Company build-up

Story written by Henrik Sørensen:

We founded Hansen & Sørensen ApS on 1 December 1990. Today my business partner Ivan Hansen and I are still owners and managers of the company. We changed the company’s name to Onecollection A/S in 2007.

Ivan (born in 1958) is from Varde and finished his apprenticeship in furniture and rugs at Alexandersen & Søn in Varde in 1975. He then had a career in furniture sales, first at Botium, a company owned by legendary furniture designer Peter Stærk, and later at Munck Møbler, while Inger Munck was still the owner.

I (born in 1961) studied in Odense and served my apprenticeship at the C. Danel furniture company in Copenhagen. After obtaining a degree in Financial Management in Odense, I worked for C.M. Madsens Møbelfabrik in Haarby for a decade until I partnered with Ivan for the purpose of taking over the factory. Our plans did not bear fruit but this early attempt, nevertheless, was what established the cooperation between us.
On 1 December 1990, we started operations with two old tables and a couple of Børge Mogensen chairs in my mother’s laundry room in Odense.

The simple philosophy we professed was to have the furniture designed by talented and cosy architects and then have it produced by a network of competent subcontractors. The challenge of selling them came next. Since we did not have enough money to draw up a professional marketing strategy and hire salesmen, we had to go out in the field and meet the customers ourselves. This came to be quite natural for us – and this very personal manner of doing business is still at the cornerstone of Onecollection.

In 1990, we bought an old, second-hand Renault Traffic delivery van for 18,200 Danish kroner. The sign printed in big letters on the side of the van said “Lucas batterier”. You had to hit the motor with a spanner in a certain place to make it start but at least it was dry inside…

We loaded a chair, a table, a sofa and a couple of tea light candlesticks drawn by Søren Holst into the van and threw ourselves into a staggering adventure. A lot could have happened differently but it could have hardly been more fun. We created our own lifestyle which simply did not include premeditated decisions.

All the same, we quickly replaced the van with a new one, which did not require a blow with a spanner to start, so that we could travel safely outside Denmark’s borders. We were going to sell our design furniture to an international clientele and Norway, the Netherlands and Japan became the first export countries where we exhibited and sold our furniture.

Hansen & Sørensen moved to beautiful Langeland the year after its establishment. We hired premises more befitting our company at the port in Rudkøbing, right next to the Strynø ferry. It was here that we developed the business foundation that we are still working from. Our purpose from the very beginning was to find a spot in the crème de la crème of design furniture producers by cooperating with the best and cosiest architects and to create products and interior decoration solutions with an attitude and a high content of design, function and quality.

The cornerstone of our company is our fervent passion for furniture and design – this is why we are often called furniture nerds.

Our innovative approach was shaped, in particular, by digging into the abundantly rich furniture and design history Denmark has become world-famous for. This has resulted in a joint collection of magazines and books, a particular favourite of which has been the cult magazine “Mobilia” – and we are among the happy owners of all of its editions.

The books, magazines and history awareness have been a fertile soil for Onecollection’s creativity and the cause of many cosy hours spent over a glass of red wine with different architects and designers. We continue to use our old house and showroom from 1790 at Østergade in Ringkøbing as a place for social contacts and cosy hours spent talking about furniture even today.

The company built up a design furniture collection drawn by talented Danish furniture architects from the very start. It was, in particular, architects Søren Holst og Henrik Tengler who left a lasting imprint on the collection. Søren Holst with models such as the Shaker chair and Racer sofa and Henrik Tengler with, for example, the Chairman chair, which has sold more than 50,000 units over the years. Our cooperation with Søren and Henrik became so committed and successful that we received the “furniture prize” together with the two of them in 1999. This was the first recognition of our work by the surrounding world.

Søren Holst became our social and professional mentor with whom we developed a dogmatic rulebook and our “cosy” aspect. We could always find a reason for having some cosy time together and our second home for many years – when we had errands to run in Copenhagen – was Søren and his wife
Janne’s place in Tårbæk. Henrik Tengler was the young, diligent, but also cosy architect whose furniture helped the company achieve greater sales and much needed financial stability.

We took over one of our subcontractors, Orla Albæk A/S, in the capital of western Jutland, Ringkøbing, in 1995. The factory produced very high-quality board-based furniture and fixtures. In connection with the takeover, we moved the whole company to its current address at 19 Vesterled in Ringkøbing.

1996 was the year when we initiated our cooperation with talented Icelandic designer Erla Solveig Oskarsdottir. We first developed the Jaki chair which, despite its beautiful shapes, never became a success. On the other hand, the Bessi chair did not only become successful but also the company’s best-selling chair ever.

The cooperation with Erla got our export going, for example, through our cooperation with Bernhardt in the USA. The chair gained great currency on the contract market at home, culminating with the COP15 climate conference in the Bella Center where we delivered 2,500 chairs.

We have been constricted by a tight economy throughout our whole history. We established the company in a time of crisis and have experienced and survived several economic and financial crises since then. This has forced us to go in untraditional directions, invest in different things and even once in a while forget that we have a maximum overdraft.

We rented a showroom at the furniture market in the Bella Center like everyone else in the industry. Our stand in 1991 was all black and the black, raw floor pallets with shining rivets were made by Ivan’s Dad, the “Old Hansen”. We were assigned a bigger stand during the following year, 1992, that we could not afford to arrange at all. This is why we borrowed a couple of gigantic old film spotlights, an old vacuum cleaner and a big green American refrigerator full of Budweisers from Nordisk Film’s prop archive in Valby. The furniture looked fantastic on the raw concrete floor with direct spotlights that mercilessly blinded people. The beers were finished quickly and the stand is still remembered by people as the best exhibition we have ever made. May be it was the informal and anarchist spirit or may be it was the new, raw way of presenting fine design furniture?

Ivan and I went to New York in 1993 in order to sell a couple of chairs to a hospital on Long Island. We were going to cooperate with legendary furniture designer George Tanier who was the main exponent for the spread of, in particular, Finn Juhl’s furniture in the USA in the 1950s.

The money was scarce so we took a cheap charter flight with Larsen Rejse and had to spend a whole week in New York before we could come back home, even though we had finished our meetings rather quickly. Fortunately, we got the order, in particular, because there had been no other orders while we were gone. When we came home, we were supposed to open a weekend exhibition in Valdemars Slot’s tea pavilion on Tåsinge.

The exhibition looked fantastic, the sun glinted in the waters of the Langeland Belt and we had invited so many people that we had lost track of the number. When we closed on Sunday though, we had had not more than 12 guests other than friends and family…

We had decided from the very beginning to visit design studios and it was, in particular, the design studios in Aarhus that we regularly paid visits to. Over time, this led to fantastic cooperation with design studios such as 3XNielsen, Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen, CUBO and Arkitema.

The cooperation with these design studios had a decisive importance for Onecollection and helped us carry out a number of big furnishing tasks throughout the 1990s, for example, the Courthouse in Holstebro, the Architects’ House and the Royal Library in Copenhagen, the Embassy in Berlin and many more. The cooperation also led to many trips together with the architects where new ideas were born.

FINN JUHL

Finn Juhl’s widow, Hanne Wilhelm Hansen, called us in 1998 and asked if we could help her make one of Finn Juhl’s sofas – Model 57. We were initially very surprised as we did not know Hanne Wilhelm Hansen at all. However, we knew architect Bård Henriksen who was helping Hanne manage the rights to Finn Juhl’s furniture. It was him who had suggested that she got in touch with “the guys from Ringkøbing”.

Hanne Wilhelm Hansen wanted to have a single unit of the sofa produced for an exhibition that she wanted to arrange in honour of Finn Juhl who had passed away in 1989. Since we already revered Finn Juhl as one of the most important pioneers in Danish design history, this was a fantastic challenge that we immediately said “yes” to. We made the sofa, Hanne saw it and thought that it fantastic – and this was the beginning of a new chapter in Onecollection’s history.

A not too insignificant chapter headed by Finn Juhl that now seems to have just begun.

The 57 sofa was a fantastic piece of furniture with design and craftsmanship qualities that we had not worked with before. We studied Finn Juhl’s materials and archives in detail and asked Hanne for permission to re-launch the Poeten sofa and the Pelikan chair. And we got it. We got free access to Finn Juhl’s house where Hanne lived and consulted Mr. Oda’s furniture collection in Japan. Thanks to the help of skilful craftsmen, we recreated these two models. The Pelikan had been produced only in a couple of units in 1940 and never since but was now going to have its rebirth at the international furniture fair in Cologne in a whole new millennium. It was a gamble on our side. Finn Juhl’s furniture had not been exhibited for many years and had, by and large, been forgotten outside the art and design history circles. The exhibition was a draw – we jumped to the forefront of the retro wave and thought that we were now just going to keep riding it.

Things naturally did not go like this but the fair became a turning point where we showed, for the first time, furniture pieces that everyone had an attitude to. Most people thought that the Pelikans were ugly and compared them with tired animals; others thought that they were funny and there were yet again others who thought that they were simply brilliant.

Finn Juhl’s furniture immediately brought us into contact with foreign interested parties and a large U.S. company that wanted to reintroduce Finn Juhl’s furniture on the U.S. market paid us a visit on 12 September 2001. However, the Twin Towers in New York had just fallen the previous day – and Finn Juhl’s furniture turned out to be harder to sell than we had ever imagined.

Even so, we quickly said “yes” when Hanne asked us one day if we wanted to take over all of the rights to Finn Juhl’s furniture. We were simply not thinking rationally of the consequences – and thank God for that. Finn Juhl’s furniture consists of masterpieces which require the utmost in any way possible. They are expensive to develop, manufacture and, in particular, to hold in stock – and the sales were small.

At the same time, we had to fight the many people who claimed to be experts and arbiters of taste. The many old, used Finn Juhl furniture pieces manufactured by master joiner Niels Vodder and Bovirke found their way to the auction houses. They were considered to be genuine and original, whereas our re-launched models were deemed to be “new copies of a dubious nature”.

In reality, our models were manufactured exactly like the furniture in Finn Juhl’s own house. The only difference was today’s possibilities to use high-technology CNC machines which, together with our craftsmanship, provided unique opportunities for the furniture’s organic mode of expression and the delicate seams that were supposed to withstand everyday use.

Nothing is ever final when you talk about what is right and wrong about Finn Juhl. He was not a craftsman himself but always worked in close cooperation with one and it was probably always both parties that left their imprint on the result. This is why it was important for us to study Finn Juhl, get to know him and put ourselves in his shoes – since he was absent from the scene.

We cherished a strong belief all the time that the world would open its eyes to Finn Juhl’s artistic furniture universe and it is with great joy and satisfaction that we now find that Finn Juhl has taken us on a fantastic trip around the world where we meet furniture nerds interested in Finn Juhl everywhere. There is no one today who calls into question the originality of our Finn Juhl furniture – and the collection which contains more than 20 models is sold all over the world. His 100th anniversary is celebrated this year with a number of special exhibitions in Denmark and abroad – it is indeed a fairy tale!

A professional board of directors would have probably turned their thumbs down that time when Hanne Wilhelm asked us to take over the rights to Finn Juhl’s furniture but, fortunately, we did not have one. The freedom to make certain decisions ourselves and face their consequences is the reason why we think that things have been fun all the way through.

In the 1950s, Finn Juhl opened the doors to a Danish furniture export adventure, in particular, to the USA and is therefore rightfully called the father of the concept of Danish Design. We are following in his footsteps today. With the renovation of the Finn Juhl chamber in the UN’s headquarters in New York, the Danish State chose to fire the starting pistol for a contest among Danish designers. Onecollection will be responsible for both the re-launch of the original old Finn Juhl furniture and for the manufacture of the winning proposal designed by Kasper Salto & Thomas Sigsgaard. Finn Juhl is clearing the way for new Danish architects and it is our ambition to market – together with Finn Juhl – the best and cosiest Nordic design in the whole world.

Ivan and Henrik