GEORG JENSEN (1866 -1935) - A BIOGRAPHY
Georg Jensen is the name of a famous Danish silversmith; of a world reknown group of artists and craftsmen who created silverworks of their own design for the company begun by Georg Jensen; and of a style of silver products which represents a union of artistry and craftsmanship of the highest quality with many facets, since many artists contributed to it.
During Georg Jensen's life, all of the artists and craftsmen working at the silversmithy he created, were influenced by his style. And sometimes, especially in the case of Johan Rohde, the influence went both ways. All of the design of the early years though coming from different artists, came within the framework of one recognizable style, identified as the "Georg Jensen style" This style underwent many modifications until Jensen's death and even more thereafter. But the basic characteristics of that early Georg Jensen style remain constant. Today many designs of Georg Jensen and his early associates are still produced, side by side with the work of younger more modern designers.
The characteristics of Jensen's style underscore one of the most distinctive aspects of his workshop: designers in the workshop were not only encouraged to have free reign in their work, but were fully credited with their designs. In ninety-five years, the Georg Jensen company has employed over ninety designers. Some of the better-known Jensen designers included Gundolph Albertus, Johan Rohde, Harald Nielsen and Henning Koppel.
Georg Jensen was born on August 31, 1866 (the seventh of eight children) in Radvaad, Denmark, a cluster of homes around a factory north of Copenhagen in a lovely countryside. The location of Jensen's birth and early childhood was an important factor in his lifelong work which always reflected natural forms and themes from nature.
Jensen came from humble beginnings. His father was a grinder who worked in the knife factory in Radvad, these days the deer park, Dyrehaven north of Copenhagen. His mother was a housemaid and the daughter of a travelling locksmith. Jensen worked with his father at the factory from an early age and had little schooling. He was always creating things as a child and his family recognized and tried to encourage his artistic instincts. When he was 14 the family moved to Copenhagen so he could be apprenticed to a goldsmith. Apprentices worked long hours in those days and on Sundays he attended a technical school for additional training. What little spare time he had he spent modelling clay. His desire seems to have always been to become a sculptor.
Eventually Jensen gained admission as a sculpture student to the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen from which he graduated at 25 in 1892. The year before, one of his pieces, The Harvester, had been exhibited at the Charlottenborg annual exhibition, a prestigious art show held in the same building as the Royal Academy. Although Jensen never succeeded as a sculptor, this early training significantly influenced his work as a silversmith.
In 1891, Jensen married Marie Christiane Antonette Wulff, called Antonette and had two children. He was unable to make a living as a sculptor and unwilling to return to being a goldsmith. He ended up collaborating with a friend, the painter Christian Joachim Petersen in a pottery making business. In 1897, Antonette died suddenly from a kidney disease and Jensen was left with two small boys, Vidar and Jorgen. It was a depressing time for Jensen since in addition to the death of his wife, Jensen had no money and no work. To make matters even worse, a piece of his sculpture was rejected for the Charlottenborg show.
At this dark time, what was to be a crucial lifelong relationship for Jensen began. Johan Rohde, a painter, designer, sculptor, writer and architect who had, with Joakim Skovgaard founded an alternative annual art exhibition, den Frie Udstilling (The Free Exhibition) to challenge the traditionalism of the Charlottenborg show, offered Jensen the opportunity to show his piece at den Frie. Although the pottery business was not very lucrative, Jensen and Petersen did have a piece ("The Maid on the Jar") accepted for exhibition in the Danish Pavilion at 1900 World's Fair in Paris. The piece received critical acclaim both in Denmark and internationally. They also exhibited independently at the World's Fair and their sales were good.
In addition to his success in Paris, Jensen was given a travel grant by the Danish Academy and he was able to spend two years touring the art centers of France and Italy. This travel exposed Jensen to the new trends in art, in particular to the Art Nouveau style in which beauty and utility were fused to create a whole, as an antidote to the industrialization which had separated the craftsman from his client. Machines created goods that sold because they were cheap not because they were beautiful or of fine design and quality. Jensen's time abroad caused him to abandon his commitment to being a sculptor creating art which served its own purpose. He had seen beautiful things in galleries and ugly things in stores and decided to devote his art to making beautiful objects of practical use.
Returning to Denmark he began what would be his life's work of creating everyday objects in which utility and beauty would combine to give pleasure to the user. But in the meantime, he needed to earn a living so he resumed his ceramic work with Joachim Pedersen establishing a small workshop north of Copenhagen. Their sales remained modest and Jensen was fortuitously forced to take a job with the Danish silversmith Mogens Baillin who was a follower of Art Nouveau. Ballin, unlike his counterparts, permitted the artists who worked for him to exhibit their pieces under their own names. He even paid Jensen a commission on the pieces he made. A piece from those days, "Adam and Eve" is exhibited in the Museum of Decorative Art in Copenhagen.
Finally, in the Spring of 1904 Jensen decided to go out on his own and rented a tiny room at 36 Bredgade in the center of Copenhagen. At the age of 37, he had his own silver business. In the beginning, many people visited the shop but mainly as windowshoppers. In the autumn of 1904, Jensen exhibited for the first time as an independent silversmith at the Museum of Decorative Art in Copenhagen. The exhibition was an immediate success and sales at the workshop steadily grew. In fact, sometimes stock was totally depleted and Jensen would post a sign saying "Closed for Repairs" until he had produced new pieces.
During the first years at Bredgade, Jensen made almost only jewelry because the financial investment was small compared to that required to produce flatware or hollowware. In his jewelry, Jensen created a new style that was not modeled on any style of the past. It was all silver, inexpensive to use and incorporated amber, malachite, moonstones and opals, none demanding excessive investment. The pieces were meant for the middle classes as pieces of art, not for the upper class who looked for precious stones in elaborate settings. He made rings, brooches, earrings, bracelets and necklaces and in particular hat pins, more than 100 of them. His pieces often depicted things from nature and were modeled like small sculptures. There was no mass production. He achieved almost immediate success. Jensen's sensibility reflected a movement that was going on all around him. In England it was called Arts and Crafts, in France Art Nouveau, in Germany Jugendstil and in Denmark skonvirke. Artists were trying to insure that the decorative arts were not taken over by the inexpensive, unattractive, mass produced goods that were abounding because of the industrial revolution. These artists and craftsmen felt that it was important to be surrounded by beauty in every day life.
In the early days of Jensen's shop, all sales were done from the workshop and Jensen sold almost everything himself from a drawer in his worktable and later from a green cupboard behind his workspace. He was a character. In the studio he dressed in a flowing smock. When he went out he wore a large black broad brimmed hat and carried a silver topped walking stick. If the weather was cold he also wore a large cape over his velvet suit and flowing tie. He would eat the lunch he brought from home at a cafe near his workshop and while eating make small sketches on newspapers left by other patrons for pieces he would create
From the earliest times, Jensen collaborated with other artists. In one instance, in collaboration with the Danish Artist, Christian Mohl Hansen, the dove brooch was created. This motif has been used on other pieces of Jensen jewelry and to this day, all are popular Jensen sellers. His success with jewelry encouraged him to make hollowware. He made a teapot with the now familiar flower motif which was bought by the Museum of Decorative Art. It became the prototype for a complete tea/coffee service. The pattern became known as "Magnolia". At about this time, Jensen married his housekeeper, Maren Pedersen, called Magne who was pregnant with his child, a girl, who was named Vibeke.
In 1905 another collaboration important in Jensen's life began. Johan Rohde who years before had offered Jensen a spot in Den Frie came to Jensen with clay models of flatware he wanted reproduced in silver. Rohde and Jensen were polar opposites. Rohde was restrained and aristocratic, well read and intelligent, of great culture and self critical. He was cautious and methodical in his designs. Jensen was a romantic, uneducated, exuberant and impulsive. But something clicked. Rohde liked the finished flatware so much that he suggested a more permanent collaboration in which he would design for the Jensen workshop with the items offered for sale on par with Jensen's own work. In 1916, Rohde designed the most famous of Jensen's flatware patterns, ACORN. The lifelong collaboration was based on mutual respect and esteem. Both died within months of each other in 1935.
The workload was very heavy in 1906 -7 and Jensen moved his family from the suburbs of Copenhagen to an apartment within walking distance of the workshop. Magne had been sick for many years and in January, 1907 she died of tuberculosis at the age of 40. After her death the family moved again, this time to a Copenagen suburb called Charlottenlund.
In the Spring of 1907, Georg Jensen fell in love. The object of his affection was Johanne Nielsen one of five children of a minister who had died at an early age. The children were raised by their very determined mother who made sure all received a good education. Jensen met Johanne through her youngest sister who was an apprentice in a workshop where Jensen had been the supervisor. They fell in love at first sight and it was a true love match. More than that, when Jensen married Johanne in 1907 he acquired important collaborators in his business as it grew from the workshop in Bredgade to a large Silversmithy in Ragnagade Jensen's marriage gave him the peace and happiness at home that he needed to deal with the strains of his growing success at work. He was always able to choose good collaborators, some of whom remained with him their whole professional lives and others who gained fame after they left the workshop. By 1908, the staff had grown to 9 plus 2 apprentices. One of Jensen's greatest strengths was that he created a feeling of solidarity among very heterogeneous personalities and inspired them to strive toward a common goal. There was no hierarchy at the silversmithy as all followed the same path and strove to maintain the standard and reputation of the workshop. Jensen had an inspiring personality though occasionally disagreements did occur because Jensen also had a quick temper. But this anger was a quickly passing storm and the friendly atmosphere soon returned. Every piece was made by hand with no sounds of machinery to spoil the atmosphere of individual creativity. In 1906, Jensen made his first complete set of flatware. It was called Continental and remains a big seller today. Serving pieces in particular, became individual works of creative genius.
In 1909, Carl Dyhr, a danish art dealer proposed to Jensen that they open a shop in Berlin to sell Georg Jensen Silver and Royal Copenhagen Porcelain. Dyhr hoped to capitalize on the German interest in things Scandinavian and to parlay his tremendous interest in, and appreciation for, Georg Jensen silver into a successful business. By 1914 when Dyer had to close the store in Berlin, he was buying nearly 90% of the total production of Jensen's Bredgade workshop.
Fortunately, at that time, a new market opened up in Sweden. Jensen had exhibited a large collection of his works in Malmo Sweden in 1914 and a well known art dealer named Nils Wendel bought it. He proceeded to become an ever bigger customer than Carl Dyhr. In 1912, to meet the need for increased production, Jensen had moved the workshop to larger premises on Knippelsbrogade and opened a tiny sales shop at 21 Bredgade. The business was growing and Jensen needed help. Johanne's family provided a convenient labor pool. Johanne's older sister Maria became bookkeeper. Another sister became full time saleswoman in the shop. The oldest brother Svend, a photographer, became the company photographer and photographed each new collection. Harald, Johanne's youngest brother had originally wanted to be a painter but because of money constraints he went to work as a chaser (engraver) for Jensen beginning as an apprentice in 1909. His genius as a draughtsman was soon uncovered and he was the one who created the drawings from which the silversmiths worked. Moreover, he filled in the details for the creative ideas of Jensen and Rohde. They might create the teapot for a pattern but he would then design the remaining items. His work was so in tune with theirs that Jensen often admitted that he couldn't recognize whether he or Nielsen had designed certain pieces. In the 1920s, Nielsen also created his own exquisite "modern" works in silver demonstrating a style uniquely his own. The popular flatware pattern "Pyramid" is a Harald Nielsen Design. When Jensen died in 1935, Nielsen succeeded him as artistic leader and by 1969 he celebrated his 60th anniversary with the company. In addition to his artistic contributions to the company, he also had the job of finding and training young people in the Georg Jensen tradition.
In 1911, Gundorph Albertus, a Danish sculptor began to work for the Jensen silversmithy while it was still in Bredgade. He learned every kind of job within the goldsmith and silversmith craft and developed an understanding of technical problems and how to solve them in the manufacturing processes. When the silversmithy moved to its larger quarters he became a valuable advisor and later became the deputy director of the silversmithy with special responsibility for quality control. For many years he personally inspected every piece produced by the silversmithy and let only those that met his stringent standards be released. In 1919, he married Johanne's younger sister, Inger. Albertus was the designer of CACTUS in silver and MITRA in stainless steel.
The years 1907 to 1918, the Johanne years, were the happiest of Jensen's life. Business thrived, he was content at home. (He had three children: Lise in 1912, Birgitte in 1914 and Soren in 1917.) Any dark moods were brightened by Johanne's optimistic and cheerful personality. Artistically the decade between 1908 - 1918 was the pinnacle of Jensen's work and the majority of the works which brought him world fame were created during this time.
Financing his tremendously increasing production became a problem which he solved by raising capital through the sale of shares in his firm. In 1916, a company was formed under the name of GEORG JENSEN SOLVSMEDIE A/S (GEORG JENSEN SILVERSMITHY LTD.). In 1917, the share capital was increased four times the original issue, mainly through the capital put up by a Danish engineer, P.A. Pedersen, a great admirer and collector of Jensen silver and another Dane, Thorolf Moller, the husband of Joahnne's oldest sister, Maria. By 1918, the staff at Knippelsbrogade had grown to 125 but Jensen believed that further expansion was necessary so a larger silversmithy at 7, Ragnadade was planned and built. That left the shop which was still the same modest cramped place where Jensen had done all the selling. As a result of pressure to make these quarters as elegant as the stock that was sold, in 1918 Jensen, Nils Wendel and Thorolf Moller formed a joint stock company called Aktieselskabet Georg Jensen & Wendel.
The resulting shop was designed by Johan Rohde and was one of the most exclusive in Copenhagen at the time. In 1918, with the winding down of the first World War, it was decided that a shop should be opened in Paris on the Rue St. Honore near Place Vendome. The next shop was to be in London. Unfotunately, Jensen's enjoyment of the glorious success of his business was overshadowed by the death on August 7, 1918 of Johanne from Spanish Influenza, the epidemic that swept through Europe at the time.
To ease his sorrow, Jensen applied himself to work and 1919 and 1920 were the busiest of his life. The world wide economy flourished and production at Georg Jensen was expanded with new cultlery and hollowware designs. But Jensen was an artist and not a businessman and in 1919 P.A. Pedersen took over the chairmanship of the Silversmithy Company and the Retail Company with Thorolf Moller and Nils Wendel joining the board of the Silversmithy. Georg Jensen was just a regular board member and artistic leader of the silversmithy.
In 1921, the fortunes of the Companies took a sharp downturn. There were economic crises throughout Europe and customers postponed or abandoned their purchases. A new influx of cash saved the situation in the short run but a more long term solution, i.e. a new market or markets was required. Frederik Lunning, a gallery owner and able salesman from Odense in Denmark was called upon to open a shop in London in 1921 and then in 1923 to bring Georg Jensen to New York. Sales in New York were phenomenal from the beginning. Lunning sold out practically the whole collection, not from a shop but from exhibitions for a very exclusive circle of wealthy Americans which he arranged at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In 1924, Lunning opened the first New York shop. Back in Copenhagen, P.A. Pedersen became the controlling partner and managing director of the Silversmithy (Georg Jensen Solvsmedie A/S) and Thorolf Moller became the controlling partner and managing director of the retail operation (Georg Jensen & Wendel A/S). Each man held his position until his death, Pedersen in 1937 and Moller in 1951.
Jensen remained the artistic leader of the Silversmithy but he was constrained by economic considerations. He felt this reined in his creativity and in 1925 he decided to leave the Silversmith and move to Paris, opening a workshop of his own. He moved to Paris with his fourth wife, Agnes Christiansen whom he married in 1920, the three children of his third marriage and with the daughter Mette that he had with Agnes. Unable to support his family, his stay in Paris was short and by 1926 he returned to Copenhagen and his position as artistic director at the silversmithy.
The last ten years of Jensen's life (1925 - 35) were filled with bitterness and disappointment. Jensen worked primarily at a small workshop in his home in Hellerup a suburb of Copenhagen. He only visited the Silversmithy when his presence was absolutely necessary. In 1925, he was awarded the Grand Prix at the Paris World's Fair and in 1927 he had his last child, Ib. At the 1929 Worlds Fair in Barcelona he again won the Grand Prix and in 1932 he was the only silversmith outside Great Britain to exhibit at the Goldsmiths' Hall. In 1935, he won the Grand Prix at the World's Fair in Brussels.
In 1935, at the age of 69, Georg Jensen died and was buried in Hellerup cemetery. He was mourned and remembered all over the world.
GEORG JENSEN AN ARTIST HIS TIME AND FAMILY by WALTER SCHWARTZ, Published by GEORG JENSEN & WENDEL A/S, 1958
GEORG JENSEN THE DANISH SILVERSMITH by JORGEN E.R.MOLLER, Published by GEORG JENSEN & WENDEL A/S, 1984
GEORG JENSEN SILVERSMITHY 77 ARTISTS 75 YEARS by the Renwick Gallery, 1980