The Unknown Georg Jensen

published by the Georg Jensen Society

Often, Georg Jensen is associated with the Georg Jensen Silversmithy which he had founded and which bears his name. Very few people know the story of the "unknown" side to Georg Jensen, the sculptor, the silversmith and the craftsman.

Georg Jensen, the Sculptor

In the beginning, Georg Jensen hadn't dreamed of being a world renowned silversmith, whose Art Nouveau style and emphasis on the craftsmanship of his work would set a high standard for those that would follow at his company. Instead, Georg Jensen saw himself as a sculptor. It was during the winter of 1886-1887 that he started work on his first sculpture, a bust of his father in plaster, which pleased the administration and assisted in his gaining entrance to the School of sculpture in the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and in 1889, the bust would be exhibited in Copenhagen. Whilst a student, he had finally gained the chance to put aside his work as an apprentice goldsmith, and though he did not sell many sculptures, he had acquired a number of grants due to his talent. By 1892, Georg Jensen graduated and received his diploma and by the follwing year, he was already gaining acclaim for his work, "An Archer In Prehistoric Times", for which he was awarded a Gold Medal. The prize also contained the first of many travel grants for study tours, where upon he completed a beautiful statuette of a goddess, marked: "Copy. Napoli. GJ". Much of his style in sculptures was done in the classical sense, however his subjects often were his friends and family, or otherwise inspirations e gained from nature, (as would continue to inspire him with his works of silver).

Even after his conversion to silversmithing as a career, Georg Jensen still continued his dreams of being a sculptor, and in 1915, he created his first large scale work, a copy of "The Harvester", an earlier work, and placed it in his garden in Gardes Alle in Hellerup, and smaller works were done in his "off time" from the silversmithy.

By the end of the 1890;s he had started to try his hand at ceramics, His first success, a sculpture of actor, Olaf Poulsen in his role of "Falsmaal" from the play " The Golden Box" and produced by Bing and Grondahl in 1999. Without posing for the sculpture, Poulsen's expressions where captured expertly. This was unfortunately one of very few designs created for Bing and Grondahl by Georg Jensen produced until a vase, "The Storm" in 1990. Most of his success with ceramics instead came from a collaboration with Ipsen's Terracotta, where he produced many household objects, his inspiration often once again returning to nature, as shown in such designs as an ashtray formed from three mice, or supernatural themes as with the "Witch Pitcher" and other creatures such as mermaids and nymphs. By 1898, he was collaborating often with the painter, Joachim Petersen, most of which the work was probably done by Georg Jensen, as Petersen had only one arm. In 1899, they displayed at an exhibition at Charlottenborg, a particular piece, "Maid on the Jar",where many praised the classical portrayal on more modern pieces, with the incredible richness of their glazes, in particular the deep reds and stunning yellow-greens. Later on this piece was picked to be shown at the World's Fair in Paris in 1900, and resulted in enough interest to send more pieces. A few years later they showed 36 more pieces at an exhibition, "Danish Decorative Art", at the Danish Museum of Decorative Art, and had less impressive results. Although the brilliant hues earned the critique of looking like "a collection of forgotten colored pots" the vases weren't practical, and few remain in existence. By 1904, Georg Jensen had finally moved on to silversmithing as a trade.

Georg Jensen the Silversmith

Georg Jensen simply could not manage to make enough money to support his growing family on the money he made from ceramics. Ceramics were very expensive, and because of this, they simply couldn't make a large enough profit on the pieces they sold. Often his income was supplemented with work done as a foreman for Mogens Ballin, where he truly developed his craft. Ballin's ideal was to applie the greatest degree of craftsmanship to every piece. Working alongside designers like Sigfried Wagner and Gudmund Henze Georg Jensen did a number of designs for Mogens Ballin as well, including "a mirror in antique style", and it was probably around the time he started working here that he started designing in silver himself. The earliest known piece being designed is a cast silver belt buckle featureing the religious motif (a common theme at the time) of the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, from 1899, and was first exhibited in 1901. Initially his designs were roughly formed out, as he was still working from the point of mind of a sculptor and not a silversmith, but during the winter of 1903/04 he redesigned many pieces, incorporating semiprecious stones, and giving a cleaner, more finished look to the designs.

Taking with him the ideas and concepts he learned at Mogens Ballin, and working constantly, sketching, modeling, and forming ideas, he created a catalog of designs, many of which he would revisit later, he started up is own workshop in 1904, and put a showcase outside his door. His amazing sense of style and artistic design combined with the highest standards of quality, Georg Jensen, even in the earliest days of his business, and quickly he caught the attention of the Danes that would pass by. In November of 1904, he was showing 110 pieces at the exhibition, "Modern Danish Applied Art" at the Danish Museum for Decorative Arts, including a tea service of 5 pieces, a number of spoons, a mirror, and a number of jewelry pieces. The first two pieces of Georg Jensen's works purchased by the Museum came from this exhibition and the public at large got its first taste of his works. Soon after, business had started to take off, and rapidly he had to expand his small workshop, and started hiring on staff to keep up with the demand. By 1909,only 5 years later, his workshop had employed 14 more members. Although originally producing mainly jewelry, Flatware, including Magnolia in 1905, Acanthus and Continental in 1906, and Dahlia in 1912 as well as a number of hollowware piece soon followed.

As the silversmithy's fame was quickly spreading worldwide, Georg Jensen would often take on other projects, often teaming up with architect Anton Rosen. One of Rosen's most well known projects was the design of the Palace Hotel in Copenhagen and whom requested that Georg Jensen design the entire service for the dining areas. Everything was executed beautifully and in intricate detail, from the cakeplates and soup tureens, including a perfectly scaled set of five coffeepots, to the smallest of spoons bearing the mussel pattern that would later be produced as pattern #145 and the Palace Hotel intertwined monogram (a common design element at the time). The service was so beautifully crafted that the head waiter many years later would remember how many pieces "disappeared" on opening night. From this magnificent undertaking, came the opportunity to design the new Guild Cup, Hammer, and flag tips for the Butcher's Guild in Copenhagen. All three were based on Anton Rosen's Designs, but the silver work on the cup, and most likely the hammer as well, by Georg Jensen. The cup was a monumental piece, standing 115 centimeters (approximately 45 inches) tall, and featuring medallions with the Guild's master's names, a pair of ram's heads excellently chased in full detail holding the Guild's new stamps, and a large spire atop. The spire depicted a fleet of ships around Copenhagen at the base, the 1451 text regarding guilds, and an amazing frieze depicting the final test to apprentices before fulling joining the guild above. Later on they would continue to design a gorgeous set of cigar boxes for the 50th anniversary of the shipping company "DFDS", one of which cast in gold for the king, a few in silver for the board members, and a limited number for all the employees of the company. Georg Jensen also designed a number of pieces for other special occasions and for his friends in family, many of which were "one of a kind" gifts to his loved ones.

In the 1920's The Georg Jensen Silversmithy had grown quite large, although by 1924, Georg Jensen, the man, had lost much control in the company, and had little money due to poor financial decisions, and had decided to leave Copenhagen and start anew in Paris. The animosity between him and the current main shareholder at the time, Peder A Pedersen left little love between the designer and the company he created, and so with a fresh start, he started up his new workshop, partially independent of the company (though designs would still be sent to Copenhagen for consideration towards production), and quickly prepared for his latest debut. In April of 1925, Georg Jensen had displayed a number of pieces in he "Exposition internationale des arts decoratifs modernes" to great success. This success led to an agreement to collaborate with the Silversmithy again as an art director, however this relationship was to deteriorate quickly.

During his time here, his designs started to take on a newer approach, slowly fading away were the decorations of his earlier days, though in many designs they would still be present, and a fascination with the concepts of functionalism would take hold. Though the handcrafted quality of the Georg Jensen Silversmithy would remain for years to come, as time progressed, the manufacturing of silver would evolve to incorporate stamped shapes and forms, not to replace the handwork necessary to create each piece, but instead to facilitate the ease of production. At the same time, Georg Jensen himself would become fascinated with the surfaces, and the play of light and shadow about the shapes of his designs, and would focus more on these aspects over time. Pulling inspiration perhaps from the Japanese styles brought over at the time, as well as French Art Deco, a number of these designs marked a departure from the motifs that Georg Jensen himself was famous for.

His designs, though artistically well received, and would be passed over in favor of design done at home in Copenhagen, and soon he was selling in Paris alone once again. Employing only 5 people and a business manager, the workshop in Paris allowed only for pieces to be worked by hand, and with the more basic tools. It was in this workshop he also designed two flatware sets, one of which was to become Viking, the other unproduced unnamed set which very obviously served as the inspiration to Harald Nielsen's Pyramid pattern. This hadn't prevented a loyal customer base to form however, and soon he was seen as being future competition to the Silversmithy in Copenhagen. Pressured into returning to Copenhagen and the Silversmithy which bitterly fought against him, he closed up the Paris shop and journeyed back to Denmark in 1926.

Back in Copenhagen, Georg Jensen never really attained much freedom from the Silversmithy in his later years, and few designs were ever produced. After his return however, he still gained much praise. He was praised as being one of the most influential silversmiths of the century in 1926, and as the Silversmithy itself turned 25, he was decorated by the King. In 1932 he was invited as the only foreigner to the Goldsmiths Hall in London, where not only was he honored, but two of his pieces were purchased into the permanent collection. As the Silversmithy seemed no longer interested in his designs, he once again set up his own little workshop in the basement of the family house in Hellerup, and continued his work. A bit more primitive he often had to rely on the machinery of local colleges to borrow the use of some of their machinery, and hire out other silversmiths to complete larger orders. His works started to take on a greater departure from his Art Nouveau roots, and increasingly moved towards functionalist tendencies. A number of innovative bowls and other flatware would be ahead of their time, and included a wine pitcher was produced for a private client that with a stark lack of decoration and a line straight ebony handle which accentuated its graceful curves, was truly remarkable for its time. The Silversmithy itself could not have been to happy with him creating such an impact upon the public with the designs they had previously rejected, however their relationship never mended and a few months before his death in 1935, he had already decided to once again start renumbering his designs. An unfortunate effect of his relationship with the Silversmithy was that many of the sketches of his later designs would be burned to prevent their use after his death. Fittingly however, the man who always wanted be known as a sculptor was buried with his gravestone reading, "Billedhugger", (Sculptor).