Interview with Danish Designer Anker Bak

Danish designer Anker Bak is one of a crop of new designers third-generation furniture company Carl Hansen & Søn is collaborating with to create new products to sit alongside their iconic back catalogue. Design Milk caught up with him to find out more…

What is the most important thing to know about you?

Things take time, and that is the mantra I try to live by. I try to be patient and not hurry things. That comes naturally to me now, but for ten years I struggled with it – maybe it is learned. I try to create so many designs but the goal for me right now is to stop and live out in the fresh air for three months, then I feel I can design something again. I have bought a small camper van, so I am going to a yoga retreat in Sweden then to Amsterdam for a dancing trip, then I don’t know. I just want to sit out in the air and draw some furniture. So things do take time you can’t hurry them up. There are thing you can hurry, but to find the right solution for a design you need to take your time. But I would never just lay back and wait for it to come to me, you have to be open and looking and observing, so I am taking a trip in the van to do exactly that.

What’s your earliest memory of being creative?

Well I am dyslexic so I was always using my hands. I am from a town near Legoland, so I always built Lego as a kid. But I also was working on different kinds of things – always with my dad. The first thing we made was this sling thing, then at boarding school, I was always in the wood shop, and I made a table when I was about 15 – I still have it actually!

Did you study cabinet making at school?

Yes, and then I won a Danish championship for cabinet making. I always thought I would like to be a cabinet maker, but all my friends were at college and they could use their brain and read and all the people like me who were dyslexic were going to do something with their hands. It just didn’t seem very sexy – it was not really nice to be a cabinet maker. I did it for six years full time, then I went traveling for a bit, then I worked as a production technologist and after that I had seven or eight years where I lived in a caravan I renovated, so I kind of went AWOL for a while and nobody in my family really understood what I was doing! But I worked with lots of nice designers in lots of nice places. And because I escaped from the cabinet making during that time, I started thinking I have to use my brain, so I decided to go back to school and do a degree in furniture design. But I would always want to use my hands as well – I even learned to knit!

Tell me about the Point Aid MB Crutch.

That is a passion project. I only make passion projects but this is a real labor of love. My Grandma was around 91, and she had a problem with her balance and she got her first government walker. When I saw her eyes when she got that walker – she is from a part of Jutland where you don’t say what you mean, you say it in a nicer way – but I could tell she wanted a nicer walker. She stopped going out walking, stopped baking, she just walked around her garden and from that day she just went downhill. I decided I had to do something. I designed something in between a crutch and the walker, and it worked really well for her. Because it’s made of wood, you have a nice feeling when you touch it. It is really light, lighter than a normal crutch and it’s really flexible. It is for my Grandma but I am working on the production part, because this product makes sense to put on the market. I would love to push the furniture industry towards the healthcare market. There are so many products in the healthcare industry have that the furniture industry could do better. I call it assisted furniture – furniture with function.

How did the Rocking Nest Chair for Carl Hansen & Søn come about?

The first time I saw Carl Hansen I was having a guided tour of the factory. I really enjoyed seeing the passion, the hand crafted material, the fact they produce everything in Denmark – there was something that just really felt right for me. Afterwards I sent an email with a couple of pictures of a prototype I was working on for a folding rocking chair I had designed for my sister. Two hours later I got an reply with two questions – do you have a prototype, and is it stable? I responded “yes and yes” and they said, “Come on over.” I walked into a meeting two weeks later, and the CEO Knud Erik Hansen asked me to fold the chair out so he could try it, he walked around it, he sat on it, then he looked at me, and said “We’ll take it.” Driving back to Jutland afterwards, I was totally paralyzed with happiness!

You said you designed the chair for your sister – what inspired its form?

Yes, one day I was visiting my pregnant sister and her boyfriend, and I couldn’t really get in the door because of all the baby stuff. When I finally got in, I went into the kitchen for a coffee, and she had this big rocking chair and I said, “Now we can’t even drink our coffee in the kitchen because of this big huge rocking chair,” and I immediately saw in her eyes how important it was for her to have a rocking chair for her and her child, so I designed one that could fold down. That way, the kitchen could be the space my sister and her daughter could have their time together and then when they had visitors, the chair could just collapse and be put aside in the corner.

You have said “Every time I create a new product it has to have a clear point for me, the consumer and society” so this is what you were talking about?

Yes, and as I normally say, it is never about the design, it is always about the story. Design is just a way to express the story. A product has to have a real problem to solve you know. I would never just make a chair because I seen a nice bit of wood somewhere. If I see a real reason to put it into the world I will put it there.

And that is about either solving a new problem or solving an old problem in a better way?

Yes, but what does it mean to solve a problem, is it a big problem or a small problem? The rocking chair solves a small problem, the crutch solves a big problem. I wanted to make the chair for my sister, but it is a beautiful chair and it is adding something new to the furniture industry so that would be the reason.

Danish furniture has so much heritage – do you think there is a danger of getting stuck in the past?

Yes and I really am afraid of that. The only reason Danish designers survive is because of our history, but in 20 years when my parents’ generation passes, nobody will remember the story anymore and then we are gone. Danish design is not working anymore. It is really important that we find a new way to express Danish design, and for me it is about adding more function.

Do you think a lot of your generation feel that way or are you unusual?

People are not thinking this way in my experience. They are just trying to survive, making the products consumers are asking for and not taking risks. People are afraid to stand out and do something that they really feel for. Also it takes time, so you have to be dedicated to it. But I am not dedicated to furniture design, I am dedicated to following my own flow, and that has led me to furniture design. I want to do what feels right, but most people don’t know what feels right for them because of the way we live today. When I was making the collapsible chair, people kept asking if the chair really needed to collapse because it is much easier to make one that doesn’t – and all I could say was that it felt right. I am so happy I stuck to that.

What are you most proud of?

I think the thing I am most proud of is the crutch, really because it solves a problem and it is something new in form bent wood. It is a new thing in the furniture industry, a new healthcare product, and it is doing something new in the production. I think it is a beautiful product too.

Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and, podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years' experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.