Bodil Kjaer: The iconic Danish designer returns to her throne

Every era seems to evoke some kind of nostalgia. Whether it’s the roaring twenties and the impact of the economic boom following the first world war, or the 1960s with its continued influential pull on the workplace – each is a marker in history that in some way or another gets repeated in time.


The 60s, most notably, is a timestamp defined by modernism and one that has provided many reference points throughout the decades. Picture the office back then: endless rows of desks, typewriters, ashtrays, penholders, glass and polished surfaces spring to mind. Many aspects have changed, particularly in terms of technology growth and the influx of new laws and regulations that frown upon smoking indoors and taking the all-too-regular boozy breakfast meeting. Yet although this ideal of corporate working is archaic, it is an image that lingers today. 


Mid-century offices were typically one-room affairs with paperwork assembly lines that imitated the factory. Sooner or later, this model backlashed against the worker’s requirement for peace and consequently there dawned the age of the cubicle. And running alongside this revolution for privacy was the need for flexible working – that is, a way of working suited to the employee’s needs. As perhaps the most prominent aspect of the modern office today, it may come to a surprise that this call for flexibility first originated in the early 60s – and the mastermind who spearheaded this movement was Danish architect and designer Bodil Kjær.


I spoke with Kjær on a cold winter’s morning in December – one of those dark risings that mark a distinct turn into the frozen months. Regardless of our dusky surroundings, both in Denmark and my base in London, we had a positively bright and warm discussion about her career and how, with designs that endure the ever-changing industry, her work with flexibility has become a true marker of this day and age. 


Kjær was born in 1932 and was brought up in the countryside on the land that had been owned by her family since 1400. Her parents were well-read pillars of the community who “instilled a sense of aesthetics and a feeling for quality, along with a deep respect for nature”, she says. Her father was an anglophile – “His car was British, his socks were British, his suits were tailor-made from British cloth,” she says, before describing her move to England at the age of 18 to study English Literature. 


Throughout her stay in England during the 1950s, she met students from all over the world and was introduced to English craft, design, architecture, ballet, theatre, museums and the general way of life – this wanderlust aspect played a part in forming a holistic and universal approach in her work. 


“It was always on my mind that I wanted to move to England,” she says. “London was the place to go – everything was happening there.” And at this time, Kjær discovered “the tradition of well-thought-out furniture and accessories”, that later became Elements of Architecture – an emblematic series that formed her Indoor-Outdoor collection, recently relaunched in collaboration with Danish furniture company Carl Hansen & Søn – but more on this later.


After her year in England, Kjaer returned to Copenhagen and joined the State School of Interior Architecture in Copenhagen, during which she had the fortune to encounter teachers such as Finn Juhl and Jørgen Ditzel – “from whom I learned much about the creation of spaces and the design of elements of interiors,” she says. After a brief residence in the United States from 1958-60, she planned and designed showrooms, offices and exhibitions from her studio in Copenhagen between 1960-65, when a British Council scholarship led to further study in London at the Royal College of Art and the Architectural Association.


She remained in London until 1979. Notable during this period was her time spent at engineering group Arup, where she developed new methods for the design of flexible work environments – a then-ahead-of-its-time concept we’re currently seeing infused across the office globally. 


“When I started my professional life in my first job, we had projects that involved designing offices and workplaces – the workplace could be anything from a factory to an office building or university,” explains Kjær. “To me, the workplace is where many people come together.”


Kjær has a broad-ranging background – defined by her infatuation with and respect for architecture, plus a keen interest in the dialogue between furniture and its surroundings. “I’m not an architecture critic or a historian, but I think it’s good that there are many different expressions – look at what happens in India, California and Europe, there’s many different expressions and different forms,” she says. “My focus has been on the uses, which is why I focus on flexibility.” 


And more recently, her quintessential designs have been rebirthed in the form of numerous collaborations – which includes 10 key Elements of Architecture pieces (including the Desk, the Cross-Plex occasional table, the Cross vase and others) reproduced by major manufacturers including Carl Hansen & Søn, Illums Bolighus, Karakter and Holmegaard. 


Recent years have seen a resurrection – and her work is no less relevant than when it was first conceived. But how exactly can one create a product to withstand the constant changing and evolution of design? “I think we are still in the time of modernism,” Kjær explains. 


“The work I did back in the 50s and early 60s was an answer to that time in modernism which was after the war, where all sorts of new materials and methods had been developed – if you look at design then, we were all concerned about methods and materials and expressed ourselves in different ways. So we were part of modernism – an era we are still in.”


As the remnants of the past still loiter within the walls of our modern working quarters, then how does “flexible working” compare to the past? “Well, ‘flexible working’ is basically trying to give the user something that they can control themselves” – she acknowledges, after I enquire about its definition and whether sit-stand desks or adjustable furniture are an answer to this modern shift – “because when the people can control their environment, then they’re happy. These tables that you can hoist up and down – it’s just a very simple solution.What I did in my office design was that I always gave the user a possibility for standing to work, or sitting or lying down in between, because everybody knew that if you could relax then you could work better. I think it’s wonderful to see that young people are actually doing what we tried to do in London back in the 60s and 70s. What we predicted actually did happen.”


With this in mind, the new Indoor-Outdoor series, derived from Kjær’s Elements of Architecture – which she refers to as “equipment” for users to “build their own flexible environment” – now joins Carl Hansen & Søn’s collection of classic designer furniture. 


“It’s another extension – you have one shape of the furniture and you use it indoors and outdoors,” Kjær explains. Originally designed for the American market, among the first places the furniture was used was when Jose Luis Sert (designer of the Sherman Student Union building at Boston University and then-dean of architecture at Harvard), specified the pieces for indoor as well as outdoor use. Next was a golf club, designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese for the employees at Cummings Engineering at Otter Creek in Indiana during the 1960s, which also incorporated the furniture. Then a high school in Vienna, "which was used indoors and out,” she says. “But then my life went on and I didn’t follow up on what happened with my collection – it was just produced.”


The launch with Carl Hansen & Søn sees minor improvements to the designs: the wooden materiality has undergone a robust upgrade and dimensions amended to suit all body sizes and shapes. Reflecting on the original Indoor-Outdoor series and seeing it updated, Kjær comments: “In the beginning it was terrible because I had to try and remember what happened 50 years ago, but then slowly it became interesting. Most interesting was that I was meeting people – new people from the next generation who are interested in my work. I think that’s the pleasure of it – speaking to young people who love it. Especially young men who are deeply in love with my desk,” she jests. “I don’t know why it’s so popular.”


Kjær also enjoys adapting an old piece to today’s production line, because due to new materials and new methods, “we can improve things”, she says. Having just won the prize of honour at the Danish Design Awards and on the receiving end of numerous lunch invitations, there is quite frankly no end to this powerful woman’s reign. Her Elements of Architecture series, which is currently going through its reproduction piece by piece, is just one fine example of the cyclical lifestyle of a well-designed and flexible product that can withstand the test of time. 


“You don’t stop being a designer,” she says while discussing whether she will embark on any new projects. “I’m 86 years old and I get very tired sometimes, but it’s wonderful in many ways.”