Egg, Ant, Drop: although the names of Arne Jacobsen’s chairs are diminutive, they belong to 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 catalog that resembles the modern Nordic design pantheon of the mid-century.
The company turns 150 this year. In 1872, its founder, a cabinetmaker, moved from southern Denmark to Copenhagen, aged 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 warehouses. When Hansen died in 1902, the business, which employed 50 people, passed to his son Christian and, in the 1930s, to his grandsons Poul Fritz and Søren.
As head of product development, Søren Hansen hired designers who would become major names, including Børge Mogensen and Hans J Wegner. But the company’s fortunes were transformed by its association with Jacobsen. Michael Sheridan, who writes about Danish design, says the architect and furniture maker were well matched in their perfectionism: “Søren Hansen supported Arne Jacobsen in his quest for the ultimate intersection of technology, aesthetics and comfort.
Taking advantage of the company’s investment in wood bending machines to compete with the German-Austrian manufacturer Thonet in the 1930s, Jacobsen created a series of stacking chairs with steam-moulded plywood seats and backs and delicate steel legs. They included the Ant and the Grand Prix, but culminated in 1955 with the triangular-backed Series 7, still Fritz Hansen’s best-selling model.
During the second half of the century the company worked with designers such as Verner Panton and Vico Magistretti, mainly on contract furniture for offices, hotels and concert halls. In 2000, she launched a campaign to bring her own brand out of the shadows, renamed Republic of Fritz Hansen. But by the end of the last decade, revenues had fallen three years in a row. The company “needed to find the recipe to become more relevant again,” says chief executive Josef Kaiser.
Kaiser was brought in by Swiss furniture company Vitra in 2019 as part of a revamp that included branching out Fritz Hansen lighting and accessories under the main brand and the retirement of the Republic badge. Now the residential sector accounts for about 75% of sales, Kaiser says. “I wish it was more balanced,” he says, adding that commercial contracts lead to more feedback from architects, which inspires new ideas.
Marie-Louise Høstbo, head of design at Fritz Hansen, agrees, pointing out that the company wouldn’t have sold thousands of Egg chairs if it hadn’t first worked with Jacobsen to create the handle that he designed for the SAS Hotel in Copenhagen. The hotel – where Jacobsen designed the shape of everything from room keys to the building itself – also spawned the Swan and Drop chairs. “It’s my dream, to work with architects for specific projects,” says Høstbo.
The company opened new showrooms in Tokyo and Shanghai. But on the product side, Kaiser says its recipe for relevance may involve downsizing in the short term, with fewer launches. Høstbo works with contemporary designers, including Cecilie Manz, Jaime Hayon and studio Nendo, on tables, chairs and lamps that match the brand’s bestsellers.
In the archives there is a unique chair made in the 1870s by Fritz Hansen for his own use. Its clean, proto-modernist form and curved birch laminate back have the same confluence of simplicity, style, and comfort that found its zenith in Jacobsen’s furniture. For Høstbo, the chair, named FH1, is the stem cell of the company’s design values. “We don’t collaborate with any designer without showing it to them,” she says.
The company also reissues selected pieces from its archives. A vast basement below his offices contains a crated example of nearly every design Fritz Hansen produced. Pieces unearthed to celebrate the 150th anniversary include a never-before-seen table designed by Poul Kjærholm – another Danish mid-century titan – and others given contemporary touches, such as Jacobsen’s chairs covered in speckled fabrics by Belgian designer Raf Simons for Kvadrat.
Since 1965 the company has been headquartered in Allerød, northwest of Copenhagen, where in the 1890s its founder bought a piece of forest land and built a sawmill on its outskirts. Most of the production moved to Poland eight years ago, but part of the Allerød site remains dedicated to the finishing and hand assembly of Kjærholm tables and chairs. The rattan backrest and seat of the PK22 chair are still woven by hand on its matte stainless steel frame by workers from the small Danish island of Endelave (185 inhabitants).
For every Series 7 chair produced by Fritz Hansen, he estimates that 100 cheaper, unlicensed counterfeits are produced in anonymous factories. “I hate copies,” Kaiser says. The company pursues counterfeit manufacturers whenever possible, he says, but also tries to educate customers. “If we find copies in a hotel, we inform them that it 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. The licenses of the rights holders of its best-selling creations are secure; the contract with the Jacobsen Foundation extends until around 2070, Kaiser says.
To mark the anniversary, the Allerød complex is being refurbished, with an expanded visitor area that will see more of these basement chairs brought to light. The work will be finished by the 150th anniversary – October 24 – and Kaiser says Allerød will likely hold a celebration for employees around the world. “We’re going to have a really good party,” he said. “And we have some nice surprises for our people. But I don’t want them reading about them in the newspaper!
Anniversary Gifts: Archive Reissues
Fritz Hansen has produced a range of parts and variants from its archives to mark its 150th anniversary.
Table PK61 One of Poul Kjærholm’s minimalist masterpieces reissued in Norwegian Fauske marble.
Kjærholm PK0 chair and PK60 table Unusual exceptions to Kjærholm’s mostly steel work. 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 rocking shape, like cyclamen petals, is now available in brown leather with the Egg, Lily and Series 7 chairs.
To follow @FTProperty on Twitter or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram to discover our latest stories first