Karl Gustav Hansen

by Birte Hansen and Henrik Sten Moller

Karl Gustav Hansen was born on December 10th, 1914 in Kolding, Denmark. His father, Hans Hansen, had made the city renowned for silver through his silversmithy, and the designs of Thorovald Bindesboll, Joakim Skovgaard, and Svend Hammerhoj. Much attention however was instead on Copenhagen with Kaj Fisker, Georg Jensen, and many other artisans in a variety of fields had gathered. This did not prevent Hans Hansen from making its it own impact in the world of Danish design.

While growing up, Karl Gustav Hansen had shown great promise in the craft and quit school at a very early age to apprentice as a a silversmith under Einar Olsen, whom joined Hans Hansen to develop their expanded hollowware line during the 1930's, following in his father's footsteps, whom first apprenticed as a smith of cutlery. While apprenticing, he designed his first church silver, as well as numerous other pieces, and took part in all of the Hans Hansen exhibitions home and abroad. By 1934, he submitted his test piece, a teapot and chafing dish, which received a silver medal, the highest award available in an apprenticeship. Afterwards, he studied at the School of Sculpture at the Art Academy under Utzon Frank, where he first started designing his sculptural silver jewelry, which was ahead of its time. Though a poor student in his own right, Karl Gustav Hansen traveled during this time as well, visiting Italy, Austria and Germany, though much political tension existed at the time.

When he returned, his father and he started a new factory on Niels Henningsensgade in Copenhagen where passersby could watch as he created works of art, hammering out beautiful forms in silver. Soon after he had the first of his larger exhibitions in May of 1940, however it would only be a month later that his father passed away, leaving the 25 year old silversmith the decision on whether or not to continue the family business at a time when silver smithing was most difficult. Karl Gustav Hansen forged ahead, however, his first few projects were to design both the "Heart Jewelry" series, a quite successful line that conserved the precious little silver available at the time, and "Egyptienne", which pulled inspiration from various 3000 year old clay forms. Other items conserved rarer materials through the use of base metals and plaice skin (the hard durable skin of a flounder like fish, that resembled the snakeskin which could not be imported during wartime). Old silver was also traded in for newer items, much like other silversmiths of time had done, however Karl Gustav Hansen was also sure to try and preserve the most artistic and well crafted old silver than came into his possession, lest such important works were lost.

As the war ended, more silver was procured, and staff was increased to help handle increasing demand and in December of 1945, he set sail to both the West Indies and to the United states to revive old contacts his father had created abroad before the war. The trip was successful, and coincidentally, he flew home on the first trans-Atlantic passenger flight, to much fanfare and press coverage, and in the 50's the business grew, especially within the cutlery division, where numbers 19 and 20 were added to the existing "Heirloom Silver Patterns". Also added were "Susanne", which debuted at a Koldinghus party in honor of the royal couple. In 1955, 1957, and 1959, he also added patterns "Charlotte" "Kristine" and "Line" respectively. It was also during the 50's that Bent Gabrielsen took over designing jewelry for the company as Karl Gustav Hansen focused his efforts elsewhere.

During the sixties, the world experienced greater wealth than it had previously, and this ecomnomic boom had affected Hans Hansen as well. More shops had opened, and as the Kolding smithy demanded more of his attentions, it was difficult to maintain the same level of control and quality maintained in the past, and as a result the company was restructured and Ole Hartmann Berg was hired on as managing director, while Karl Gustav Hansen continued to serve as artistic leader and designer. By this time, his son, Hans had begun to follow in the family's tradition, training as a silversmith, the third generation training at the smithy in Kolding before moving to A. Michelsen and finishing out at Georg Jensen, spending approximately a year at each. Upon special dispensation, he submitted his test piece after only three years, taking the same silver medal his father had nearly 30 years earlier.

Although his son lacked interest in the business aspect of the company, Karl Gustav Hansen had encouraged his son to contribute artistically to the unique characteristics of design at the smithy. Amidst this happy peace he went into the seventies with, he had decided to live out an old dream, and picked up his personal workshop and moved to Switzerland where he could continue on, in absentia, in October of 1970. Happiness was, however, brief as Hans became ill and died in August two years later, leaving Karl Gustav Hansen in a deep sorrow. He instead buried himself in his work, producing a great number of pieces and participated in a great number of exhibitions, collaborating with various sculptors and artists such as Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick, and Giacomo Manzu, and many others.

1973 brought with it the oil crisis which crippled trade, and in turn the various crafts. As a result new apprentices were not being accepted in 1976. Fearing the industry might seem dead, 12 silversmiths, including Karl Gustav Hansen amongst them, set out to form an exhibition, "The Exhibition group of 1976" in Copenhagen, however this wasn't the end to problems. Silver and gold prices rose dramatically, and certain bureaucratic decisions regarding new buildings and the demolishing of the old smithy further stressed conditions that might otherwise have been persevered through. During the 80's, under financial distress, many of the silversmithies in Denmark either collapsed under the aforementioned conditions, or merged, like Georg Jensen with A Michelsen and Royal Copenhagen, which Hans Hansen tried to avoid for a few years before succumbing to the same merging as the others.

At first, wages in combination with the immense efforts needed to manufacture some of the lines contributed to hefty and unsalable prices, and as a result Hans Hansen had tried to cut lines, restructure, and create less labor intensive pieces to restrain costs. On successful resulting project was "The Hollowware Article of the Year" which was limited to 100 copies, and was to be designed on an annual basis. Unfortunately, five years after the restructuring was completed, Karl Gustav Hansen's contract was revoked and instead he had gone on to design and work with silver on his own, contributing to exhibitions and working with the younger generation of artists.

Karl Gustav Hansen's Design

The most notable aspect of Karl Gustav Hansen's designs are their form, which not only serves their function well, but also inhabits the space around them, giving a sculptural aspect to them, and combine strong masculine features with graceful feminine curves. With a natural flowing aspect to them, and a shape that lends itself to enhancing the silver with which they are created, showcasing the beauty inherent in the material. Every aspect including the joints, handles, and spouts of his hollowware not only become part of the overall design but in an almost decorative way, enhance the overall form.

In line with many of the other well known designers of the 1950's, Karl Gustav Hansen embraced the ideals of functionalism, creating items in the simplest most pure forms rendered in an aesthetic beauty all of their own. Practicality and strong design as well as "maximizing the development" of the material are inherent in all his designs.

Much of his inspiration perhaps came from the other artists of his time, as in the nearby town of Kolding, at Kobestaevnet, many of the silversmiths of A MichelsenHingelberg, Georg Jensen, and Hans Hansen would display the best of their abilities. Much of the Georg Jensen stand was featuring the works of Harald Nielsen at the time, whom was also ahead of his time in matters of design, developing some pieces with simpler forms with strong geometric themes, and perhaps this had in some way helped to inspire. Also an admired or Johan Rhode, one can see the strength of his designs shared in their forms. His time at the School of Sculpture also had its influence, which can be viewed in the sculptural aspect to his designs as well as his later works with artists of the craft. However, unlike Henning Koppel, whom he met during his apprenticeship, Karl Gustav Hansen's design have a far more technical aspect to them, showcasing the craftsmanship on the forms rather than Henning Koppel's freeform and highly sculptural shapes and during the 50's, his designs took on tighter forms, and emphasized the clear polished surfaces the silver had to offer.

His designs would start off in rough sketches, often more or less notations for his own use, following with models cast in various materials, including plaster of paris, of which some of the models still exist. Taking great note to the thicknesses of the pieces, often creating thicker edges to allow for greater endurance of wear, his designs, especially in church silver, have been meant to last many years through use, and even through age enhancing in beauty.