In 1949, my father, Holger Hansen, began a lifelong collaboration with Danish designer Hans J. Wegner. At that time, our little family-owned business, Carl Hansen & Søn, was making bespoke furniture that was popular in Denmark but unknown to the international design community. Luckily, Kold Christensen, the company’s sales manager, was keeping a close eye on the new breed of Danish designers emerging in the 1940s. He was particularly impressed by the work of Hans J. Wegner, who was an acclaimed designer but was relatively unknown outside certain circles. My father and Christensen approached Wegner in the late 1940s and this was the beginning of a new design era for Carl Hansen & Søn.
Many of Wegner’s pieces for Carl Hansen & Søn have since been established as icons of 20th-century design. The Wishbone Chair, for example, has been in continuous production since its 1949 release. Yet not all of Wegner’s designs were accepted with such immediate regard.
Wegner designed the Shell Chair in 1963 with the goal of creating a chair that was unique, futuristic, comfortable, and reasonably priced. Wegner loved to be challenged and in designing the chair, he pushed materials and new technologies to their limits—production of formed laminated veneer was still very rare at that time. The result was indeed futuristic and unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. It was challenging for architects and customers to fit the new chair into their projects and homes. And thus, only fifteen chairs were produced. The last two chairs were given away as they proved to be impossible to sell.
In 1997, there was a surprising turn of events. Two of the original chairs from 1963 were auctioned at Sotheby’s in London, selling for £20,000 each. Carl Hansen & Søn responded to this sudden interest by producing the Shell Chair once again. However, progress was slow at first as the design was still too unconventional for most. Gradually, the chair began to receive sales and recognition. Today the chair is sold all over the world and has obtained its long overdue iconic status. It is especially popular among American architects and clients, who have given it the optimistic nickname “Smiley Chair.” The Shell Chair has always been one of my personal favorites, so it’s been particularly satisfying to witness its discovery by more and more people. The international demand we are currently seeing, fifty years later, demonstrates that Wegner truly was a visionary designer.
Knud Erik Hansen is grandson of Carl Hansen and the CEO of Carl Hansen & Søn.
Carl Hansen & Søn celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Hans J. Wegner Shell Chair with the launch of the Maharam Shell Chair Project at the 26th annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. Twenty Shell Chairs were presented, each upholstered in a different Maharam textile with a coordinated wood frame.