Thorvald Bindesboll and the Silversmiths

by Poul Dedenroth-Schou

(Summary is based on the English text from the book) 

Thorvald Bindesboll typically was considered an impeccably dressed man, with a severe face and expression which surely did not suit his persona. Born in July of 1846, as the son of Michael Gottlieb Bindesboll, the royal surveyor and architect. During his time in Rome, Michael Gottlieb Bindesboll had spent time with a number of Danish artist residing in an artist colony based around the Danish artist Bertel Throrvaldsen, whom made enough of an impression upon him that he would name his son after him. Upon his return, he held a number of jobs as Royal surveyor while he worked on the construction of the Thorvaldsen's Museum and towards the end of his life held a position as a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Though only 10 years old when his father died, Thorvald Bindesboll would in many ways pursue his father's interests.

For the most part, Thorvald Bindesboll's education has free in that he was able to study and pursue his own interests, and having grown up in a household where he was surrounded by his father's students and colleagues, he grew up studying the arts, and in particular, developed a love for literature, as well as the philosopher Kirkegaard, which could be seen with the library he left behind. To this end he would also be involved in translation work, helping the writer Edvard Lembcke in his efforts to render Shakespeare. Primarily, however he was trained as an architect, like his father, and during his studies at the Academy, he has employed by friends of his father, and two years before his graduation he received his first independent commission to construct a new manor house for his friend, Rudolph Puggaard.

After graduating, Bindesboll's free spirit sought to travel, and in order to fund this, he competed in several medalled competitions with travel scholarships included with the prize, and in 1882 he won a small gold medal which allowed for him and August Jerndorff to travel to Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of northern Italy. Though his journeys were full of wonderment, when he returned to his home in Denmark, he found little work as an architect. As such, he that he could not support himself on architecture alone, and sought off to supplement his income with endeavors in various other arts. As early as 1880, he began producing ceramics at Frauens Levarefabrik, inspired by the ancient pottery he and Andreas Clemmensen had seen during their respective trips to Italy. From these Classicist roots, he later drew inspiration from pottery unearthed in Copenhagen, then moved on to the Asiatic influences from which he would later develop his own abstract designs. As he progressed, however, he grew also further and further from the works of other Danish artists of the time. It wasn't just pottery however that interested Thorvald Bindesboll. He also designed embroidery patterns, furniture, and other bits of metalwork. He also worked at designing books with Anker Kyster, whom would one day introduce him to his brother, Holger Kyster, the goldsmith of Kolding, with whom he would later collaborate with to create his most incredible works.

Despite his place in the history of Danish design as one of the key influences that would shape Danish silver of the 20 th century, Thorvald Bindesboll's involvement ran contrary to what one would expect. Prior to the turn of the century, Danish silver had, for the most part been unremarkable. Taking from the rich history of artistic movements in other European countries, Danish silversmiths often would either imitate past designs or design in similar styles. The first break from this would come from a sense of nationalism and historic pride which would develop into Old Nordic (which took root to a greater degree in Norway), or into other smaller, now nearly forgotten, movements. It wasn't until the Arts and Crafts movement that started in England around the 1880's, as well as the Art Nouveau movement in France, that Danish silversmiths were influenced to investigate the artistry and craftsmanship of their occupation. (Learn more about the history of Danish Jewelry by clicking HERE) Skonvirke, the resulting Danish movement, which also had its roots in the rejection of the cheap mass produced goods, had started to take form, with Thorvald Bindesboll later to be considered one of its definitive designers. Despite its importance, however, mass produced goods were still favorable at home in the beginning, and as early as 1900, when Bindesboll was in charge or setting up the exhibition for the World's Fair in Paris, his influence, though undeniable, was commented on by architect Erik Schiodte as, “Bindesboll's artistic honor lies in his absolute personal integrity and in his rich decorative abilities, which on this particular occasion have been made a favorable impression on so many people. But precisely because of his special artistic status, he cannot and should not be considered representative of the school of thought currently prevalent in Denmark.” In other words, while the world at large was being introduced to Bindesboll's innovative style, most artists in Denmark distanced themselves from his works, still focusing on historical styles and traditions. Even those who started to move away from the past were better well received as they embraced elements of the newer romanticized natural elements, including the works of Harald Slott-Mohler and N. G. Henriksen, and he made little impact abroad compared to others, despite the ornamentation of the Skonvirke movement, as well as its hammer marks being heavily influenced by the works of Bindesboll and Holger Kyster.

Prior to his collaboration with Holger Kyster, however, Thorvald Bindesboll had first started his designs on silver with the A. Michelsen workshops, which had, in a way grown from his works in ceramics. A. Michelsen first made its name for itself through its works in enamel, and combined with its prestige as goldsmith to the royal court, and under the direction of Anton Michelsen's son Carl Michelsen, it was Niels Georg Henriksen held the position of artistic supervisor at the company and introduced his own naturalistic styles to the company Soon after started having Bindesboll's unique ornamentation to some articles of hollowware. Though he produce, in his own fashion, hundreds of designs, (which still exist in the extensive records of the company), a small number articles were produced during this time including bowls, the most notable of which being the famous Artichoke bowl, which gracefully imitated the shape and forms of an artichoke heart, to bonbonniere's, one of which featured gorgeous cloudlike scrolling shapes and decorations that were punched out of the silver, utilizing negative space within the designs in a particularly undeniable Asiatic idiom. The surfaces on these pieces were often polished and despite Bindesboll's freeform organic style.

Also, at A. Michelsen, he designed a number of cutlery piece, however, not many were produced, and their utility might be questionable, as Bindesboll had a preference to decorate the entirety of the handle of his pieces in broad scrolling floral patterns, or heavy geometric patterns, giving them a visually (and perhaps physically) heavy feel. He would later do similar cutlery designs for both Holger Kyster and Rasmus Jensen.

Overall Thorvald Bindesboll was extremely productive in his creation of varying designs and illustrations, however in these earlier days, he seemed to have little interest in the execution of the design, only concerned with creating his fantastical illustrations. Also, Bindesboll himself was never a silversmith, and relied on the craftsmen who executed his designs to interpret how his forms would be rendered in the finished pieces. In many ways, he himself was learning how silver displayed his designs, and overall he had yet to define his own unique style, and as such a few of his works still bore the same very naturalistic feel of the silversmithy, as well as pulling still from more classical designs In some cases, these leaf shaped motifs would appear on the same items as his more free form geometric or cloud like designs, and later on, some of these would make a reappearance, redesigned and in a more finished style with Holger Kyster. Overall, the variation in design at this time was great, ranging from elegant and graceful to dense and unwieldy.

Henriksen was often provided with only rough sketches in fact, and often required many hours of reworking to render them into working blueprints. As such, these works with A. Michelsen differ greatly from his works with other silversmiths, and in fact, are not wholly “Bindesboll” but are more so “N.G. Henriksen's interpretation of Bindesboll”. This undoubtedly must have frustrated him, as it was distinctly different from his works with ceramics, which he would execute models himself in clay. Despite all these setbacks, it would be his works from this arrangement that would be utilized in the aforementioned 1900 World's Fair in Paris, where he first gained international exposure.

Perhaps because of this reliance on the craftsman, he was very particular about whom he would work with. Though he started working with A. Michelsen in 1898, he also started collaborating with P. Hertz and A. Dragsted shortly thereafter. Not much can be said of his designs for these two workshops, though of notable interest was a three candlestick candelabra beautifully rendered with an inscription at the base, rising up into fluted sections, which was a gift to Joakim Skovgaard from the city of Viborg for the completion of its cathedral. With Peter Hertz, he began simply with his own cutlery set, modeled after his bookplate, with a simple design and four leafed clovers at the base, and a fair amount of scrollwork. He also began working on jewelry with Peter Hertz, though stopped when he partnered with Holger Kyster, and by this time, his own style was taking shape. His cloudlike forms and floral motifs were becoming one, forming the abstract shapes that would later be call “Bindesboll Decoration”.

By 1904 he was working solely with Holger Kyster, whom was recommend as stated previously via Anker Kyster, brother of the goldsmith, and from there, Rasmus Jensen, whom was recommended by Holger Kyster himself. It was with the help of these latter two craftsmen that he found a way to execute the designs most perfectly.

Holger Kyster was born in 1872, and after finishing his apprenticeship which first started with a goldsmith in Vejle, and was completed in Horsens in 1891 under the supervision of Rasmus Jensen, he went about traveling to Germany where he worked in Braunschweig and then on to Cologne. He then went on to Stuttgart and Lucerne and on to Geneva, picking up the languages as he traveled. After completing his military service, he went on to what is Now Oslo, Norway before returning to Denmark and gaining his official trading license in 1896. Primarily his works are characterized by Bindesboll's designs, which he continued on in the style of after Bindesboll's death, and of his own work stated, “Retaining my own techniques of craftsmanship, which were aimed solely at the completion of each individual item in terms of craftsmanship required, rather than sheer production, and this collaboration with the artists of great value for my development.” Personally, Holger Kyster had little ability to design, his skills lie more with the art of reproduction, which he learned whilst in Oslo. This perhaps was of great value when transcribing Bindesboll's designs on to silver, as they retained much of the vivacious aura of Bindesboll's original sketches. They created “a series of pieces of jewelry that made the silver come alive in a new way, and in terms of their originality are amongst the best products of Danish crafts. More than anybody else, their professional collaboration has contributed to the overall status and the distinctive nature of the Danish jeweler's art, while at the same time resulting in the Danish Skonvirke style acquiring its unmistakeable special characteristics among the other contemporary European styles.”

Despite this, his critics at the time often criticized their works as being unrefined, however, Bindesboll's own opinion was “Kyster's work in the chased pieces is better than Georg Jensen's, he employs better craftsmen. On top of that, he's cheaper.” This thrift, however, had come back to them when their dealers had brought to their attention that the customers had disliked the open back to many of the jewelry pieces which exposed the chasing work, which they promptly thereafter began setting a rear plate upon their pieces.

Silver wasn't the only material that they worked with, although it was the most common material Bindesboll's designs were created in. Holger Kyster also experimented in executing his designs with gold, and had Bindesboll had hinted at interest in utilizing platinum though this appears to never have come to fruition.

In 1905, they started to create hollowware together, beginning with a design for a beaker with oak staves decorated upon it. Soon after, bowls, vases, and other pieces began to appear bearing the Bindesboll hallmark and stylistic decorations. A number of cutlery pieces also went into production,also utilizing the scrolling cloudlike designs that he was known for, however also a number played with geometric designs and monograms.As these works grew in popularity, Holger Kyster recommended his former teacher, Rasmus Jensen to handle the overflow of silverware production that he himself could not produce.

However, it was jewelry that made up the bulk of their production, and Bindesboll often enjoyed creating his “scribblings” which would become his designs, primarily pulling its forms from abstract shapes, clouds, and natural themes like waves and floral shapes. Highly organic in their forms, and often broken with highly geometric patterns and balanced with symmetrical patterns, Holger Kyster would “translate” them in his own way, changing them ever so slightly to conform to the nature of the silver itself. Thorvald Bindesboll's favorite spot to create these “scribblings” was at his local pub, Osborne, although he always was sketching on whatever paper seemed handy. It wasn't long until their collaborative efforts began to rise in popularity, and the very people whom criticized them, began to imitate their works.

Thorvald Bindesboll was often very critical of the workmanship of other silversmithies and manufacturies, and this became more apparent by 1907, when Bindesboll's designs started to become widely desired. Though friendly competition existed, occasionally toes were stepped on. One instance existed where Georg Jensen had offered greater pay and a permanent position for one of Kyster's workers in an attempt to emulate their style. The worker had declined, and the situation remained merely anecdotal. Instead, it was, oddly enough, the manufactury, Cohr, that seemed to hound the duo for their designs. What started off as a polite decline on behalf of Bindesboll, stating that he had too much work to contribute his drawings to the company, however, he said in a letter to Kyster, “If one should work for a factory, it must be only be with an artist in charge.” and “I have written to Cohr that I do not have the time and that my designs are unsuitable for use in a factory... Of course I will have nothing to do with Cohr.” not too many weeks later, a brooch sent to P. Hertze was found to be of lesser quality than Bindesbolle had expected, and worse yet, Cohr was somehow involved within the question of its manufactury. Two weeks later, Cohr was requesting designs from Kyster himself, to which he mentioned in a letter to Bindesboll, “To tease him, I showed him the two last things you had sent – he bridled at this and asked whether I knew why he was unable to obtain any. To which I answered: “It is because you are so occupied with making copies that you can't get any honest work.”

Copies and imitations confounded him, and quality had to be maintained to its utmost, (though a rougher workmanship was part of their distinct style,which also contributed to the ability to produce goods at a less expensive price than their competitors), which was often still not possible through the means of mass production factories like Cohr. “As regards our own things, don't make more than there are prospects for being able to sell. Rather that they should be a little bit fewer and a little bit more expensive than that they should be cheap rubbish. Emphasize the independent aspects in relation to the others, and that every item is different”.

If there was any great advantage to be gained from the interest stemming from imitators, it is that soon after Holger Kyster began to produce photographs of executed designs, which would give greater knowledge into the prolific works of Thorvald Bindesboll, though even still, a complete list does not exist. Instead previous works are often known either from existing pieces that are either found or exist in collections, both private and public, and further designs are known primarily through the remaining sketches and the design archives of the various silversmithies whom worked with him.

Thorvald Bindesboll never expected to make a living from his sketches and works in silver, but nevertheless was quite pleased with the success he found in this passionate “hobby” of his, and though his business arrangement with Holger Kyster brought him much success, he also developed a great friendship with the man. On August 27th 1908, Thorvald Bindesboll spending the last few days working on more of his designs from his sick bed to be passed on to his friend and business associate, Holger Kyster, whom continued to produce works bearing Bindesboll's influence.