Hans Bølling talks about his playful and sustainable creations

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Danish architect and designer Hans Bølling is 91 years old and passionate about life. But above all, he is his wife’s lover. “My inspiration for everything I do comes back to her,” says Bølling, pointing to Søs, her partner for over 60 years. They drink white wine in the living room of the house they’ve shared for decades – a single-storey prefab house that Bølling has extended seven times, in Charlottelund, a coastal suburb north of Copenhagen.

Displayed proudly on tables, forgotten above a stack of books on a windowsill, and strewn on shelves in Bølling’s home studio, sit prototypes and early models of dogs and ducks and cubs dumb guys; exotic birds perch here and there, a shapely mermaid emerges a few times. Wandering horse heads, sailors on their boats, wheeled monkeys and other wooden delights enliven and populate the space.

Hans Bølling: a legend of Danish design

Hans Bølling photographed at home and in his studio in Charlottelund in 2019. Photography: Luke + Nik

These figurines – including Oscar, an affable lop-eared dog designed in 1953, and an elegant duck with his stocky little duckling from 1957 – are arguably Bølling’s best-known creations. Almost all of them were originally made as gifts for Søs, and later for their two children. But Bølling’s rich portfolio also includes building and furniture designs, making him a nuanced multidisciplinary talent who, late in life, finds his work rediscovered, or simply discovered, with long-lost designs brought into production for the first time.

“I always say that I spent my career playing, not working,” says Bølling. ‘I can’t sit still. I like to play with things and experiment. I can’t help myself: I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and I run to sketch it. It never stops being fun!

Bølling’s most recognizable piece of furniture is the pleasingly simple “Tray” table, which consists of a foldable H-frame base on castors and two reversible circular tops, one placed at table level, the other resting like a shelf below. Conceived in 1963, the prototype was developed in a single day when Torben Ørskov, the late visionary owner of Copenhagen design store Form & Farve – where many of the biggest mid-century names got their start selling at detail – asked Bølling to offer a portable light and coffee table. Bølling went to his studio and made the coffee table right away, translating his idea directly from head to hand without sketches. Ørskov was delighted with the design, and only then did Bølling put it on paper for production. The table has since become a classic. Since 1990 it has been produced under license and produced by Danish manufacturer Brdr Krüger and is in the permanent collection of Design Museum Denmark in central Copenhagen. “It’s a very well-known design object. I think you could call it a signature piece,” says museum director Anne-Louise Sommer. ‘Bølling is a designer with a playful, humorous and understated approach to life and design. In that regard, he is rather Danish, in the best sense of the word.

Duck1957, inspired by a family of ducks crossing the road in bustling Copenhagen. Photography: Luke + Nik

In a land known for furniture and fairy tales, Bølling has made a career out of the functional and the fantastical, creating objects with a clear, utilitarian purpose, and many more just because. With his herd of wooden creatures, Sommer notes that Bølling could be seen as a kind of successor to the playful carpentry associated with the prolific Danish goldsmith and designer Kay Bojesen (1886-1958), who designed a quasi-zoo of animals in wood during its lifetime. (today he is widely known for the long-limbed monkey that hangs around every Danish house).

Although Bølling’s animals enjoyed rapid success in the 1950s and 1960s (today most are produced by the Danish company Architectmade), only a handful of his furniture made it to market, not least because it did not seek production outlets for most of his ideas. His daughter, Anne-Mette Bølling, also an architect, notes that the sketch of one of her father’s creations recently put into production had been stored in a plastic bag in the family bicycle garage for 50 years.

Bølling was, in many ways, “overshadowed by the well-known architects and designers of what is known as the Golden Age of Danish design in the mid-twentieth century,” says Sommer. These included Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl and Nanna Ditzel (whom Bølling particularly admired). Sommer adds that Bølling – born in 1931 in Aarhus – was part of a younger generation, or as Bølling himself puts it: “When I was young, other architects were a bit older. Then when I was a little older, the other architects were downright old. Now I am unmistakably old and the others are unmistakably dead.

‘Tray’ table, 1963. Bølling took just one day to develop the prototype of this classic, now produced by Brdr Krüger. Photography: Luke + Nik

Although some of his contemporaries, including Poul Kjærholm – one of Bølling’s instructors at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts – would also become stalwarts of the mid-century movement, Bølling maintains that he never felt particularly aligned with the names and faces that dominated those decades. .

“I don’t think I ever felt a connection with them, they were all very smart. They never made a bird, though, they never fooled around – they were so focused on building something,” he says. “But I never felt neglected; I always had to do what I wanted. Maybe I was a bit of an outsider because I was just running around, having a good time, never caring about anything.

Bølling first studied textile printing (he is a talented illustrator and was planning to go into advertising) at the School of Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen, and it was there that he met Søs, the younger sister of a classmate. Søs’ father was the famous architect Axel Wanscher and his uncle was Ole Wanscher, one of the great mid-century furniture designers. Once Bølling, then 20, started dating Søs, Wanscher suggested (read: insisted) that his future son-in-law pursue a degree in architecture. Bølling completed an apprenticeship in carpentry before enrolling in the architecture program at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He married Søs in 1959 and graduated the same year.

A collection of candlesticks, 1965. Photography: Luke + Nik

For much of his early career, Bølling worked in his father-in-law’s architectural practice on projects including municipal buildings, housing estates, private residences and villas, and Øresundskollegiet – a large-scale dormitory , associated with the University of Copenhagen, which is still admired and used today.

Bølling made his wooden figurines and came up with furniture designs while maintaining his day job. Yet he formalized his off-duty activities with the launch of his own parallel studio in 1960. He went on to work on several prominent architectural projects, including the Tokai University boarding school in Præstø, Denmark.

Interest in Bølling’s work is still going strong, as it continues the trend of reissues. In 2017, Brdr Krüger took its longstanding relationship with Bølling a step further and presented its ‘Triiio’ table series for the first time – which comes in café, side and dining sizes. Featuring a playful and abstract three-legged wooden base (with a hint of Noguchi geometry) and a glass top, the table, originally designed in 1958, has found an enthusiastic following. French luxury house Hermès has chosen the design for its new Copenhagen flagship, commissioning a larger bespoke version of the display case for a range of its coveted tableware.

“Being able to share Hans’ work with the world is very exciting,” says Jonas Krüger, Creative Director of Brdr Krüger and the fifth generation to be part of the family business. “Thinking back to ‘Triiiio’ was like finding a diamond in the rough. Seeing the sketch of this table was like discovering an instant classic.

‘Tops’, 1965. Photography: Luke + Nik

Krüger notes that Bølling has a unique ability to design with playfulness and a sense of naivety, while being analytical and precise at the same time. He’s not ashamed to show his stupid side. He’s emotional and doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says Krüger. “He’s not the strict academic type, although he can produce works like the ‘Tray’ table, which reveals that kind of thinking. He plays many instruments, so to speak.

Krüger hints that consumers can expect to see more Bølling products in the near future (since this interview, Bølling has launched new furniture with Brdr Krüger). And Bølling confirms that retirement is not on the cards. ‘Why the hell would I want to do that?’ he thinks.

Bølling moved his studio to his home several years ago and has a workshop at the back of the house. When Søs receives friends, he retires to his office and draws, or plays with things on the lathe. “Ideas don’t slow down with age,” he says.

Given his many talents – architect, designer, craftsman, draughtsman – one can’t help but wonder how Bølling defines himself. Looking back on his career, what does he see? What is his legacy? Is he the nice and jovial buffoon of Danish modernism? A whimsical carpenter? A master of understated design finally getting his due? “To tell the truth, I mostly consider myself married to Søs! Bølling persists. “You know, we kiss every night goodnight, we’re grateful for each other, our kids and this pretty wonderful life we’ve built.” §

A collection of sketches by Hans Bøolling, including the ‘Strit’ figurine, 1953, and the ‘Discus’ bird, 1961. Photography: Luke + Nik

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