud Erik’s faith in the country’s carpentry heritage, in 2011 the company bought Rud Rasmussen, the oldest furniture company in Denmark – a decision he has described as “ridiculous; bought by heart and not by brain.”
The partnership between heart and businessman’s brain has worked well; Carl Hansen & Son now has nearly 300 employees and exports across the world. A fourth generation also seems to be poised to take over. Although Knud Erik has made sure that his four children have all had a free decision in what they choose to do with their careers, the youngest two are showing interest in the company. The family home makes it easy to see why.