23-10-2008 A Century of Carl Hansen Craftsmanship
One of the most persevering companies in Denmark’s furniture industry is turning 100. Over the years, Carl Hansen & Son A/S has experienced its share of ups and downs, but in its centennial year, this third-generation family-owned company has come a long way in its metamorphosis from a conventional Danish furniture maker to a global furniture brand.
The company was founded by young cabinetmaker Carl Hansen (b. 1881) on 28 October 1908 in Odense, Denmark. By 1915 Hansen was able to open his first outright furniture factory even if he continued to refer to himself as a cabinetmaker for the rest of his life. The company specialised in bedroom furniture, and its clientele were primarily the middle class and estate owners from Funen, even if Carl Hansen also dreamt of making furniture for “ordinary households”.
The world-wide economic crisis of the 1930s also undermined furniture sales in Denmark and Carl Hansen fell on hard times. In 1934, his second-oldest son, Holger Hansen, took over the helm. Holger believed that a way out of the company’s crisis would be to start exporting its products abroad, which also resulted in limited exports to Sweden. But what really kept the wheels turning at the factory for the rest of the 1930s was an agreement with Singer, a large US sewing machine manufacturer, to deliver wooden sewing machine boxes for some of their models.
Wegner enters the picture
In years following World War II, Carl Hansen & Son, which had become the company’s name by then, started to work together with sales representative Ejvind Kold Christensen, who had a flair for consumer trends. In these very same years, young Danish furniture designers like Wegner, Juhl and Mogensen were making names for themselves in earnest, and Kold Christensen pleaded with the factories to follow these new trends. In 1949, Kold Christensen set up a meeting between Holger Hansen and Hans J. Wegner, which would mark the beginning of developments that have shaped the company’s destiny ever since.
From the outset Wegner was very productive. He designed dining tables and chairs, benches and recliners, and one of his early successes was the CH 24, also called “The Y” chair (The Wishbone Chair). The new line of products meant that Carl Hansen & Son realised how important it was to be in direct contact with the consumer by means of extensive exhibition and advertising activities, as profiling the company through furniture dealers was simply no longer enough.
In the early 1950s, foreign markets became aware of Danish furniture design in earnest, and Carl Hansen & Son were again encouraged to think in terms of exports. The US market was particularly interested, and Carl Hansen set up a sales subsidiary together with four other manufacturers of Wegner furniture. Wegner had undertaken to design furniture for the new company which was responsible for marketing and exhibition activities, which included the furniture fairs in Cologne. Salesco’s sales went well, and “The Y” chair was a veritable top seller that sustained more than 50% of Carl Hansen’s turnover. In 1968, an abortive exclusive-agent venture in the US was close to bringing the by then substantial exports to an abrupt halt.
The 1970s and 1980s were difficult decades for Carl Hansen & Son. The company shrank and primarily survived due to the old Wegner favourites. Holger Hansen’s son, cabinetmaker Jørgen Gerner Hansen, took over the company in 1988 and invested in new machinery and in enlarging the manufacturing capacity, as the lead times for “The Y” chairs and other products had gradually become quite long. At the same time, he infused the export business with new dynamism, not least in Japan, where Carl Hansen & Son founded a subsidiary in 1991. Finally, Jorgen Gerner Hansen bought an interest in Tranekaer Furniture, a Langeland-based furniture company specialising in table production.
In the early 1990s, Carl Hansen & Son benefited from the blossoming interest in classic Danish furniture design, as did many other Danish furniture manufacturers. At the same time, the company re-established contact with Wegner’s firm where Wegner’s daughter Marianne had now taken over the reins. This led to a situation where Carl Hansen & Søn was able to resume the production of a number of discontinued Wegner models, and products like the CH29 saw-bench chair and the CH07 shell chair were relaunched with great success.
World-wide furniture brand
In 2002, Jorgen Gerner’s brother, Knud Erik Hansen, took over all the shares of the company and put himself in the director’s seat. His business education enabled him to realise that the company had the potential to become a world-wide furniture brand. Yet he also knew that this would require a fundamental change process whose major challenges would be acquiring sufficient manufacturing capacity and changing the corporate culture from a conventional furniture-making company into an international sales and marketing organisation. The first problem was resolved by building a brand new factory equipped with the latest in manufacturing technology.
The second problem was solved by building up a new sales organisation, subdivided into three geographic areas: Europe, North America and Asia. European sales were managed from Aarup, North American sales from Toronto and Asian sales from Tokyo. At the same time, the agent network was greatly enlarged and marketing efforts shifted into overdrive through measures like participating in a number of new foreign trade fairs. The success of these measures is proven by the fact that exports’ share of the manufacturing grew from 20% in 1998 to more than 50% in 2008, at the same time that Danish domestic sales made great strides.
Contract-market sales have also progressed and now amount to roughly 20% of Carl Hansen’s turnover. Knud Erik Hansen expects this percentage to grow in the years ahead, which is why the choice of which new models to launch gives a priority to whether the products are suitable for the contract market, which includes favourable prospects for the hotel sector and other areas.
100% Wegner specialist
In terms of its product range, Carl Hansen & Son chooses to brand itself as a consummate Wegner specialist and through a close working relationship with Marianne Wegner, who manages her father’s copious collection of drawings, the company has carried on a successful series of relaunches of selected models. Today, the collection comprises around 35 chairs and 15 tables and the company intends to launch new products every year.
The centennial will be celebrated by launching a number of limited edition models of some of the furniture. This will involve 250 special editions of the CH07 shell chair and 100 special sets of the CH445 Wing Chair with accompanying CH446 stool.