|Ole Extraordinarily Ordinary|
|By Pernille Stockmarr, Design Historian, Visiting Assistant Professor,
Copenhagen University, August 2006. In connection with the Torsten
and Wanja Söderberg Award 2006, the Röhsska Museum of Applied
Art and Design, Gothenburg.
By Ole Jensen, 2011
Form and Imagination
By Ole Jensen, 2012
The Hærvej Project
By Maria Desirée Holm-Jacobsen, 2010
Ole Extraordinarily Ordinary
By Pernille Stockmarr, Design
By Ole Jensen, 2003
Things do not appear from nowhere
By Ole Jensen, 2000
By Ole Jensen, 1996
Do we need new things?
By Ole Jensen, 1996
Water, jug and art
By Ole Jensen, 1994
Let enthusiasm reign
By Ole Jensen, 1992
|There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness
in the proportion. Philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (15611626)
Ordinary is anything which is average and conventional; that which is lacklustre
and bland. Everything we consider commonplace and routine is, of course, very
ordinary. The average, habitual, trivial, repetitive and mundane world is, by
definition, as regular as can be. The extraordinary, on the other hand, reaches
beyond the ordinary. What qualifies it especially is being rare, unusual and
remarkable. Objects that are hailed as being exceptionally beautiful or hideous
share the commonality of being uncommon.
We like beautiful objects. But beauty is a relative term. It is, after all, open
to discussion whether an object can be classified as beautiful. Oscar Wilde
expressed this notion very handsomely: “No object is so beautiful that, under
certain conditions, it will not look ugly.” Beauty and aesthetics are academic
subjects scrutinised and studied by philosophers as they seek to qualify the
terms. There is no concord but few would oppose the notion that aesthetics
and beauty are sources of pleasure and that they nurture our senses.
Every age and culture has its aesthetic preferences. In Denmark and the other
Nordic countries, austerity, purity and functional simplicity were all ideals
underpinning what we considered to be beautiful. ‘Less is More’ the mantra
of Modernism had special resonance in Scandinavia. It suited our democratic
nature, since by focusing on ‘less’ we managed to provide more to a wider
consumer audience. We Scandinavians embraced ‘less’ in our own way
emphasising social values and closeness to nature. Organic, curvilinear shapes
became exercises of living democracy that challenged the clean-cut, rational
idiom of Modernism. But not everything that deviated from mainstream design
was readily welcomed. Unusual design has in no way been given an easy ride.
And then there is Ole the artisan craftsman and designer Ole Jensen, born
and bred in the town of Ejsing. He has skyrocketed from a rural background
in down-to-earth western Denmark to present us with such designs as
bombastic, amorphous jugs, colour-splashed rubber bowls and everyday cups
with bone-like drop-down handles signature designs that are so idiomatic
you can’t help toying with the idea of labelling them as modern classics, if one
can use that term in an age of ever-changing fads. Ole is widely embracing:
A streamlined broom; a sculptural, canary-yellow colander; and most recently
his pink, horn-shaped unisex urinal for the new millennium. You can’t help
wondering how Ole’s designs manage to be both exceptionally stylish and
functional at the same time.
Ole’s designs are ‘things’. The term ‘product’ is far too indifferent. The term
‘utensil’ is too instrumental in nature. And the term ‘design’ is, perhaps, too
exalted. The word ‘thing’, on the other hand, has an everyday ring to it,
signifying the context in which Ole’s objects are given functional and aesthetic
purpose. For Ole’s things are, indeed, important things.
Less + more
‘Less is more’ is hardly a fitting label for Ole’s things. ‘Less plus more’ is
perhaps more apt, for Ole is a bridge-builder. In recent years, the art of bridge
building has almost become a competitive sport. Advanced constructions and
elegant designs have shot up, connecting regions and nations and promising
growth potential and a seamless exchange of ideas and goods. Bridge building
is, therefore, an excellent metaphor for the current industrious trend towards
marrying ideas and merging categories. Artisanship and design; technology
and craftsmanship; reality and virtuality. The future and past converge
and crystallise in a living and engaging present.
This is where Ole’s things deliver. Some would classify his designs as lifestyle
products, but lifestyle is such a dated word. However, if we consider the
original meaning of the concept signifying the many ways in which you may
choose to live your life it seems far more rewarding. The designs lifestyle
objects mentioned here can, indeed, be seen as instruments of identity. But
as objects things they can also carry another function, as tools used to
openly re-examine the everyday routines of the mundane world. Good designs
are functionally practical while evoking a sense of extraordinary beauty. Being
just a little ‘too much’ is, therefore, the opening lead for the following chapters
and for the design approach Ole Jensen labels as ‘extraordinarily ordinary’.
The master of montage
Ole’s creative enterprise could perhaps aptly be described as artistic design
mastering, thus reflecting an artistic approach, a designer’s eye for functional
form, and a true master’s wisdom and skill. All three aspects are combined in
Ole’s designs. He is a modern master of montage. With the early artists of
photo and film montage the aim of mixing media and juxtaposing images was
to create new, provocative results. Contemporary masters of montage also
apply a mix of materials to create a new aesthetic whole where individual
components are constituents in a new, composite totality without individually
craving attention. The same could be said of Ole’s designs. Neither as objects
in their own right nor in the creative approach are his designs ever purely the
result of an artistic eye, of the design process, or his skills as a craftsman.
What we are talking of are hybrids.
One is tempted to call Ole a pattern-breaker in several respects. It’s no easy
task to categorise Ole as representing one single tradition. His unusual talent
is, perhaps, the result of being the first in his family to become a designer.
This career move was not in the cards. First he trained as a mechanic, which
was an obvious choice in the light of the family business a small village
petrol station. But his inquisitive nature and tireless preoccupation with art
prompted Ole to take up sketching and later ceramics lessons before he
enrolled in 1981 at the design college in the town of Kolding, Kunsthåndvær-
kerskolen i Kolding. Here, soft clay in the hands of the former mechanic was
given lush, full-blown form, nurturing a personal organic idiom with little
reference to the work of others.
No doubt, his free hand in the morphing of form is most clearly evident in Ole’s
excellent series of jugs, which hold a prominent place in his world of design.
And a jug is not merely a jug. In a mythological sense, jugs are receptacles
representing fertility. A filled jug or vase symbolises wisdom in a human being.
A jug holds, carries and conducts fluids from one place to another. The jug is a
utensil that appeals to our senses in a very tangible way. You grip hold of the
handle and watch the substance flow from the mouth of the jug. You observe
whether it drips and consider the qualities of its grip. More than any other
kitchenware item, the jug is the one object to which we are particularly
sensitive when assessing its properties. Not all functional demands are met
by Ole’s designs but they do challenge our perception of the jug. As design
object the jug is unique. Unlike cups, drinking glasses and flatware, the jug
has no natural brethren at the table. It stands tall, alone and filled with fluid.
It has a handle and mouth. It has an anthropomorphic or animal-like character.
Ole’s ceramic teacher at design college, Niels Lauesen, was an inspirational
figure when it came to capturing the essence of design through crafting, no
matter whether the object was a jug or just any shape thrown in clay objects
he has dubbed ‘pottery creatures’. The form itself carries the message, and in
this Ole has succeeded with his melding of the jug form with that of the ‘pottery
creature’. Jugs have been rotated, mutated and given clear direction in his
hands. Early Gauguin-inspired works were later complemented by receptacles
with handles, adorned with bas-relief horses (32+49). Later these containers
were given a new lease on life. They were equipped with limbs and conceptual
geometrical patterns before the ‘creature’ was finally let loose. Grimacing,
rearing and twisting, these animal motifs warped, contorted and challenged the
traditional pottery jug typology. His sculptural and organic teapot hardly goes
unnoticed in Minimalist homes (9). His spirited seesaw glass decanter plays
cat-and-mouse with its contents, achieving balance through imbalance (10).
Not to mention Ole’s animal-like vacuum flask (4), a shape which sits impo-
singly on the coffee table. Its chunky body has been subjected to surgical
design, finally eliminating the handle altogether. Now, however, you need to
think before pouring. The neck must be gripped; the flask lifted, transported
and poured from with such attentiveness that it is akin to lifting an oversized
rabbit by the scruff of its neck. Pouring coffee from this soft, heavy ’animal’
is an extraordinary experience.
Clay is earthy; it’s down-to-earth. So elementary, primary, ordinary yet so
significant. Clay is unpretentious and on-hand; something you play with at
school. Its characteristic quality is its ultimate versatility and workability only
when subjected to air and extreme heat does it solidify. Clay lends itself to any
shape but beckons forth soft, rounded, organic forms when crafted by creative
hands. It’s a one-to-one experience. What Ole finds essential with clay is its
design potential rather than its tactile values. What he seeks is an organic
idiom full of life and vigour. His preference for working with clay is almost
uncompromising, and clay is always the medium of origin for his creations,
whether it is a ceramic dish or an industrial design. Even his ‘extraordinarily
ordinary’ melanin bowls, produced by Normann Copenhagen, saw first light
in the medium of clay (5). The form is achieved through working with the clay
rather than through sketching.
Ole’s employment at porcelain manufacturer Bing & Grøndal (B&G) after
graduation from design college proved a fertile laboratory of ideas. He now let
his designs loose on four feet. Literally. His jugs turned horizontal to create
a kind of hybrid between a horse and a petrol can, reflecting familiar shapes
from the machine shop and hometown farm stables (25). He paired his skilled
artisan craftsmanship with a conceptual approach, which he nurtured as a
student at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen (19861990).
His formal artistic training gave rise to a swift and dynamic interplay between form and concept, an approach that transcended both the traits of craftsman-
ship and the method of industrial design. His experiments with screen-printing
are worth mentioning, and photos of nude models would feature on his pottery
jugs (45). Adding to this, he celebrated the method and material of his craft
by preserving traces of the industrial process on his experimental prototypes.
And as an artist he offered contemporary comment by featuring super-size
B&G corporate logos on test pieces (26+51). Naturally, these experiments
have remained one-offs, but they illustrate how Ole united an imaginative,
playful idiom with a method of working that cried out to be challenged and
applied to industrial production techniques.
Animals and clay were not the only sources of inspiration. Dandelions picked
from the meadow were neatly arranged diagonally on white plates. A little too
neatly and a little too orderly. But that’s how a master of montage paraphrases
the illustrious Danish dinner service, Flora Danica. ‘Water’, he ironically wrote
on one of his jugs (30). In case it needed spelling out. A superfluous and all too
obvious comment, which nonetheless pinpoints the unity between form, function
and textual meaning. Likewise, an ashtray was decorated with the lyrics to
a Danish children’s song, ‘Jeg en gård mig bygge vil’ (‘I Will Build Me A Farm’)
(38). “A good melody in minor”, as Ole so fittingly calls this quirky exchange
between the nursery and habitual smoking. Text as decoration has since
become far more prevalent, especially among younger ceramicists, who
candidly apply it to mugs, vases and plates as a way of commenting on
tradition as much as preserving it. Text is applied not so much as a substitute
for decoration as simply a new take on décor.
Ole’s formal art training not only offered seminal learning but also the
opportunity to forge important and inspiring friendships, such as with fellow
artist Erik Steffensen, ceramicist Ursula Munch-Petersen and not least Bente
Skjøttgaard whom he married and with whom he shares his studio. Art
photographer and teacher Per Bak Jensen was another influential character
in Ole’s artistic awakening. There is, indeed, a close parallel between the quest
for beauty represented in Per Bak Jensen’s eerie abandoned landscapes and
Ole’s quest for the embodiment of the unassuming and unexpected. Teacher
Freddie A. Lerche was a master at provoking radical approaches, and an
important aspect in Ole’s training was the ability to reduce a design to the bare
minimum, revealing its naked inner essence. Ole and friends from the Royal
Academy also organised art exhibitions, such as ‘Underværker’, featured at the
Baghuset exhibition centre, and ‘Lang Lørdag’. With reference to the inert flaw
of perfection, his exhibits included a shag rug with partially too long pile (48),
a pink cubic bookcase with an incomplete varnish finish (3) and chairs with
a fold in the backrest (50).
With Ole’s work, form is about stripping away adornment and reaching down
to basics while still leaving an opening a small remnant to ponder on, like a
figment of discolouring in a coat of icing. It is a way of granting his forms their
own lives. Such gestures are immensely difficult to incorporate on an industrial
level but toying with the proportions can contribute to the effect. The teapot
he created for the Danish design store Paustian was the first of his designs
to be put into production (9). But what a teapot! Both its inner and outer
surfaces are integrated, reflecting a vision of fluidity reminiscent of the Möbius
strip. The receptacle and the handle are crafted to elegantly converge where
the separate lid slides in place foot-in-shoe. Resting on three soft paws, the
teapot offers a coiled and organic new take on a kitchenware classic, in
addition to showcasing the audacity and accomplishment of the designer
himself. The design is perhaps extraordinary within the world of teapots,
yet surprisingly obvious.
Ole’s designs are associated with the colour yellow. Not everyone would dare
dress a sculptural faience colander with yellow (8). Especially not in these
latitudes. New objects need to stand out and yellow is a primary colour, a
happy colour. Yet yellow can also be cold, amusing and a little repellent. But
it’s nonetheless a bright colour that lights up more than most other colours.
Yellow is an eye-catcher. Monochrome designs tend to be little hard and one-
dimensional but yellow radiates like the sun, highlighting objects and making
them stand out in any bland, everyday setting. Colour something yellow and
it will stick out. Yellow does not conform.
In 1987, porcelain manufacturer Bing & Grøndal and the Royal Danish Porcelain
Factory merged to become Royal Copenhagen. This is where Ole held his
debut exhibition the very same year to enthusiastic critical acclaim. His quirky,
unpretentious design objects and sketches proved popular with the public and
offered a welcome contrast to the established classics otherwise featured by
this bastion of tradition. Five years later (between 1992-93), Ole created the
first prototypes of what was later to be launched by Royal Copenhagen as ’Ole’
tableware. Along with the faience tableware called ‘Ursula’, designed by his
colleague Ursula Munch-Petersen, ‘Ole’ tableware was hailed by the
manufacturer as a worthy representative of a new generation.
‘Ole’ kitchenware draws on the intricate designs of nature. Plates and dishes,
shaped like organic lakes, are dispersed in a landscape of cutting-edge utensils:
a multi-functional juice jug (14), a round-bottomed decanter (10) striking white
cups with drip-down handles (19). A dynamic, cone-shaped grater with a blue
faience base paired with a colander in the form of an incised football, echoing
the Sydney Opera House. It’s pretty apparent. Ole doesn’t design the cup; he
designs the handle and a way of holding the cup. He doesn’t design a grater but
a dynamic grating movement and a vivid background for the grated vegetables
and fruit. The individual parts don’t match. They reflect affinities by association,
such as that of a ladybird on a green leaf, or a heron in a blue lake. Natural
science and enchanted fairytale share the same narrative in his kitchenware,
which features Ice Age topography alongside Barbapapa characters.
Ole isn’t too keen on edges. Not sharp ones anyway, despite their ability to
give contrast to rounded shapes. He’s always one for a soft approach. This is
also apparent in his latest tableware series created for the design company
Normann Copenhagen (41). The handle has been substituted by a knob,
or whimsical horizontal protrusion. Ole’s designs are endearing, welcoming,
proud, banal and a little vulgar. They’re camp. American essayist and
intellectualist Susan Sontag has defined ‘camp’ as being something that is
too much’. It implies over-the-top extravagance and entails (They’re camp,
implying over-the-top extravagance and entailing) a sense of ambivalence:
we are simultaneously attracted and repulsed. Ole’s designs are camp in the
sense that they distort general categorisation and proportion to become soft
toys as much as hardware utensils.
Ole’s designs make an impact. Plump, soft, melancholic, happy. His graphics
are equally as evocative. He sketches on clay and on form. He draws a large
open hand on his ceramic dishes to symbolise the guiding force of the creative
hand (52). He draws a small tight fist in the smaller bowl. Both illustrations`
comment on the creative process. In other cases the technique itself is
represented in the decoration, such as whirlwind glazing applied under centri-
fugal force (44). Ole’s kitchenware designs are vividly graphic, such as his
sculpturally arched broom handle (2), or in the case of his potent, cone-shaped
grater (6). Wallpaper-sized concept descriptions featuring SpeedMarker
graphics communicate Ole’s design principles, such as the round-bottomed
feature of his colander and the manual, old-school exercise of using his rubber
washing-up bowl (21,22,23).
A wizard drops in to toy with our vocabulary. The sensual vocabulary of
materials. Ceramic has a unique resonance. Glass has a clink. Metal feels cold.
Wood is hard and soft at the same time. And the mere thought of the sound
of a knife scraping across a faience dish will send chills down your spine. Our
senses are evoked and we celebrate the sight, touch and sound of materials
in use. And so it is with Ole’s washing-up bowl (11,24,28).
Its soft contours quiver as if it were jelly: red, green, yellow, blue and black.
Why design a washing-up bowl in the day and age of dishwashers? Washing-
up bowls are ugly and quotidian and belong in the cabinet under the sink.
Nevertheless, the washing-up bowl is given a new lease on life, courtesy
of blubbering rubber. It has jumped out of the closet and on to the kitchen
table, revamped and out of this world. It takes its shape from the objects it
contains and has a strange new sound. The bowl is soft, versatile and a joy
to touch, see and hear.
Ole used to hand cast each bowl in his workshop, one by one (7). A refined but
slow, laborious, time-consuming process. New solutions were welcomed and
were rapidly implemented in close association with Normann Copenhagen. The
shape of the bowl was adjusted a little, and casting soon became an industrial
process. They launched the rubber bowl in all colours of the rainbow and it soon
conquered continents far and wide. A new collaboration had set sail, and when
an alliance is forged between industry and craftsmanship, avenues of techno-
logy are set to advance. There is no better witness than Ole Jensen, the man
of animate rubber and clay. Washing-up bowls, cups, a broom with fitted
dustpan (18) and toilets are soon to follow. He still initiates and drafts
interesting product lines using clay. New roads have been blasted, and the
horizon is wide open.
Ole’s things reach out with vivid colours and evocative shapes; they lay claim
to the world around them. They are rarely stackable and more often orna-
mental. They are plain and homey and invite you to both use and behold them.
They have sprouts, beaks, limbs and bodies. They are small creatures invested
with a little extra something to energize the mundane world a power surge
that touches us and makes us think. French philosopher Roland Barthes once
theorised about the concepts of the studium (’the study’) and the punctum (‘the
full stop’). The study is controlled, scholastic and not the least bit evocative.
It is quite ordinary. What is extraordinary is the full stop the metonymic force
of the detail which penetrates us, moves us and touches us. These details are
myriad throughout Ole’s body of work.
Wherein lies the beauty in Ole’s things? Objects of beauty are things that make
our everyday chores and habits more extraordinary. Such things make us smile
and fill us with joy and surprise. To wash up, to pour coffee, to grate carrots
and cucumbers, and to set the table. Genuine ordinary utensils need to be a
little extraordinary. They benefit from being both less and more, and preferably
a little ’too much’. They feed the soul; they are poetically prosaic and thus
Quotes in the text are based on conversations between the designer
and the author of this article during the summer of 2006.
Jensen, Ole: ’Vand, kande og kunst’ in Den keramiske Kande, exhibition
catalogue, Marienlyst, 1994.
Sontag, Susan: Notes on Camp in Sontag, Susan: Against Interpretation:
And Other Essays, Picador, 2001 (1964).
Barthes, Roland: Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography,