First official recognition came in 1904. In the church of Lyngby parish north of Copenhagen. When Magnus STEPHENSEN was seven, his father became mayor and municipal judge at Middelfart on the island of Funen. And it was here Magnus STEPHENSEN spent his carefree youth. But schooldays were not the happiest time of his life. Like many other respectable civil-servant family, his parents dreamed of their children entering university. His aim was to become an architect. So he became apprentice to a joiner and later moved to the Copenhagen School of Building.
From the School of Building Magnus STEPHENSEN graduated to the School of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Art, Copenhagen, successfully completing his studies there in 1930. For a number of years he had also been working at the design offices of Professor Edvard Thomsen and Architect Frits Schlegel. The latter’s influence was particularly significant in development of the young architect.
During his time at the Royal Academy, Magnus STEPHENSEN entered the distinguished gold-medal competition one year – submitting one of the finest pieces of design work the jury had seen in years. But – then as now – there were intrigue and undercurrents beneath the placid academic surface. He was not awarded the medal. And as a dash of salt in the wound he was later told by one of the professors judging the competition: “Dashed annoying I had prior engagement that afternoon – otherwise the medal would have been yours!”
The rather embarrassing outcome of the story event was that Magnus STEPHENSEN was given the travel scholarship normally awarded to the medal-winner. At the same time he was selected to join an archeological expedition to Greece arranged by the French School in Copenhagen. Altogether it meant a year abroad. After three months digging around Greece, he went on to Port Said, picking up an East Asiatic steamer that made several calls at Chinese ports before depositing him in Japan. This was his dream destination. It was 1931. Hitherto, few Danish architects had displayed much interest in Japanese architecture. Magnus STEPHENSEN stayed in the country for six months and met the Danish hotel-investor J.A. Petersen who was permanently resident in Japan and toying a plan to erect a new hotel. They went up into the mountains to discuss designs, plans, layouts – and the British promptly went off the gold standard. World crisis followed, and the hotel king rapidly lost interest in the idea of a new major hotel project. Magnus STEPHENSEN made his way across the Pacific to San Francisco where for a time he joined Architect Svend Stribolt.
The two young architects – former classmates at the School of Building – travelled all over the western states, until Magnus STEPHENSEN had seen all he wanted and crossed to the eastern seaboard. The homeward route to Copenhagen went via London. Today a word trip of this kind is not a remarkable event. If you are short of time, you can probably do it in a week by air. But you miss a wealth of experience on the way.
The trip was decisive in the emergence of Magnus STEPHENSEN as an architect. He had tasted ancient and modern: the classical ruins of Greece, the teeming mystery of the Orient, and the skyscraping concrete colossi of America. But it was the simplicity of expression in Japan that really captivated. He never forgot Japan. And more than years 40 years later, in collaboration with his son Ceramics Designers Snorre Stephensen who also spent a year in Japan, he published a book, “Japansk Brugskunst” (“Japanese Arts and Crafts”). The book’s illustrations indicate clearly how everyday Japanese culture has influence the design work of both father and son – not imitation but community of intelligence.
Once back in Denmark, Magnus STEPHENSEN went into partnership with another school associate, Knid Thorball. For more than 40 years they shared a design office, sometimes working on the same project, but just as often serving different clients. Magnus STEPHENSEN covered a wide field. Some of his earliest work was on a number of private villas that tended toward functionalistic principles – influenced by Bauhaus Dessau, the school that caught the attention of all but maintained its dominant impression only in the less imaginative minds. Even these early pieces revealed a Japanese leaning. In later years these typical and instantly identifiable forms became Magnus STEPHENSEN’s trademark despite the fact that he never returned to Japan. He never severed his connections, however, with the country that had afforded him such a golden inspiration in his youth.
The first group of villas was gradually succeeded by larger housing projects: for instance, an entire district in the Husum suburb of Copenhagen with multi-stories apartments, row houses and a school. The row houses in particular drew attention. The client, Copenhagen City Corporation, had stipulated that they should be designed for large, low-income families. Although the size of each dwelling had to be kept to a minimum, Magnus STEPHENSEN insisted that each house should be clearly defined to give the occupants the firm impression of living in “their own home". The houses in Korsagervej, Husum, were photographed for a string of magazines. Magnus STEPHENSEN had had the opportunity of showing his other artistic cheek, and in the late 1940s the Husum houses were mentioned every time talk turned to contemporary Danish architecture. Another sample of typically Magnus STEPHENSEN thinking followed soon afterwards; Provstegérden (Dean House) in Tagensvej, Copenhagen, a block of multiple dwellings. The architect’s aim here was to resist the trend toward an increasingly uniform appearance in large apartment blocks. His approach was right but he was fighting stronger forces.
The link with Fritz Hansen developed into a series of chairs employing molded wood. The star of the range was Dan-chair, a beautifully simple item that “topped the charts" in Denmark for years. There was also an armchair with loose cushions. It was so straightforward as to be almost everlasting. The annual exhibitions arranged by the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild were well-established at this point. Magnus STEPHENSEN was invited to arrange an exhibition in the very difficult premises under the Technological Institute (this was before the Guild switched to the Museum of Arts and Crafts and Industrial Design). The event was a success but Magnus STEPHENSEN had to turn his attention to other avenues, and other designers took over. Furniture of molded wood lost their grip because the technique was more expensive than laminated wood. Magnus STEPHENSEN gave up furniture design almost entirely. His efforts were directed to arts and crafts — although in fact it was his early furniture that attracted his new clients. One inquiry came from that man of many parts, Silversmith and Woodworker Kay Bojesen, who invited Mag nus to team up with him on one or two projects. The relationship became close friendship. Magnus STEPHENSEN was now designing silver, particularly hollow- ware. The small tea-pot and tea-caddy are from this period (both acquired by numerous museums). With Magnus STEPHENSEN as designer, Bojesen arranged a large exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Crafts; it placed both of them in the public eye, and they were at once members of the small group that set the pace in Danish arts and crafts — a field that had long been left to its own, confused devices. In mid-19th century copies of earlier styles went out of fashion, and individual artists and designers stumbled around trying ever more desperately to hit the magic formula. Only the most talented came anywhere near winning the public over.
At the turn of the century the Jugend influence made itself felt. lt was a watershed. During World War l a campaign developed to revive the classicism of C. F. Hansen. It was, however, quickly supplanted by Functionalism, which was cultivated with almost religious fanaticism. Through this jumble of styles though it is possible to draw a steady line that refuses to swerve in step with changing fads. From Brage’s talkthrough C. F. Willumsen’s and Thorvald Bindebell's natural abstractions a handful of artists emerged with a personal form of expression. Typical of these was Johan Rohde, the painter, who was a fundamental influence in Danish arts and crafts. The next phase in development was represented by people like Kaare Klint and Knud V. Engelhardt. They were as different as chalk from cheese yet reflected the same basic approach to art. Kay Bojesen and Magnus STEPHENSEN picked up from there. A point had been reached where arts and crafts and industrial design split into two schools. Broadly speaking, there were on the one side those
who played to the public gallery and strived to be “modern”, and on the other side we had the modern school doing its utmost not to attitudinise. Mention should perhaps be made at this point of a brief interlude at the close of the 1930s when Danish designers and particularly Magnus STEPHENSEN were engaged by Ernst Dahl’s wall-covering factory to produce new wallpaper designs. Prime mover was Miss Dahl, head of the company's sales outlet in Knabrostraede, Copenhagen, who had managed to persuade young artists to take up the challenge. Production fell off during the German Occupation 1940-45 but picked up again for a while after the war thanks largely to Arne Jacobsen‘s woodland motifs which enjoyed immense popularity. In its New Year issue January 1, 1956, the Copenhagen daily, Politiken, carried interviews of 29 leading names on the subject of society and health. One of the inserts was written by Magnus STEPHENSEN: Picking up the pieces Magnus STEPHENSEN, Grand Prix winner at Triennale, Milan, expresses a few thoughts on the specialist and tourist: The narrow, blinkered outlook of the specialist and the all-consuming curiosity of the tourist are the two extremes of modern man. l wish we could find a state of balance in which the specialist achieved greater contact with the world outside his limited field, and everyone derived pleasure from observing close-at-hand, everyday things.
In classical times this contact was taken for granted but the church’s distinction between the secular and the spiritual, the philosopher‘s distinction between ethics and aesthetics, the many isms and schisms of art, have split modern man into a myriad of fractions. It is time we started picking up the pieces and putting them together again. In 1961 a Sunday newspaper asked a number of artists and writers “What does success mean?" Henry Miller‘s arrogant reply was: “I want fewer and fewer people to read my books!". Magnus STEPHENSEN's reply: On the face of it the answer must be nothing. Creative work is a process in which the object and the person making it are in such direct contact that there is little room for outside influence. If the work is to be successful, it is purely and completely a personal affair between the artist and the object. We live in a happy era when the artistic and the rational can live side by side; and we think we have liberated ourselves from the concept of style. (Whether this is in fact the case l hesitate to debate in such a brief article as this.) It makes the artist's personal relationship to his work so much more natural, and in this arrangement there is no place for an outside factor like success. In my own case, having worked in silver with Kay Bojesen, steel with Georg Jensen, porcelain with Copenhagen Royal Porcelain Works, and houses with numerous clients, I would not for a moment deny that it has been an encouragement having one‘s work recognized by museums, exhibitions and especially colleagues. Obviously it is gratifying. Perhaps one should include good humor as one of the indirect results of public recognition. l have always lapped up public acclaim like a cat sipping cream, and milk is healthy and delicious— but if the worst came to the worst I am sure I could get along without it. On the subject of form and decoration Magnus STEPHENSEN once said in an interview something typical of his thinking: Past generations put the emphasis on the decorative aspect of the design of arts and crafts. ln many cases artists bogged down in ornamentation and fancy work. Then we had Functionalism as a reaction against decoration for its own sake. In numerous cases the reaction was so extreme that in order to stress the function the artist exaggerated the logical balance in the products dimensions. And thereby made exactly the same mistake as his predecessors. Empty decoration.
Source: Mobilia #243-244 October & November 1975