Design Spotlight On: Erik Magnussen

I recently broke one of my prized Porcelight pendant lamps over my dining table. More than upset, I made contact to see if I could replace it. It was a chance mail which led to me feeling truly inspired by the deceased designer - and realising that I also owned several other pieces by Erik Magnussen - including the classic Stelton vacuum pitcher. Today Magnussen's designs live on through the family business. I caught up with his son Magnus to find out more about the award-winning designer and found his humbleness, struggles with dyslexia and background as an inventor a true inspiration.

Porcelight - Made By Hand (photo My Scandinavian Home) 

How did Erik's Younger Years Influence His Profession?
Erik grew up in a home influenced by art. His Father was a scientist, inventor and an engineer and his Grandfather was an artist (also named Erik Magnussen) who counted Danish architect Thorvald Bindesbøll and artist Svend Hammershøi as friends. Erik was severely dyslexic (he could barely read), but went to a creative-minded primary school which allowed him to spend a lot of time drawing and playing with clay. When Erik was twenty, he built a ceramic workshop in the basement of his parent's home with the help of his Father. A year later he was offered a job at Danish ceramics manufacturer Bing & Grodahl.

Did Erik consider himself a designer?
Erik never called himself a designer, but his passion for crafts began with clay and he always spoke of himself as a ceramicist. However, in his early years at Bing & Grondahl, his work would mostly be described as art. He primarily made sculptures, and the focus was on small productions. But he was eventually drawn to mass production and his projects evolved into porcelain for kitchens - both for private use and businesses.

Porcelight - Made By Hand (photo - My Scandinavian Home)

Did you ever work closely with your Father? If so, how was he in his workspace?
I wasn't working in the company when Erik was active, but his studio was attached to my childhood home and he worked from there since I was born. He very much enjoyed being self-employed, he had complete autonomy over his work and still had the ability to be very productive. Erik got inspiration from everywhere and it felt like he was always working. He spent very little time at his desk, but when he did, he was sketching or working with clay models. He liked the partnership he had with Stelton and Engelbrechts Furniture and he worked closely with the product development departments until the day he passed away.

1960s Z Folding Chair by Erik Magnussen for Torben Orskov (photo courtesy of 1stdibs

What did his creative process look like? 
Erik looked to solve problems he experienced in everyday life, whether it was designing an ergonomically shaped chair, or a thermos jug you could hold with one hand while reading the paper in the other. A lot of his design stemmed from readily available products that annoyed him. He once said:

"Certainly, there is no real need for more stuff. There is so much crap around. And unless you can somehow raise the quality, make everyday life a little bit easier for the end user, only then can you justify adding to the pile." 

He always carried out a lot of research to see what was already available and worked closely with the product development department to keep the production process as simple as possible.

Petit Plateau Lounge Chair / Erik Magnussen for Engelbrechts (2009) (Photo courtesy of Engelbrechts). Erik found inspiration for this chair by contemplating the shape of his left hand. He made the first model from clay.

What was Erik like as a person?
Erik was just as tolerant as his designs. Nobody was too small. There wasn't a clear divide between his work and private life: he worked with people he liked, and many became good friends. He was very humorous, and people often tell me his designs reflect this. He had a concept which he called 'fine-thinking' - it was kind of a joke, but there was some truth to it too. He would lay on a sofa in the living room, put on Miles Davis and close his eyes. To me, it looked very much like he was asleep, but after thirty minutes he would get up and go straight to his workspace and draw something as though he had drawn it hundreds of times before.

Erik has helped shape Scandinavian design in many ways. What set his work apart?
Erik had a different approach to design from other earlier Scandinavian designers. He was more like a scientist. Aesthetics was never his top priority. He had an extraordinary interest in materials, comfort, the production process and making everyday life easier. He took the concept of 'simplicity', which so often characterises Scandinavian design, to another level. Simplicity formed the basis of everything he did. He simplified the process for both the user and the factories in a way which hadn't been seen before. He also wanted to keep the prices down so that they were accessible to more people. I don't think you can find many iconic pieces with prices as low as Erik's. He moved away from creating sculptures for upper-class family gardens to creating mass market products for that very reason.

Erik Magnussen Ship's Lamp 1004 (Photo courtesy of Stelton

Was he ever aware of this?
I think he was aware, but I don't think he thought a lot about it. He was professionally engaged but did not feel the need for attention from the media etc. That's probably why his products are far more famous than his name.

Was there a key turning point in Erik's career?
While Erik was working as a ceramicist at Bing & Grondahl he was headhunted by Stelton to take over the position of in-house designer from Arne Jacobsen. He went on to design one of the most successful vacuum jugs of all time.

The iconic, best-selling Press Coffee Maker and Vacuum Jug which Erik designed for Stelton (photo courtesy of Stelton).

What did your Father think of the success of the Vacuum Jug?
Popularity was not really my Father's thing; the rest of his family was way more excited when it appeared in movies etc! However, I think he appreciated that he had designed a product that people like to use, and it opened up doors for him as a designer and gave him the peace of mind to take on only projects which he felt passionate about.

Did he focus on items solely for the home?
His work spanned many areas. He was known for table top items and furniture, but he also designed interiors for sailboats, navigation equipment and even mixing chambers for the intravenous treatment of cancer patients.

How do you continue his legacy today? 
My vision is to tell the story about Erik in the right way and bring his favourite products back to life. We are currently working on a new website for Erik Magnussen Design, that will tell the story of his creative process and how he worked. It will represent the way Erik mastered simplicity, and how simplicity was more than just straight lines. I hope to see some of his early products go back into production. Some of them have been removed from the market due to business merges, but the products are still there, and it’s up to us to find the perfect manufacturer.

Will you create any new products for the brand?
This has been a sensitive subject since Erik passed away, because we want ‘Designed by Erik Magnussen’ to mean exactly that. However, there have been several product launches since his death, where we worked with smaller details that hadn't been dealt with by Erik. This has been carried out in close collaboration with professional designers who knew him and what he stood for. This autumn we launched an electric kettle with Stelton, which is based on the classic EM77. Erik had already produced a lot of sketches for the kettle, but there were small details that needed to be solved in
order for it to go into production, and we were very happy to get help with the final 1% of the product. We also bring new colour ways to the classic EM77 each year which enables us to refresh the products without changing the design.

EM77 press tea maker & EM77 electric kettle. Photo Brian Buchard, Stelton

Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us more about your Father's designs! I shall look at my wonderful Porcelight and Stelton Vaccum jug in a new light from now on (and certainly be way more careful with them too!

Do you have any Erik Magnussen designs in your home?


Top photo: Erik Magnussen, Plateau chair (Engelbrechts), EM77 (Stelton).


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