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100 years of Bjørn Wiinblad

A tale of a prolific artist

He was one of Denmark’s most productive artists. He travelled the world exhibiting his work, creating theatrical scenery and tapestries, and painting its lovely girls with pert noses and almond-shaped eyes on cups, jugs and dishes. Read about his exciting life through ten decades.

 Blomst Gold

 

By forfatter Lars Hedebo Olsen

Photo from the Bjørn Wiinblad Foundation

 

1918 – 1927

Childhood

The young artist in the political family

Bjørn Wiinblad (1918–2006) was a prolific artist who was constantly innovating, finding new places and new materials to decorate. Because he was so productive – and probably also because he was a good businessman – he became one of the wealthiest Danish artists of the 1960s and 1970s. So wealthy that, at one time, he had seven homes, including in Denmark, southern Germany and Switzerland, which he used as bases when he travelled around for his work or took friends on long trips to see operas and other cultural excursions. No one could have imagined the young Bjørn Wiinblad’s life would turn out this way when he made his artistic debut in 1945. Certainly not when he was born in 1918 in Østerbro, Copenhagen, into a family immersed in politics and social affairs.  

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His father, Otto Wiinblad, was elected to the Danish parliament as a Social Democrat, and his grandfather, Emil Wiinblad, was a founding editor of Socialdemokraten, the Social Democratic newspaper, and was also an MP for a time. Bjørn Wiinblad’s mother Ebba, the lynchpin of the family

 

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Ebba and Otto Wiinblad © The Bjørn Wiinblad Foundation

 

 

(which also included his sister Ulla), arranged their annual summer holidays to their little cottage in Hvidovre. Ebba Wiinblad liked to sew, and preserve food, while the menfolk – including Danish Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning, a frequent guest of the family until his death in 1942 – discussed politics. But one little guy in the family had no interest in politics. That was Bjørn Wiinblad. He preferred to draw and paint, and in time started writing short stories too. Bjørn Wiinblad was a dreamer and had no ambitions to train as a typographer or go into politics.

 

Bjoern Ulla

Bjørn Wiinblad with older sister Ulla © The Bjørn Wiinblad Foundation

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Wiinblad Arbejder

© The Bjørn Wiinblad Foundation

1928 – 1937

Early youth

A difficult apprenticeship

Bjørn Wiinblad became world-famous for his imaginative drawings and decorations, which are full of romantic girls, mythical figures and wonderful patterns. But before he could throw himself into life as an artist, he had to spend some time at technical college in Frederiksberg as an apprentice typographer. He had confided in his father that he wanted to be an artist, but his father insisted he should first learn a trade that would guarantee him a way of making a decent, regular wage.

In 1935, therefore, Wiinblad began studying to be a typographer, and although he could see the sense in learning a proper trade, he didn’t thrive in the typographer environment. Many years later, he told Hjemmet, the Danish weekly magazine, about the difficult years he experienced as a trainee typographer: “Either I’d drop the entire set on the floor, or I wrote poems or doodled in a drawer.” Wiinblad simply didn’t fit into the tough environment and his master was always chasing him up: “I swore to the other apprentices that I’d never be on first-name terms with him after I qualified – and that I’d never drink beer.” Traditionally, you always had to call your master “Mr” until the day you qualified, but as soon as you qualified, you were on first-name terms and celebrated with a cold beer.

The quotes from the 1988 article suggest that Bjørn Wiinblad couldn’t imagine anything worse. Indeed, he never did have to drink beer with his master, because the day he qualified, the Second World War broke out, and everyone had plenty of other things to think about. Perhaps his parents were relieved that their son was now a qualified typographer. As a child, Wiinblad mostly liked to write stories, draw and play on his flute. He often visited the zoo north of Copenhagen, where he spent hours daydreaming and gazing at the beautiful creatures. He wasn’t the best student in school, but thankfully his sister Ulla took him in hand and helped him when he needed it. But she couldn’t save him from his apprenticeship as a typographer, and it turned out that Wiinblad later came to enjoy working with large, empty surfaces, decorating them based on a sketch that he would either draw or see in his mind’s eye.

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1938 – 1947

The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts

The makings of an artist

In 1940, Wiinblad was a newly qualified typographer and, had he followed the beaten track, he would soon have found a job as a printer of books or a hand-setter for a newspaper. But he couldn’t get away from the idea of working with art – preferably as an illustrator – so in 1940 he embarked on a visual design programme at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Initially, Wiinblad adopted the rigorous style of his tutor, Professor Aksel Jørgensen, but he soon began to seek a place where he could fully flourish – where he could delve into his own imaginative universe and draw elf-like figures, women with almond-shaped eyes, and beautiful flowers. He found the answer in ceramics, which his fellow student Lars Syberg introduced him to around 1943. Syberg turned and fired his own pottery at his workshop in Taastrup and invited Wiinblad to try his hand at ceramics.

It turned out to be exactly the right choice. Neglecting his studies at the Academy, Wiinblad set to work at Lars Syberg’s workshop. He was no potter, but he could decorate ceramics, and was especially fond of working with the time-honoured cow-horn technique, which involves filling a cow’s horn with paint and running it over a pot or dish. This produces a particularly fine line and requires a very steady hand.

Wiinblad Fad Med Selvportraet 1945

Self-portrait on a dish, 1945. Earthenware decorated using the cow-horn technique.

Wiinblad graduated from the Academy in 1945 and in the same year debuted with an extensive exhibition in the little Binger gallery on Palægade, Copenhagen.  

Invitation Hos Binger

As well as exhibiting a large number of ceramic pots, dishes and bowls, he also put drawings, posters and artwork for the book Aladdin’s Lamp on display. The exhibition drew a fantastic response, and Wiinblad secured sales worth DKK 1,000 on the very first day. The most important thing about the exhibition, however, was that he met a number of people who would soon be able to put him to work creating even more ceramics and designing even more posters. Among these was Jacob E. Bang, who had recently been appointed artistic director of the small Nymølle earthenware factory. Wiinblad quickly made friends with him, and Jacob E. Bang lost no time in recruiting the young Wiinblad to work for Nymølle. Over the next many years, this resulted in a veritable outpouring of platters, bowls, cups, dishes, ashtrays and candlesticks from Nymølle’s workshop, bearing Wiinblad’s designs.

Thanks to Nymølle, Bjørn Wiinblad items became very popular in Denmark, as most people were able to afford the factory’s goods. However, it was also because of Nymølle that some of Wiinblad’s colleagues felt he was compromising his art for the sake of popularity. Wiinblad was dismissive of this criticism. Thanks to Nymølle, his art was being used by ordinary people every day, and that was what he wanted - to reach as many people as possible.

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1948 – 1957

Becoming established

Wiinblad’s ascendancy and his envious critics

Bjørn Wiinblad’s debut in 1945 was so successful that, within a few short years, his career was so full of interesting projects that many of his artist colleagues must have been envious.

Not only was he given a wealth of assignments from the Nymølle earthenware factory, he had also come into contact with “Håndarbejdets Fremme”, an association promoting arts and crafts, for which he designed embroidery and fabric patterns, and soon he was also engaged as a poster artist for the annual music festival “Spil Selv”. Wiinblad loved music, and interior design articles relate that his home was filled with classical music records and that he would spend whole evenings at his piano. With that in mind, drawing for the music festival was a dream job, because it was all about encouraging more people to learn an instrument, and Wiinblad’s posters soon became so popular that they led even more assignments.

He began drawing for the United Nations in Paris; he was asked to design costumes and sets for several theatrical performances, and he was exhibiting more than ever. Initially his works were mainly sought after in Denmark, but things soon took off in Norway and Sweden too, and in 1950 his ceramics were exhibited at Bonnier’s of New York, which specialised in Scandinavian design. His exhibits were pots, bowls and dishes. His hand-painted figurines with almond-shaped eyes were selling like hot-cakes, too. Just from exhibiting in Stockholm in 1950, Wiinblad sold more than 2,000 pots, dishes and bowls – including Nymølle earthenware and his home-made ceramics.

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In 1951, Bjørn Wiinblad established his own workshop in Hjortekær, north of Copenhagen. He had no desire for a flashy home; he wanted a place where he could live and work, and where there was room for colleagues to come and stay during major projects. It became a hub of production destined for worldwide distribution. Some items were so successful that, in 1955, he was awarded a silver medal at the first international ceramics festival in Cannes, France.

The world discovered Bjørn Wiinblad in the mid-1950s, and soon he was contacted by Philip Rosenthal, who owned an old porcelain factory in southern Germany. He wanted to produce Wiinblad designs.  

Wiinblad had been discovered in Denmark, too; his popular breakthrough came about thanks to his platters, which he created in droves for Nymølle. Critics in the Danish press were somewhat less enthusiastic than Philip Rosenthal or the Danish artists. They wanted to see more variety in Wiinblad’s style. They wrote that they were fed up with his cutsie ladies with their wonky eyes and all the flourishes – that everything was a bit too sweet and innocent.

Wiinblad listened to the criticism but didn’t take it to heart. He was far too busy for that!

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1958 – 1967

A world-famous artist

Wiinblad takes the world by storm

In 1960 Bjørn Wiinblad was appointed artistic director at Rosenthal, in southern Germany. This was just a few years after meeting factory director Philip Rosenthal and his wife Lavinia; Wiinblad formed a lifelong friendship with them. His appointment at Rosenthal heralded an international career, which was quite unheard of among Danish artists. As well as taking on responsibility for artistic production at Rosenthal, Wiinblad also had to settle near the Rosenthal family, and within a few years he acquired homes in the southern German town of Selb and in Geneva, Switzerland.

However, the international appointment was not the only unusual thing about Wiinblad’s career. He also began to earn a lot of money – so much so that he reportedly earned about DKK 10 million per quarter in royalties from Rosenthal. This meant that he was able to throw lavish dinner parties for his friends, invite them on long trips to see operas, and buy all the antiques, records and books his heart desired. And when Wiinblad went shopping, he didn’t hold back: he always bought multiple versions of sheet music and books so he would have duplicates in all his homes and, when he ordered a suit, he had several made up so he could keep the same suit in all his homes.

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Wiinblad and Philip Rosenthal © The Bjørn Wiinblad Foundation

Wiinblad’s artistic and financial success were no coincidence. He worked hard in the workshop in Hjortekær and at Rosenthal in southern Germany. He supplied drawings for Nymølle, which, among other things, led to his famous 12 platters that follow the course of a year of a couple in love. He decorated Rørvig Færgekro inn with beautiful ceramic tiles, which still adorn the walls of its superb old rooms. He carried out assignments for the London Hilton, received international design awards and travelled around designing stages for major theatrical performances – for example for the Royal Danish Opera and the Tivoli Concert Hall. In short, Wiinblad was everywhere. Including in Illums Bolighus department store on Strøget in Copenhagen, which reopened in 1961 after a major refurbishment.

To celebrate the resplendent revival of the store, Illums invited Bjørn Wiinblad to put on an exhibition of ceramics, glass, porcelain, papier maché figures, sculptures and furniture on all its floors. The exhibition opened on 10 October 1961, and during the first ninety minutes, 8,000 people came to experience Wiinblad’s art. It was a time of new beginnings for Wiinblad on the home front, too. In 1966, he moved into an old blue wooden house in Lyngby. He fitted out a workshop and a huge home here; in the years ahead, he would transform it into an Oriental cave, filled to bursting with antique art, Dutch ceramics, books, records – and, especially, visitors.

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1968 – 1977

From musical dinnerware to colourful tapestries

One of the trickiest dinner services ever produced by Rosenthal was called the Magic Flute. Bjørn Wiinblad developed it in 1969 on the theme of Mozart’s opera, and it was so difficult for the factory’s technicians to create that it took them several years to complete. The borders of the plates and lids of the terrines and jugs incorporated Wiinblad scenes from the opera, and the reverse of each piece of porcelain bore text from the libretto in generous, flourishing letters.

Wiinblad adored classical music and, in the Magic Flute dinner service, he managed to combine his zeal for music with fine porcelain. It was even available in a partly gold-plated version. The dinner service was expensive and exclusive, but it also opened new doors for Wiinblad. For example, in 1971 Iran planned a huge festival to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. The Shah’s wife, Farah Diba, had seen Wiinblad’s Magic Flute dinner service, and asked him to design a dinner service fit for the festival, which was one –of the most lavish celebrations of the 20th century. Visitors from all over the world were flown to Iran, where the event – which included 50 tonnes of caviar - is thought to have cost some DKK 300 billion. And in the midst of it all was Wiinblad’s dinner service, which the top VIP guests were allowed to eat from, including King Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid of Denmark. .

Wiinblad Og Tryllefoeljten

Though Wiinblad had grown up in a political family, he had no interest in politics. Consequently, he was quite taken aback when he was criticised in the Danish media for working with the Iranian regime. “If you have a kingdom, why not celebrate it,” he told Ekstra Bladet, somewhat naively, when the newspaper asked him if he had had reservations about working with a regime known for its brutal repression of the Iranian people.

Wiinblad shook off the criticism and embarked on a major tapestry project in Portugal. He had giant tapestries bearing motifs from the Arabian Nights woven in a workshop in Porto in response to an order from an exhibition venue in Dallas, Texas. The tapestries were completed in 1973, and both the American press and the Dallas Apparel Mart exhibition venue were very enthusiastic and hailed Wiinblad “the Hans Christian Andersen of our time”. Wiinblad had no time to rest on his laurels, but busied himself with new assignments: boxes for the Irma supermarket chain, theatrical projects, posters and books. And, not least, the interior of the Bjørn Wiinblad House in Ny Østergade, Copenhagen, which, as a sales and exhibition space, would evolve into a place of pilgrimage for Wiinblad fans for many years to come.

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Wiinblad Og Selskaberne

1978 – 1987

Wiinblad the party animal

Hospitality without borders

In the late 1970s, Wiinblad remained abroad for so long that he had gained the status of a Danish expatriate. He had several homes in southern Europe and often travelled to the United States, where he was engaged in a wide range of assignments. But whenever he came to Denmark, it was party time. He would invite 8, 10 or 12 people at most to the Blue House in Lyngby, where the dinner parties always followed a specific template. The guests included Danish and foreign authors, actors, ballet dancers and artists, diplomats, politicians and close friends. Erica Jong, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Liza Minelli were among his guests, along with famous Danes such as Susse Wold, Preben Kaas, Lisbet Dahl and a host of others, whom Wiinblad invited because he thought they might be interesting to meet.

In the elegant dining room in the Blue House, the table was set with Wiinblad’s own dinner service, hand-painted place cards and candles. The guests were usually served a baked potato hollowed out and filled with soup, garnished with a generous spoonful of caviar. This was followed by a little meat and finally a sweet dessert. Then Wiinblad showed his guests up to his cave-like room, where he served up classical music, drinks and good stories, and when midnight approached, it was time for his guests to leave so Wiinblad could get back to work.

Wiinblad's hospitality knew no bounds. In addition to his famous dinners, he let friends and acquaintances live in all his homes when he wasn’t using them.

He lavished beautiful gifts on his many godchildren and, if he knew of anyone in financial difficulties, he would help as much as he could. Wiinblad never had a family of his own; he never married. But his godchildren and his many friends came to represent a kind of family, and there was virtually no limit to what he would do to help them. Wiinblad was truly a friends’ friend.

But he was a workhorse too. With only a few hours’ sleep each night, he would speed around Europe in stylish cars, and worked on a multitude of parallel assignments: lamps, puzzles, bed linen, textiles, posters, stamps, Christmas seals, copper sculptures and large furnishing projects for international hotels and luxurious cruise ships.

Wiinblad was a busy man, but not too busy in 1984 to travel to to the United States, where he was named Man of the Year by the Danish American Society.

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1988 – 1997

Hotel d’Angleterre

Wiinblad’s conquest of Hotel d’Angleterre

In the late 1980s, the pace of assignments being offered to Bjørn Wiinblad gradually slackened. But that didn’t leave him bored, because, in his typical fashion, he still found lots of projects to work on. In 1988, he created one of his most successful posters, which won international acclaim. The occasion was the Paralympic Games in Seoul in 1988, where Wiinblad turned the Olympic rings into the wheels of a wheelchair. As an elderly gentleman, Wiinblad began to produce more and more posters, which he often made available free of charge for charitable associations and special interest groups. Lu-biscuits, the UN and the national association for the prevention of eye diseases were some of the recipients of Wiinblad’s posters, and the fact that he was able to work both at international level for the UN and for a Danish association of patients illustrates the breadth of his commitment. But there was also time to create a curtain for the new Marquis Theatre in New York, fit out the Mozart restaurant Amadeus in Dallas and launch a new dinner service, Asimetria, with Rosenthal..

Wiinblad Og Hotel D’Angleterre

In the early 1990s, Denmark’s most exclusive hotel, d’Angleterre in Copenhagen, decided to commission Wiinblad to refurbish the restaurant facing Kongens Nytorv square. This resulted in a lot of tiled tables, large porcelain figurines, huge chandeliers and massive wall decorations bearing Wiinblad’s familiar motifs – the little girl with the pert nose and almond-shaped eyes, flowers and flourishes, all maintained in shades of blue and white. The restaurant opened in 1994 and quickly became the talk of the town. Everyone just had to pop in and see the restaurant, and Wiinblad was bursting with pride.

He had more reason to be proud when the Sophienholm gallery in Lyngby devoted all of its rooms to Wiinblad’s works in late 1998. The occasion was his 80th birthday, and Wiinblad himself was busy getting the exhibition up and running. The exhibition, which showcased his development from the early drawings through to illustrations, posters and painted, ceramic and stage works, was the last major exhibition of his works in Wiinblad’s lifetime.

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1998 – 2007

The final party

The twilight years

Even though Bjørn Wiinblad was growing old, he continued to accept assignments. In 2000, he designed the first Tivoli Christmas poster, and when he wasn’t busy burning the midnight oil in his workshop, he was throwing large dinner parties and taking people on trips to operas around the world.

Having owned multiple homes, in 1998 he decided that he wanted to keep two. One in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Blue House in Lyngby.

Wiinblad had a unique ability to look on the bright side of life, and according to his old friends he never dwelt on illness or death. In fact, he withdrew from his friends when they became seriously ill, because for some reason he was unable to cope with their hardships. In the same way, he also slowly pulled back from his closest friends as his own health began to go downhill. When he was feeling at his worst, he refused to see them, but since he’d been such a good friend to so many, they felt they couldn’t leave him on his own.

One of them was Lavinia Rosenthal, who had known Wiinblad since they first met in the late 1950s. They had travelled and worked together for almost 50 years, and shortly before Wiinblad died in 2006 she decided to pay him a last visit. “I’ve never had a friend like him,” she has said, and fortunately she managed to say a proper goodbye before Wiinblad died on 8 June 2006.

Wiinblad loved parties and joy. His funeral was held in that spirit, with lots of champagne, canapés and music for the hundreds who showed up. His final party was a sad occasion, but if Wiinblad had known how many people would turn up to celebrate his long and successful life, he would no doubt have been delighted.

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2008-2018

Art and design after Bjørn Wiinblad

Wiinblad’s design legacy

With Bjørn Wiinblad’s death, Denmark lost one of its greatest and hardest-working artists. Fortunately, however, he left behind a huge legacy of drawings, posters, theatre projects, ceramics, porcelain, bronzes and books. Not to mention the Blue House in Lyngby, which, from the inside out, is steeped in Wiinblad’s energetic and humorous outlook.

Over a number of years, there have been open house days for the public and, if you’re lucky, you can take a guided tour with Wiinblad’s old chauffeur and faithful helper, René Schultz, who has lived in an annex to the Blue House since the 1970s. René Schultz and his wife Eva curate all the stories about Wiinblad and make sure the old house is kept up to scratch, with a fresh lick of paint, the roof in a good state of repair and carpets replaced as and when necessary.

Visiting Wiinblad’s House in Lyngby is like stepping into an Aladdin’s Cave. There isn’t much Danish minimalism in evidence here, but rather a sea of antique furniture, upholstered sofas, mountains of books and wonderful art. You can tell that the man who lived here loved life and enjoyed sharing his home with friends and family. You feel welcome in the Blue House, and you can’t help but be a little envious of the many people privileged to experience Wiinblad cheerfully hosting one of his tasteful and lively dinner parties.

Thanks to the Rosendahl Design Group, new life has been breathed into Wiinblad’s design universe. Under the name of Bjørn Wiinblad Denmark, Rosendahl has acquired the rights to Bjørn Wiinblad’s products and, over the past year, Rosendahl has brought out a steady stream of bowls, cups, candle holders and trays, all decorated with Wiinblad’s wonderful designs.

When Wiinblad died in 2006, interest in his creations was at a low ebb, but today it is as if we have rediscovered his universe. In 2015, when Arken Art Museum in Ishøj exhibited his ceramics, theatre costumes, posters and giant tapestries, thousands of people came flocking. After a period of feeling overwhelmed by Wiinblad’s prodigious output, we are slowly seeing again how amazing some of his art really is – his pottery with its delicate prints, the smiling girls, the posters that you keep coming back to, and, not least, his candlesticks, glasses and bowls.

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Everything is permeated by a joie de vivre and energy unique in the world of Danish – and international – art and design.

That is why we are celebrating Bjørn Wiinblad’s creations in 2018, 100 years after his birth.

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