Brad Ascalon, the First American to Collaborate with Carl Hansen & Son, Talks Process, Craftsmanship, and Learning from Hans J. Wegner
Carl Hansen & Son is, by any measure, a global brand. It made a name for itself in its design-savvy home country through early work with the likes of Hans J. Wegner, Frits Henningsen, and Arne Jacobsen, but its warm, modern aesthetic soon found fans the world over, including in the U.S., now one of the company’s fastest-growing markets. Despite this interest and the proliferation of design talent in the States, the 110-year-old company had never before worked with an American designer – until several years ago, when it enlisted Brad Ascalon to create a line of contract furniture that translated the brand’s craftsmanship to a commercial market. After more than four years in the making, Ascalon debuted Preludia this year at Stockholm Design Week and NYCxDesign. AD PRO caught up with the designer to hear about the process – and pressure – of working with such an historic company and the challenges of translating Danish design for an American commercial market.
Photo: Courtesy of Brad Ascalon
AD PRO: Obviously there’s tremendous legacy at Carl Hansen & Son. What was it like to come into that, and how did it affect your process?
Brad Ascalon: Of course. And for me, the inspiration of this project was the brand itself. It was a great starting point to have this legacy behind me. On my first visit to the factory in Denmark, I took home a leg from a Wishbone chair, which I kept on my desk with me throughout the whole process – just to keep it in the foreground to always think about the brand and what they stand for.
That being said, Carl Hansen now is used to developing products from the libraries of designers that have since passed, working with their estates, so there’s no rush to get it out. So developing a whole collection, there was a bit of a learning curve on both sides. I had to adapt to how meticulously they create every little detail. I like to work fast, not necessarily get products in the market fast, but when I have an assignment I like to bang it out.
AD PRO: Do you think that’s a Danish versus American thing?
Ascalon: I think it’s a Danish versus New York thing! I had to learn, as the process went on, that this was going to be different than a lot of the projects I work on – and it would be better. A few years ago, we were thinking of launching the chairs in Milan, and we just looked at them and said, “It’s not there yet.” And I’m so thankful that we didn’t pull the trigger too early, that it really took these full four years to carefully strategize. During that time we added the table collection, we developed the upholstery, and the collection actually grew out of a hesitance to launch it too early.
AD PRO: So getting into the collection, how did you decide on the shapes that you did?
Ascalon: Well, we knew we wanted to start with a stacking chair, so we worked backwards from there. For the first year this object had no form, we were just concerned with the comfort. We did tests with foam to find the geometry that would make it as comfortable as possible. Then, once we were confident that there was a comfort level we had achieved with a block of foam, we knew it’d be even more comfortable with the wood shell because it had that support. Plus, with 3D veneer, you can bend with and against the grain simultaneously to get this shape. So the form did come out of the material – we knew we weren’t going to use fiberglass.
An mood board showing Ascalon’s process.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hansen & Son
AD PRO: Had you worked in this material before?
Ascalon: No, so that was something I was learning from Carl Hansen. They’d done it once before with the Tadao Ando Dream chair. We wanted to develop a form that was all about the body; I always say that a flower vase should be about a flower and a candlestick should be about a candle; a chair should be about the body. Hans Wegner said something similar: “A chair design is not done until you sit in it.” So we started prototyping the shell before we even figured out what the perimeter was, what the frame would be. And then that gave us a chance to play.
Chairs and tables from the Preludia line.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hansen & Son
Using the same shell, Ascalon created seats in a variety of heights.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hansen & Son
AD PRO: What does it mean to be the first American designer working for Carl Hansen?
Ascalon: Well to start, it’s just such an honor. But it’s also a pretty daunting responsibility. Carl Hansen has been doing really well in America – this country just really responds to the warmth, the heritage, the craftsmanship. So their decision to work with an American was strategic, and I was fortunate to be the one they reached out to. But I do think that design is so universal now; it’s hard to look at a chair and say that this is from America or this is from Denmark or Spain. So I don’t think its necessarily regional or national like that, but there is the DNA of the Danish aesthetic, which is rooted in the craftsmanship. So my job was to match that with my DNA, not necessarily as an American, but as a designer who understands the contract market and the residential market and has a grasp on what people want. Any project is about meeting in the middle between my client and me, finding that perfect spot that creates the right design. So as far as the American thing goes, I think that’s an American thing, thinking strategically.
Ascalon kept this part of a Wegner Wishbone chair on his desk during the design process.
Photo: Couretsy of Carl Hansen & Son
AD PRO: Speaking of designing strategically, the line incorporates several smart features and considerations that are necessary for a hospitality market. Can you talk about how you incorporate those into your designs?
Ascalon: The thing that makes the contract market a different challenge is that it gets used and abused like crazy. But more important, it’s the price point. It’s very hard to compete because it’s a quantities business. We knew that we weren’t going to enter the low price-point game with Carl Hansen, but I tend to think about a lot of my projects in terms of systems and in terms of doing as much as possible with as little as possible. So here, a lot of investment went into that shell – time, effort, tools, prototyping. So I thought, Let’s use that shell as much as possible. Then I thought of the table as a sort of kit of parts – if a firm wants theirs slightly longer or shorter, it was designed to be customized so that only the top needs to change. There’s no need to produce all new joints and structure. We also added these chair hangers on the bottom of the tables, which we don’t have here in the US, but are more common in Europe and are very smart. Every time we go to a restaurant at the end of closing, the chairs are put on the tables, which dents both the chairs and tables, so here you don’t have to do that, you just hang them up underneath.
AD PRO: Finally, can you tell us about the name of the collection, “Preludia”?
Ascalon: I come from a musical background; music is my number one passion, even over design. We were toying around with all these different names – we had a working title that we scrapped after three years, because we wanted something more meaningful. The prelude to a musical piece is the beginning of something bigger, so we thought it was appropriate. This collection is going to grow over time, and Preludia really signifies that. And it’s also meant, in a sense, to be the next generation of the brand.
More from AD PRO: Is Amazon the Best Ally for Independent Makers in an E-commerce World?
Sign up for the AD PRO newsletter for all the design news you need to know