Modern Danish Silver

by Esbjorn Hiort
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Silver has always been a desirable medium to work with and collect. Beyond its monetary value, the fine luster of its surface and its malleability which lends it to an infinite shapes has been highly sought. As such, silver tableware has always been a prized possession within the home.


Prior to the turn of the 20th century, the craftsmanship of silver items had fallen into a confusion of styles and into a habit of over ornamentalized fashion, which had little respect for the natural beauty and workability of the metal. This is not to say that innovation was not present, however, a lack of restraint and a general broad spectrum lack of trained craftsmen had weakened the art. At the same time, industrialization and machined silver was beginning to enter the market which threatened the silversmith's trade.


By the late 1800's, however, a new style had begun to take the public's attention, Art Nouveau, which displayed a renewed romanticism with nature. One of the first artists to utilize this new decorative art was Thorvald Bindesboll, however, his efforts were directed towards an emphasis on new forms of decoration and the plasticity of the material to render these new designs, rather than a more functional use of the silver. It wouldn't be until Georg Jensen began his workshop in 1904 that the art of silversmithing and the stylings of Art Nouveau would truly breathe new life into the silversmith's trade.


Georg Jensen had originally apprenticed with a goldsmith before leaving to try his hand as sculpture (some examples of which are shown throughout Denmark), before returning to the silversmith's trade. When he first started, his focus was primarily on jewelr pieces, however he soon added flatware and hollowware pieces to his line. Overall, his approach to ornamentation was restrained and held to the basic shapes of the floral motifs he used, leaving large textured planes of the silver to show their own inherent beauty. His works showed a large degree of technical capability and a renewed adoration for the material as it is.


Shortly after, however, Functionalism came about, a new movement that, although borne of Cubism, held to a strict regiment of utility dictating form. The lack of ornamentation forced a recognition and respect for the materials used, and affirmed a new need to refine the basic designs of everyday items. As a secondary consequence, Functionalism made the creation of these items far more affordable and friendly for industrial methods, and in essence, paved the road to both modernism and the democratization of design.


Unfortunately, this democratization and austerity held a tenuous relationship with the material of discussion. Silver, regardless of its design, is an expensive material and the larger pieces, due to their costly nature, have typically been reserved for the finer arts, which in typically abided by the statement “Art for Art's sake” which contrasted with Functionalism's “Utility alone dictates Form”.


One of the silversmiths to delve fully into Functionalism was Kaj Bojesen. Originally trained under Georg Jensen, his early works reflected this influence, however by the 1930's, he stylistically fully embraced the new style. Contrasting Georg Jensen's preference for hammered surfaces, he preferred a burnished, clean look to the silver, and that the simplest of forms best enhanced this beauty. Bojesen also had a strong belief that these surfaces only accumulated beauty with age and use, stating “By using her silver daily, the housewife will discover that the so hated silver polishing is no worse than any other housework. The surface of the metal should be full of scratches, those thousand of tiny marks which only daily wear and tear can give the silver, and thereby quickly achieve that whitish, semi-lustrous, and easily maintained surface which we find on old silver.”


His designs were also an elegant execution of beauty and function, in which, for example a covered dish could function as two separate serving dishes as well. The handles are designed perfectly for this dual use, fitting well together, but not suffering from individual use, and with a simple shape and austerity that only adds to the design. His bowls on rosewood platters would also emphasize functionality, and yet, the play of the light upon the silver would give the piece a beauty only achievable by the craftsman-artist. Also of note would be the flatware set he designed in 1938, which, like his other pieces, stripped away all unessential parts, creating a new, timeless design that maintained balance and function. The set was so well designed that, 13 years after its inception, it won the Milan Triennial Exhibition's Grand Prix in 1951.


Of also note is Magnus Stephensen whom designed a number of pieces for Kaj Bojesen. Magnus's designs had maintained a similar idiom to that of Kaj Bojesen's, often maintaining a sobriety in his simplified forms, though his hollowware, with its use of woven wicker for the handles, would also seem reminiscent of the best of Japanese industrial design, though by the late 30's, the collaborations together would start to stray away from Functionalism's taboo on decoration.


At A. Michelsen, the architect Kaj Fisker designed items in a similar fashion, breaking with the Neo-Classicism that the firm had held to, and begin the new collaborations of architects and craftsmen that would remain in fashion for a time. Erik Herlow, another architect with A. Michelsen, was well known for his designs, often thoroughly working out the details of a piece upon his drafting board, constantly trying to bring out new traits in the material the craftsmen would work with. He also, in a restrained fashion, began to incorporate some of the motifs from older design eras, such as the Rococo fluting on a cigarette case, or some Art Nouveau chasing, which broke with the Functionalism of the time, and yet, restored some of the “decoration” to the “decorative arts”.


Tove and Edvard Kindt-Larsen, also architects, would also begin to reintroduce decoration into the pieces they designed, however, unlike Herlow, who used former traditional elements, would set upon creating their own new decorations, heavily relying on rhythmic progression, and yet still sober and restrained. Although used, these decorations only sought to accentuate the overall form of the piece. Also of note was Ole Hagen, another architect, whose earlier works bore an overly thought motif, and relied of classical decorations, later on embraced the relationship between decoration and form to create some highly functional pieces that retained small decorative elements within the design. Most notable would be his “tulip” flatware which, at first, seems primarily formed around decoration, yet, upon closer inspection reveals its highly functional design while breaking from the tradition of stamped flatware, and demonstrated the need to constantly reassess the principles of form and decoration in the field of art.


Later, the “architectural silver” gave way to a new group of sculptors that took charge in the decorative arts, including Henning Seidelen, whom retained a functional emphasis while exploring the artistic and sculptural value of the art. Contrasting even further would be Henning Koppel, whose designs for Georg Jensen were almost purely based upon decorative form and produced some of the most highly sculptural piece of his time. His designs, however, were not without utility, as his pitchers and flatware have a highly functional element to them, but, however, it is from beauty first that he had approached his designs.


Silversmiths by trade also began once again to make themselves known for their designs at the time, including Inger Moller, whose production was limited as she created and designed her own pieces, often approaching the matter by creating first, and then designing afterward, using the simplest of details to enhance her work. Karl Gustav Hansen was also of note, having worked at his father's firm, Hans Hansen, set about executing a number of his own designs, with their own characteristically austere and clear forms. Finally, Svend Weihrauch of Franz Hingelberg rounds out the list. Weirauch's work since 1928 had made Hingelberg a formidable name in the realm of silver pieces with his incredibly simplified designs which focused upon contours and shapes to accentuate their clear surfaces.