NOTHING LIKE A DANE
VETERAN DESIGNER KAI KRISTIANSEN IS EXPERIENCING A LATE CAREER RESURGENCE AT 87, WITH TWO FURNITURE COMPANIES REVIVING PIECES FROM THE MID-20TH CENTURY.
Ten years ago Danish furniture designer Kai Kristiansen and his wife moved out of their large family home in rural Jutland into a new apartment about onefifth the size. He’d designed and built the airy open-plan house in the late 1970s, filling it with his furniture as well as some loved pieces by celebrated friends such as Verner Panton. Their new home was so much smaller, they gave away or sold most of their furniture and he burnt the bulk of his drawings and papers. Having worked for 52 years, Kristiansen was ready to retire, take a pension and enjoy a new life with his wife in the village where they’d started their married life. But it wasn’t to be. His wife developed dementia and, as he says, he lost her several years before she died.
Seeing him now in the apartment he has turned into a working studio, it’s hard to imagine he ever thought he would put down his pencils and rulers let alone rest his fertile mind. A large work table commands a prime corner under the windows, the walls are papered with his meticulous drawings and there are prototypes everywhere, including some secret ones he doesn’t want photographed. He’s playing around with a stacking cube first conceived 30 years ago as well as rethinking some of his best-known pieces such as the pointy-armed Z or #42 chair he designed in 1956.
When we meet, Kristiansen has just returned from a trip to Australia where he launched a collection of dressers for Great Dane Furniture, and he’s packing for a trip to Japan the next week to visit the Miyazaki Chair Factory for a workshop with craftsmen who are making or developing some of his chairs.
It would be a hectic schedule for someone half his age, but the octogenarian is unfazed if a little bemused about his burgeoning second career. He has worked since 1955, he says, but most of the time his trajectory was a flat line. Now it’s taken off, he says, drawing emphatically in the air.
What’s it like to be hot at 87? “I feel it’s rather late,” he says in the wry and precise English he learned while studying furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in the early 1950s.
In Australian parlance, Kristiansen is a national treasure – one of only two surviving students of the forefather of Danish Modern, Kaare Klint. The visionary architect and designer was the first professor in the art of furniture making at the academy and he taught and influenced a generation of young designers, paving the way for the likes of Arne Jacobsen, Hans J Wegner and Poul Kjaerholm.
Klint believed furniture should be simple and functional with standard measurements. He continued the Danish tradition of cabinetmaking rather than adopt the industrial aesthetics of the European modernists. He left a body of work spanning furniture and architecture and, more significantly, a set of founding principles that are embodied in the best of Danish design today.
By the time Kristiansen came to the academy in 1950, Klint was busy with his own practice and in ill health. He died in 1954. But he made a lasting impression on the young cabinetmaker from Aarhus.
“Kai is very fond of mathematics principles and uses that in some of his works,” says Nicolai de Gier, who heads the latter-day version of Klint’s furniture design program at the Royal Academy. “He told me that this was the best gift he got from Klint.”
That maths brain was put to good use when Kristiansen set about reworking a 1959 dresser to create the new Entré range for Great Dane Furniture. Among the papers he’d thrown out as he moved house were his drawings of Entré, so named because it suited a hallway. “He told me he just threw them on the fire,” says Great Dane founder Anton Assaad – “it was really sad.”
Assaad owned a vintage piece, which he had