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Posted in Interviews

Inter­view: Knud Erik Hansen

Three gener­a­tions from left to right: Knud Erik Hansen, Holger Hansen, and Carl Hansen c.1958

Knud Erik Hansen, CEO of the Danish furni­ture company Carl Hansen & Søn, is a man on a mission.

Since taking over the helm of the family busi­ness, founded by his grand­fa­ther on the Danish island of Funen more than a century ago, he has acquired the rights to sell the work of Denmark’s most excep­tional design­ers of the past and present. He’s also going global, export­ing his distin­guished collec­tion to various corners of the world, all while spread­ing the message that high-quality, sustain­ably produced furni­ture is the way of the future.

We spoke with him about his forma­tive years, his style of doing busi­ness, the forests of Denmark, and the time it takes to make a Wish­bone chair, among other things.

What do you remem­ber about your grand­fa­ther, Carl Hansen, and his workshop? 

He was a very mild, quiet person who also had a fantas­tic sense of humor. I knew him when he was in his 70s, and to me, at the time he seemed quite old! He was also not very mobile because he was missing a leg- it had to be ampu­tated as a result of diabetes- and yet once or twice a day he would walk to the factory on his crutches, and I’d go with him. I spent quite a bit of time with him and my grand­mother because we lived just steps away, and the factory was on the same plot of land, so I grew up around the factory surrounded by all this furniture.


When did you become involved in the company, and was it a natural choice for you?

My dad died of a heart attack in 1962 when he was just 50 years old. Although my mother was a house­wife who’d never been involved in the busi­ness, she decided to give it a try. It was a very brave deci­sion, espe­cially for a woman at that time, and for 20 years she managed to keep the company afloat. Early on, I real­ized I would not be able to work along­side my older brother when the time came for us to take charge. We had tried sailing together (we all sail in Denmark) and it was impos­si­ble for us to agree on anything. My career began at The East Asiatic Company, a ship­ping group that took me over­seas for many years. Then I returned to Denmark to work as a manag­ing direc­tor at Dan-Foam, the makers of Tempur-Pedic mattresses, and I helped the company grow until its sale in 2001. All this time, my brother had been running Carl Hansen without expand­ing it, there were only about 18 employ­ees and few prod­ucts- for me that was an unusual way of think­ing. I asked him to buy my shares, think­ing I’d go abroad again, and to my surprise he says he wants to retire. So I bought his shares instead.

What a story! And what was your busi­ness mindset at the time, what were some of your early goals?

One of the first steps I took was to build a new factory near the orig­i­nal work­shop, a whole new plant with modern machines imported from Italy and Germany. Soon we started expand­ing inter­na­tion­ally. I started with the U.S. market, which I was very famil­iar with after my expe­ri­ence with Dan-Foam, followed by the Euro­pean market. By 2008, we had more than 160 employ­ees at Carl Hansen & Søn. Then came the great depres­sion, which was no fun at all. I had borrowed a lot of money, and we managed to pay the bank what we had to pay, but we had two very diffi­cult years. Yet things started moving again, and at some point in 2010 the factory became too small, so we built yet another plant near the town of Gelsted that has about 270,000 square feet of space. I sold the previ­ous plant, and I also had to sell my grandfather’s factory build­ing from the 1930s. It was not an easy choice, but I needed the capital for the expansion.

Danish modern design became a global sensa­tion a few years ago, how did that impact your company?

Maybe we had a little influ­ence in that ourselves! We had lots of archi­tects and design­ers visit­ing our show­rooms, espe­cially our Soho show­room which opened in 2011 (We have a fantas­tic new show­room in Flat­iron). But essen­tially our prod­ucts never went out of fashion. We’ve always had customers and I was never afraid we couldn’t get more. It was just a matter of going out there and showing what we have. 

Carl Hansen Ch22 Lounge Chair Context 3
CH22 Lounge Chair

Do you have a sense of how much you’d like to grow? Do you ever fear you might become too big?

If you go to Milan’s Salone del Mobile, you realize that the Scan­di­na­vian compa­nies are very small compared to the Italian or German makers. I don’t think we can become too big, but we do have certain limits. I like to know every single person who works with us because it’s still a family company and there‘s a certain atmos­phere that I want to main­tain. With regards to the staff, I wouldn’t want to be so big that I couldn’t know every­one. We have 400 employ­ees around the world now.

How has the produc­tion process evolved? How do you balance crafts­man­ship with technology?

It’s not an easy balance, but we do it. All of the hard work, the kind that really wears a person out, like cutting wood, is now auto­mated. The steam-bent back­rest of the Wish­bone Chair, for example, is done by a machine. But all the rest, about 100 steps includ­ing assem­bling, sanding, polish­ing, spray-paint­ing, and cording the paper-yarn seat, is done by hand. This part of the process is performed by crafts­men and takes about eight hours [although from start to finish, the produc­tion of one chair takes about a week]. Right now we have 11 young appren­tices learn­ing from some of our most skilled and expe­ri­enced workers, and we intend to open an academy within the factory by 2020 so we can host up to 30 appren­tices. We want to go back to the old way of learn­ing from a master.

Making the Wish­bone Chair, Source: Carl Hansen & Søn

Can you tell us a bit about your sustainable practices?

We are very conscious of the envi­ron­ment, I think all Danes are born with that kind of mindset, it’s a very clean country. What we produce is made of natural mate­ri­als, and we buy our wood from sustain­ably managed forests. Luckily, Danish forests are growing because there are laws in place to protect our famous oak and beech trees. As for the waste we gener­ate, mostly wood shav­ings, it’s used for heating. We have two big heaters in the factory, and we also teamed up with the local munic­i­pal­ity to help them save money by using our shavings.

How do you decide to start produc­ing a certain iconic piece in large numbers, to make it part of your current collection? 

I have decided to move forward with a certain taste. For me it’s impor­tant that our pieces look like part of the same family, that every­thing we produce matches together. For example, Olé Wanscher’s Colo­nial Chair, which is an easy lounge chair that we started making some years ago, fits so well with Wegner’s collec­tion. In the last six or seven years I’ve bought several smaller compa­nies, and with them the right to produce furni­ture from some of Denmark’s most impor­tant design­ers. I have a substan­tial archive and there’s still a lot that can go into production.

Aside from Hans J. Wegner and the other midcen­tury masters in your collec­tion, do you work with younger design­ers? What about female designers? 

We have a talented young designer called Naja Utzon, she’s the grand­daugh­ter of Jørn Utzon who designed the Opera house in Sydney, and she is doing fantas­tic carpets. A lot of her inspi­ra­tion comes from nature. We now have lamps, carpets, and other things, our cata­logue has become more lifestyle oriented. We are also soon re-launch­ing a series of outdoor furni­ture designed by Bodil Kjær, a pioneer­ing female archi­tect, in 1959.

How do you imagine the future of Danish Modern design?

If we play it clev­erly and main­tain our high quality and sustain­abil­ity we have a great future. The envi­ron­ment is some­thing our world really needs to think about. You can get a copy of one of our pieces, or any inex­pen­sive furnish­ing, and it doesn’t last. People end up throw­ing it away, but I think the throw­away mental­ity is becom­ing a thing of the past. Our furni­ture lasts for gener­a­tions, so our quality is the key to our conti­nu­ity. We have been produc­ing wood furni­ture in Denmark for thou­sands of years.

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