Jacob Jensen, frequent Bang & Olufsen collaborator, dead at 89

Jensen, an industrial designer whose sleek minimalism exemplified the style known as Danish modern, died on May 15, 2015 at his home in Virksund, Denmark. He was 89. — Jacob Jensen Design via The New York Times
Jensen, an industrial designer whose sleek minimalism exemplified the style known as Danish modern, died on May 15, 2015 at his home in Virksund, Denmark. He was 89. — Jacob Jensen Design via The New York Times

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COPENHAGEN, May 22 — Jacob Jensen, an industrial designer whose sleek minimalism exemplified the style known as Danish modern, most notably with the stereo systems and other audio products he created for the consumer electronics company Bang & Olufsen, died May 15 at his home in Virksund, Denmark. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by Rikke Boe Nielsen, the global brand director for Jacob Jensen Design, the company that Jensen started in the 1950s.

Beginning in 1964, Jensen worked regularly for Bang & Olufsen, a long-established Danish manufacturer known for its high-end electronics for home use, for more than a quarter-century. With their smooth surfaces, simple shapes and futuristic controls, his best-known designs — turntables, amplifiers, speakers, tuners — helped transform the conventions of home entertainment systems.

Using materials like brushed stainless steel and white and black plastic, rethinking the standard ideas for knobs and dials and replacing them with, among other things, sliding, clear-plastic panels or wafer-thin push buttons, Jensen emphasised a forward-looking technological aesthetic, helping to push interior design in a new direction as well.

Recognising the groundbreaking look of Bang & Olufsen products, the Museum of Modern Art in New York devoted an entire exhibition to the company’s stereo equipment and the work of Jensen in 1978. A dozen or more of Jensen’s designs remain in the museum’s collection.

An undated handout photo of a 1973 Bang & Olufsen turntable, one of Jacob Jensen’s designs. — Jacob Jensen Design via The New York Times
An undated handout photo of a 1973 Bang & Olufsen turntable, one of Jacob Jensen’s designs. — Jacob Jensen Design via The New York Times

“The Bang & Olufsen pieces are, by and large, among the most beautiful mass-produced objects ever made available in the United States,” the critic Paul Goldberger wrote, assessing the exhibition in The New York Times. Of Jensen’s contribution, he added: “This body of work is enough to earn him major rank among the 20th-century’s industrial designers.”

He was born Jakob Jensen in Copenhagen on April 29, 1926, a son of Alfred and Olga Jensen, who was known as Bebbe. His father was an upholsterer who later made and repaired furniture.

(Nielsen explained in an email that although the MoMA exhibit referred to Jensen as Jakob, Jensen always made a distinction between his “Christian” name and his “artist” name, and that the name of the company was always Jacob Jensen Design. “To my knowledge, it has never been officially documented which spelling was the right one,” she wrote.)

An undated handout photo of a watch from 1986, one of Jacob Jensen’s designs. — Jacob Jensen Design via The New York Times
An undated handout photo of a watch from 1986, one of Jacob Jensen’s designs. — Jacob Jensen Design via The New York Times

Young Jakob left school after the seventh grade, trained as an upholsterer and worked for a time in his father’s furniture workshop, where he designed chairs. He later attended the School of Arts and Crafts, now part of the School of Design of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1952.

From 1952-58 he worked for the Copenhagen design firm of Bernadotte & Bjorn, where he is credited with creating the Margrethe bowl, an enduring mixing-bowl design. He started his own studio in 1958.

In addition to his Bang & Olufsen work, Jensen and his company designed hundreds of other products, including hearing aids, office chairs, phones, wristwatches and kitchen hardware.

In 1990, although he continued to design, he handed the reins of the company to his son, Timothy Jacob Jensen, who as chief executive and chief designer has expanded the company internationally. It now has studios in Shanghai and Bangkok, in addition to its Danish home in Hejlskov, on the shore of Limfjord in the northern part of the country.

Jensen’s first two marriages ended in divorce. Besides his son Timothy, he is survived by his wife, Nanna, and four other children. His autobiography, “Different but Not Strange,” was published in Denmark in 1997.

An undated handout photo of a 1977 push-button phone for Kirk Telephone of Denmark, one of Jacob Jensen’s designs. — Jacob Jensen Design via The New York Times
An undated handout photo of a 1977 push-button phone for Kirk Telephone of Denmark, one of Jacob Jensen’s designs. — Jacob Jensen Design via The New York Times

On the firm’s website, Jensen wrote of his working method:

“In my view, constructing a fountain pen, writing a poem, producing a play or designing a locomotive, all demand the same components, the same ingredients: perspective, creativity, new ideas, understanding and first and foremost, the ability to rework, almost infinitely, over and over. That ‘over and over’ is for me the cruellest torture.

“The only way I can work,” he continued, “is to make 30-40 models before I find the right one. The question is, when do you find the right one? My method is, when I have reached a point where I think, OK, that’s it, there it is, I put the model on a table in the living room, illuminate it, and otherwise spend the evening as usual, and go to bed. The next morning I go in and look at it, knowing with 100 per cent certainty that I have 6-7 seconds to see and decide whether it’s right or wrong.

“If I look at it longer, I automatically compensate. ‘Oh, it’s not too high,’ and ‘It’s not so bad.’ There are only those 6-7 seconds; then I make some notes as to what’s wrong. Finished. After breakfast, I make the changes. That’s the only way I know.” — The New York Times

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