Knud Erik Hansen once owned a boat with his brother. It was a disaster. “On a boat you really get to know a person, “ says Hansen. “You learn about their temper, ambition and what they consider to be fun and not fun. I soon realized we were great privately, but professionally the partnership would never work. I like excitement and he likes to relax. We would end up killing each other.”

Back in 2002, after a long stint in Asia and some corporate success in Denmark, the brothers decided it was better for Knud Erik to take over and run the reputable family business, Carl Hansen and Son. “My brother is a very nice guy, but he didn’t want to invest or expand,” he says. “I have four kids so my perspective is very different.”

The Wishbone Chair was one of the very first models Hans J. Wegner designed especially for Carl Hansen & Søn and has been in continuous production since 1950.
Carl Hansen and Son has always been a Danish family business. To its helm, Knud Erik brought ideas that bridge the too-wide divide between craftsmanship, design and economic viability.   “I have kept it a family business because the whole atmosphere of a place changes when the stock market gets involved,” he says. “My vision is long-term which traders might not always appreciate, but at the same time I am a businessman.”

Hansen is old school – sensible, a gentleman, and with an unapologetic eye for what makes good sense both economically and aesthetically. His is an unusual mix of commercial savvy and belief in the ongoing necessity of beauty. At the entrance to the company’s stand at IMM in Cologne, a factory employee was hard at work whickering a chair.

Shell Chair CH07 designed by Hans J. Wegner
“The problem is that people don’t know what it takes to make a chair like this,” Hansen says. ‘They think it just happens on a conveyor belt, but it takes seven hours of work and a lot of hands.”

When Hansen started the company it was turning over three million euros a year. “But my goal was always growth,” he says. “I learned the ropes of business in shipping … a fascinating environment to learn. I was given free reign to make money, as long as it was legal.” But it’s a goal that doesn’t come at all costs. Staying local, for example, was never questioned, while maximizing the factory space was a must. With support from the bank, some good luck and an expansion mentality the company bought ground and did well until 2008. “With the crisis things got a bit more complicated,” Hansen says. “The bank studied the figures and was not happy … they threatened to confiscate shares and as I was the only shareholder, that meant confiscating my shares.”

Together with a blind economist Hansen set his mind to finding a solution. “He could not see, but his brain was exquisite,” Hansen says. ‘I read him the numbers and he did the calculations in his head.”

The figures were rearranged, the money repositioned and the bank was convinced.   In 2016 Hansen bought a new 37 000 square meter factory facility, moved the production line there and added the very latest in machines and technology. It is as sustainable and footprint-friendly as is currently possible with even excess heat sold to the local village. ‘”Now we can make a chair using two machines,” he says. “Whereas before it needed eighteen. But the assembling, surfacing finishing, and weaving is all done by hand.”

Today Carl Hansen & Son works almost exclusively with dead designers. At IMM in Cologne, he presented a re-working of an Arne Jacobsen writing desk and classic pieces by Ole Wanscher and Kaare Klint. Two of the most popular and enduring pieces in the collection are both by Hans J. Wegner – the Shell Chair for lounging and the Wishbone Chair for dining, which has been in constant production since 1950.

“I did not start in design, but I grew up surrounded by quality objects,” Hansen says. “I know exactly what I like,” he adds with almost intimidating intonation. This is a nice guy, but his success doesn’t come from being nice, it comes from being precise. “There is a classical atmosphere to almost of the objects in my collection,” Hansen says. “They are the types of pieces you never get sick of, that children grow up with and then want in their own home as adults. This is not fashion.”

But the struggle will continue. For Hansen’s business model to succeed and for the local factory space and infrastructure to be financially viable they need to be producing and exporting enough volume. “The investment must be ongoing,” he says “Or it won’t end up paying off.”

The Shell Chair
The Wishbone Chairs
Knud Erik Hansen, CEO Carl Hansen & Søn