By Birgit Jenvold
Thorvald Bindesbøll was a key figure on the European scene, a man who created his own unique style on the basis of contemporary artistic trends and an extensive knowledge of the art of previous epochs and other cultures. Bindesbøll is Denmark's most original designer to date, the Danish artist who has done most to open up new avenues of possibility in the fields of ceramics and silver. Bindesbøll set new standards for work in crafts and design, and he was a leading figure in the developments that took place in the field of design at around the beginning of the twentieth century. In terms of decorative work, he is the most distinguished artist ever to have emerged from Denmark, producing designs for furniture, bookbinding, embroidery, and much more. His work still serves as a source of inspiration to this very day.
Thorvald Bindesbøll. 1901
Thorvald Bindesbøll – a biographical sketch
Thorvald Bindesbøll was born in 1846 into a family that was part of the artistic élite in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. At the time, his father, the architect M. G. Bindesbøll, was engaged in completing his most renowned work – Thorvaldsen's Museum. Early in his childhood, Thorvald began to display considerable artistic talent, and he retained a wide-ranging interest in cultural matters throughout his life. In the period 1861–76, Bindesbøll trained as an architect at the Kunstakademiet (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts) in Copenhagen, but received only few commissions in this field. He also passed the polytechnic examinations in chemistry, and this certainly had a significant influence on his knowledge of colours and glazes in his work as a designer of ceramics and pottery.
Ever since his childhood, Bindesbøll had designed embroidery patterns for his sisters and other female acquaintances. However, his career as a designer began in earnest in the early 1880s when he began to explore an interest in ceramics. Crafts and design came to play a major role in his life, and Bindesbøll embraced an incredibly wide range of different materials and subjects, although in his later years he concentrated principally on silver. Bindesbøll achieved international recognition – both as a designer and as an exhibition organiser – at several of the large contemporary exhibitions, including the World Fair in Paris in 1900.
Bearing the nickname "Bølle" (the Danish equivalent of "lout"), and accompanied by many anecdotes about his somewhat unusual life and behaviour, Thorvald Bindesbøll has also inscribed his name in the annals of Danish art as one of the great personalities, a man who gave vent to his opinions without mincing his words, and a man who was loved, feared and hated for his work.
One of the main sources of inspiration in Thorvald Bindesbøll's decorative work was Japanese art. Ceramics were a main contributor to the development of Bindesbøll's unique decorative style during the 1880s, and in many of his sketches, Bindesbøll anticipated the abstract style of art that was to develop in the course of the twentieth century. This new style was also expressed in his other work, and his ability to fill a surface in a decorative manner – a skill which he had possessed from his earliest childhood – was gradually honed until it was second to none. For Bindesbøll, there was no shape nor any artistic motif that was exclusively linked with any particular material, and it was therefore only natural that he should transfer motifs from one material to another. Bindesbøll's style is distinguished by experimentation with carefully manipulated and often non-symmetrical compositions, experimentation which often produced dynamic and harmonious results.
The innovative designer
The artistic idiom employed by Thorvald Bindesbøll anticipated the art of the twentieth century, and the multitudinous aspects of his talent were put to use in countless different contexts. Bindesbøll's work with crafts, design and applied art helped pave the way for the development of the Skønvirke style, the Danish version of Art Nouveau, Jugendstilen and the Arts & Crafts movement, all of which placed emphasis on quality in the contexts of both artistic creativity and craftsmanship. In international terms, his contemporaries knew Bindesbøll best for his bookbinding, while he also took part in the world fairs that were held in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Today, many people are familiar with Bindesbøll's style from the Carlsberg beer label, a label still in use today and one that has decorated literally billions of beer bottles in the intervening years. It was a characteristic feature of his work that he was engaged in an idealistic struggle always to achieve the very best, both in artistic terms and when working with craftsmen. When Bindesbøll and other artists interested in design formed the Dekorationsforeningen society in the 1880s, the purpose was also to generate a sense of renewal in crafts and design, and to extend the scope of crafts and design on an industrial basis, thus making them accessible to the general public.
From 1880 onwards, Thorvald Bindesbøll manifested an interest in ceramics and pottery. In the period up until 1906, he produced several hundred works in ceramics, and developed his own distinctive style. The majority of Bindesbøll's ceramic works were turned by professional potters on the basis of his instructions or working drawings, after which Bindesbøll decorated the wet clay himself, and applied the glaze. Bindesbøll made his first attempts at work of this kind in 1880 at Frauens Lervarefabrik, when he was accompanied by his friend, the architect Andreas Clemmensen. Bindesbøll subsequently moved to the workshops of Johan Wallmann (1883–91), where he worked together with a group of artist friends, forming the Dekorationsforeningen society to put on exhibitions of artistic ceramics. In the summers of 1890 and 1891, Bindesbøll stayed with Kähler in Næstved, and from then on, he worked exclusively with Københavns Lervarefabrik, which had been taken over by Wallmann's head craftsman, G. Eifrig. In the period c. 1901–08, Bindesbøll also designed a large number of ceramic items for everyday use, these being intended for mass production at the P. Ipsens Enke terracotta factory.
Silver – Copenhagen
From 1897 until his death in 1908, Thorvald Bindesbøll was mostly engaged in the design of silverware. It was the Danish court jeweller, Carl Michelsen, who commissioned Bindesbøll to design silverware for his own company, A. Michelsen in Copenhagen – the largest silverware factory in Denmark – after having been appointed to take charge of the organisation of the Danish participation in the World Fair in Paris in 1900. At the Paris exhibition, Bindesbøll exhibited almost twenty pieces of hollowware, including bowls, vases and beakers. These attracted considerable attention both in Denmark and abroad, and works from this exhibition were purchased by both Danish and foreign museums. Even after Bindesbøll's death, the A. Michelsen workshops continued to manufacture hollowware based on his designs.
From 1902 onwards, Bindesbøll was also engaged in design work for two of the other leading Danish silverware manufacturers, the workshops of A. Dragsted and P. Hertz, with the latter producing mostly jewellery and cutlery. However, from 1904 onwards, Thorvald Bindesbøll worked almost exclusively with Holger Kyster in Kolding.
Silver – Kolding
It was in 1904 that Thorvald Bindesbøll made the acquaintance of a young Kolding goldsmith named Holger Kyster, having been introduced to him by Kyster's older brother, the bookbinder Anker Kyster. A close working relationship developed between Bindesbøll and Kyster, a link that was to continue for the remaining years of Bindesbøll's life. In Kyster, Bindesbøll found a craftsman who understood how to transform Bindesbøll's often somewhat rough-and-ready designs into silverware items of high quality. After this, Bindesbøll's working relationships with other silversmiths came to a halt, with the exception of Rasmus Jensen in Horsens, who became involved in the production of cutlery and jewellery at the suggestion of Kyster himself.
After Bindesbøll's death, Holger Kyster continued to work on the basis of the artist's designs, and in his spirit. Many of the items of cutlery that bear the hallmarks of Bindesbøll and Kyster were thus actually produced after 1908. Holger Kyster's successor, Jørgen Krogh, also continued producing cutlery based on Bindesbøll's designs, long after the death of the original designer.
Thorvald Bindesbøll was engaged in designing furniture from the beginning of the 1890s onwards, and many of his assignments were carried out to order. A number of these items of furniture were strongly influenced by the so-called "artist furniture" movement of the nineteenth century, with its use of historical styles. In other items, however, Bindesbøll gave freer reign to his own original style. Bindesbøll's furniture designs attracted some attention from his contemporaries, and a number of his works won Grands Prix at the World Fair in Paris in 1900. Bindesbøll also worked with interior design, his commissions including such places as the Bangsbo manor house and the Copenhagen premises of Kleis, the art dealer, where Bindesbøll worked with both the rooms and their fixtures and fittings in order to create a harmonious overall visual impression.
Thorvald Bindesbøll received only few commissions as an architect. On several occasions, he took part unsuccessfully in the medal competitions held by the Kunstakademiet (the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts), until his design for a proposed swimming baths in Italian Renaissance style won him the lesser gold medal (in a minor competition).
Apart from two manor houses in Sweden and a few individual houses in Denmark, very few buildings based on Bindesbøll's designs were actually constructed. His lack of success as an architect may well be due to the fact that his ideas were considered too radical, and that he was unwilling to enter into any form of compromise concerning the way in which his designs were to be used. Nevertheless, one of his architectural projects is now one of the best known and loved building complexes anywhere in Denmark – the fishing warehouses in Skagen. These are some of the most aesthetically pleasing and functionally successful buildings to emerge from this period.
Bindesbøll as a source of inspiration
The work of Thorvald Bindesbøll has been the source of considerable inspiration for both artists and designers. Familiarity with his abstract work is a crucial prerequisite for being able to understand the development of Danish crafts and design in the twentieth century. It is against this background that, since 1981, the Kunstakademiet (the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts) in Copenhagen has awarded the prestigious Thorvald Bindesbøll Medal to those who have distinguished themselves by efforts of particularly high quality in the fields of applied art and industrial graphics. Among Bindesbøll's contemporaries, his friend and student Svend Hammershøi (1873–1948) was one of the artists who displayed the greatest talent in developing his own artistic idiom on the basis of the influence of his great mentor. To this very day, the inspiration of this great pioneer can still be seen in the work of leading artists, who continue to be fascinated by the originality of his works and by the modern thinking inherent in their mode of expression. In Denmark, every new generation of artists has to align itself in relation to Bindesbøll!
The Bindesbøll collection at Koldinghus
Museet på Koldinghus has one of the most extensive collections of the works of Bindesbøll in existence. The major part of the collection was made possible when the Kolding goldsmith Holger Kyster – Bindesbøll's friend and the craftsman who knew how to bring Bindesbøll's ideas to fruition – died in 1944, and bequeathed his entire collection to Museet på Koldinghus.
Poul Dedenroth-Schou: Thorvald Bindesbøll and the Silversmiths. Kolding 1997
Poul Dedenroth-Schou: Thorvald Bindesbøll - an Innovator of Danish Silver
Paper about Thorvald Bindesbøll for a seminar in Bröhan Museum, Berlin, october 2001
Poul Dedenroth-Schou: The Silverworks of Thorvald Bindesbøll 1846-1908
Paper at the ICOM-ICDAD conference 2005: "Historicism, Neo-tradition and Retro-design" I Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet - Museum for kunst, arkitektur og design