Danish designer Hans Bølling is best known for his iconic humorous wooden creatures. His modern-design legend began when, early in his career, the trained advertising designer playfully crafted small figures as gifts for his beloved wife.
Thanks to the precision and personality in Bølling’s objects, he quickly began selling the wooden creatures to stores. Soon thereafter, he won a design award and invested the winnings in his own carpentry machine. A fortuitous acquisition, as it kickstarted the production of Bølling’s now-iconic Duck and Duckling in the 1950s. The rest is modern design history.
Born 1931 in Brabrand, Denmark, Bølling now lives in Charlottenlund with his wife Søs, whose father, he tells us, is responsible for his branching out into architecture. Balling eventually graduated as an architect from The Royal Danish Art Academy.
We caught up with the prolific Dane only a few days after his 85th birthday. Astonishingly, Bølling, who says he’s too busy working and having fun to retire, is still creating many more new objects in his atelier.
A conversation with Hans Bølling
Tell us about your remarkable journey from architect to product designer.
It all starts with Søs, my wife. We met when she was 16-and-a-half, and I was 21. I was going to be an advertising designer, but her father didn’t think I would be able to support her with that kind of job. So I graduated from The Royal Danish Art Academy and became an architect.
I started working in her father’s design office in the very center of Copenhagen, just by Læderstrædet, Højbroplads and Amagertorv. Since then, I have been working in different places and have created a vast variety of works, ranging from town halls and living complexes to villas, furniture and wooden figures.
Actually, the wooden figures came before everything else. It was something I couldn’t help doing. I created all of them for Søs. In the beginning, I would make them out of coconut tree, Brazil nuts, bog oak and whatever material I could find. At some point, I won a competition creating a pattern that everyone thought was made by the famous Danish ceramic artist Axel Salto. I won some money and bought myself a turning lathe. This became the starting point for the figures you know today. The turning lathe inspired me to do the Duck and Duckling, Strit, Oscar, the Mermaid, the Optimist and Pessimist, and so forth.
What’s the story behind your wooden figures, why these whimsical little characters?
All of my wooden figures have been made for Søs. In that sense you can say that I built my career on love. In the beginning, I made the little Oscar out of Brazil nut. I have been making orchestras with figures playing the flute, drum, guitar. The Optimist and Pessimist were inspired by two colleagues of mine, were the one was always happy and smiling and the other was always moody and sad. For the Duck and Duckling, I was so fascinated by this story about a policeman who stopped the traffic to help a duck and her ducklings pass the street. A photographer caught it on camera, and the picture went around the world in 1959. After that amazing story, I felt inspired to create the Duck and Duckling on my turning lathe.
“All of my wooden figures have been made for Søs. In that sense you can say that I built my career on love.”
What makes you a modernist at heart?
I don’t know. I have just always been doing modern things, modern buildings, modern furniture. I was influenced by Søs’ father, Axel Wanscher, her Uncle Ole Wanscher, and the whole scene they where part of.
What does “quiet design” mean to you?
I like classic and simple design, with a strong idea behind it.
What are you working on these days?
I am always working on a lot of different things. I have loads of boxes filled with figures, drawings, posters and ideas. Maybe a lot of it will never be realized, but it doesn’t matter, I am having fun. I just turned 85 this week, and I have no intention to retire. I am way to busy working and having fun. Just this year, I will launch two new products with Architectmade, so that is very exciting.
“I have loads of boxes filled with figures, drawings, posters and ideas. Maybe a lot of it will never be realized, but it doesn’t matter, I am having fun.”
Describe your dream home…
My home is my dream home. I could not wish for anything else!
What does “home” mean to you?
Where I’m with Søs.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
I like my house, our summer houses on Anholt and in Hornbæk, and my atelier in Charlottenlund.
What’s most important to you in life?
Having fun, creating things and being with Søs. I feel I have been so lucky. I have made a living from what I like doing the most. My work has been a playground, and it still is.
“My work has been a playground, and it still is.”
Who is your design icon, and what do you admire about her or him?
I don’t have a design icon, but I like the coffee table by Mogens Koch, the Colonial Chair by Ole Wanscher, the silverware by Kay Bojesen. I don’t see myself as a designer. I don’t like being a designer. I just love to create things.
“I don’t see myself as a designer. I don’t like being a designer. I just love to create things.”
Who or what inspires you to be the person you are?
Søs. Of course. (Said with a big smile).
What is your life philosophy?
We should remember the human dimension in design. △
“We should remember the human dimension in design.”