GEORG JENSEN SILVERWARE
The Early Years: Pre-1926
Georg Jensen, the founder of the Georg Jensen Company was born in 1866. He studied to be a sculptor and, although he ended up becoming a world renowned silversmith because he couldn't make a living as such, sculpting was what he always loved most. Jensen grew up rurally and considered nature and the countryside the inspiration for his life's work. These two factors influenced all of Jensen's work, not the least of which was his flatware designs. Jensen's genius was not that he copied things in nature, but that he created his pieces, using his skill and sensibility as a sculptor, with nature as his inspiration.
From 1901 to 1903, Jensen worked as the shop foreman for Morgens Ballin owner of a very well regarded workshop outside Copenhagen in Hellerup. Siegfried Wagner, who would later design the DAHLIA pattern for the Georg Jensen Company, also worked in the Ballin workshop.
In 1904, Georg Jensen set up his own silversmithy. In the early years, Jensen often executed the designs of others, in particular his friend and colleague Johan Rohde. Artists and designers approached Jensen to produce their designs not only because of the high quality of craftsmanship which they could expect, but because Jensen had a unique ability to transform the concepts in a design drawing into a silver form that recognized the designer's intent. This skill he developed from his earlier training as a sculptor and his years working for Mogens Ballin and in other workshops.
The Georg Jensen Company introduced thirty-two silverware patterns between 1906 and 1981. Twenty-seven of these have names and numbers, and five are known by a number only. Beginning in the 1920s, sales of flatware became an important part of the Georg Jensen Company's sales strategy. If a pattern was popular enough to keep selling well through the vagaries of fashion it provided an ongoing income stream with a one time only start up cost. People purchase pieces to fill out their flatware pattern for years and expand their collection with new and less essential pieces. A whole flatware set may be very expensive but individual pieces are quite affordable, so a large service can be built over many years.
Jensen himself designed thirteen flatware patterns of which eight have names and numbers and five only numbers. (Each flatware pattern is noted in this essay first by its American name and then, in parentheses, by its Danish name.) Of the eight named patterns, three, (CONTINENTAL (ANTIK), BEADED (KUGLE) and BLOSSOM (MAGNOLIE) ),are still in production and the others, (ROPE (PERLE), ROSE later LILY OF THE VALLEY (LILJEKONVAL), AKKELEJE, VIKING (NORDISK) and FUCHSIA (KLOKKE) ),are only available on a used or second hand basis.
In the earliest days of the silversmithy, when there was no money to buy the raw material necessary to produce large pieces of hollowware or flatware sets, only a few spoons and serving pieces were produced. For the earliest pieces, silver was melted over a stove and forged in very primitive circumstances. Every piece was handmade.
Two of the first pieces of flatware that Jensen created, were silver spoons for stewed fruit which he produced in 1905 based on drawings made by Anton Rosen, a Danish architect. The pieces were for Rosen and his wife Tine's fifteenth wedding anniversary and were engraved AR and TR. The spoons were mounted with turquoises, cameos and corals which the Rosens themselves contributed. These spoons are now in the collection of the Danish Museum of Decorative Art in Copenhagen.
Jensen's relationship with Rosen resulted in a large commission in 1909 for a set of flatware for the Palace Hotel in Copenhagen. Rosen was responsible for designing everything in the hotel and hired Georg Jensen to design the silver for the hotel's dining areas. The flatware Jensen designed was produced for the hotel in silverplate by Mappin & Webb, an English company and was so popular that on opening day, the head waiter remembered, many of the teaspoons "disappeared". In 1910, the GJ silversmithy introduced this flatware pattern in silver without the logo of the Palace Hotel as design #145.
The flatware patterns designed in the early years of the silversmithy until the early 20s were primarily in the Art Nouveau style. In Denmark, this style was known as Skonvirke. Its elements included a reliance on themes from nature and an insistence on fine craftsmanship. FUCHSIA, ROSE/LILY OF THE VALLEY, AKKELEJE and BLOSSOM are all very much in the Art Nouveau style and reflect the influence of nature in Jensen's work. They also demonstrate his sculptor's sensibility, particularly BLOSSOM in which each piece looks like a small sculpture of natural forms.
Jensen designed FUCHSIA in 1906. The handles of this pattern are in classic Art Nouveau style: a flower with pods rising one out of another.
In 1912, the silversmithy introduced DAHLIA which was designed by Siegfried Wagner, who, like Jensen, was trained in sculpture. Wagner, however, received more acclaim for his ability as a sculptor. One of his pieces, the Lure Players, 1914, was shown in the Town Hall Square of Copenhagen. The design for DAHLIA is rooted in traditional Nordic symbols.
ROSE, later known as LILY OF THE VALLEY (LILJEKONVAL), was introduced in 1913 and has lilies of the valley running around the edge of the handle. AKKELEJE (1918) has a flower sprouting at the bottom of its handle. The inspiration he gained from nature is clearly shown in these patterns.
CONTINENTAL (1906), BEADED (1916) and ROPE (1916) have no natural forms but share an emphasis on fine craftsmanship with details that need to be hand crafted. BEADED has small silver beads running around the edge of the handle and CONTINENTAL and BEADED each have surface hammering. This hammering is an element featured in many Jensen pieces of the time and became a common element used by other Danish designers of the time. It required meticulous hand finishing and a high level of skill. The CONTINENTAL design is said to be based in the tradition of Nordic wooden utensils and specifically a wooden spoon given to Jensen's wife when she was a child.
During this same period (prior to 1920), Jensen's colleague and close friend, Johan Rodhe designed two flatware patterns for the Georg Jensen silversmithy. Rohde originally studied medicine before switching to art school. He was a prolific designer, not only of flatware, jewelry and hollowware, but of furniture. In 1903 Rohde began his collaboration with Jensen when he commissioned Mogens Ballins' workshop where Jensen worked, to fabricate a flatware set that Rohde had designed for his own use. Of the four patterns Rohde designed for Jensen, the first, based on the acorn (appropriately named ACORN (KONGE) ), has remained the most popular Jensen pattern since its introduction to the market in 1915. Its style is simple and clear with the elements of each piece clearly defined. The acorn symbol appeared in many of Rohde's other designs, especially his furniture. This pattern was first exhibited in 1915 at the World's Fair in San Francisco and quickly became a very popular flatware design in the U.S.
ACANTHUS (DRONNING) was designed by Rohde and introduced in 1917. The inspiration for this pattern is not of nature but a classic motif treated in a rather romantic flowing way.
In 1925, the Georg Jensen Company participated in the World Exhibition in Paris. Jensen won a Grand Prix and several of the silversmithy's pieces won prizes. But the exhibition and the work highlighted there was a wake up call that things needed to change if the silversmithy wanted to keep up with the times. Even in Denmark other silversmiths were working in a much more modern style.
Skonvirke was successful for many years but by the twenties, ornamentation seemed old fashioned. Simplified designs with straight lines and streamlined forms were in vogue. It was time for Georg Jensen to find ways to express the new style in his own way, to develop new and different products and to create designs which were compatible with the new manufacturing processes which had been invented to increase production to meet increased demand.
By Alice Kossoff
THE UNKNOWN GEORG JENSEN, by The Georg Jensen Society, 2004
GEORG JENSEN SILVERSMITHY 77 ARTISTS 75 YEARS, The Renwick Gallery,1980
GEORG JENSEN SILVER & DESIGN, Thomas C. Thulstrup, translated by Gaye Kynoch, 2004