Hans Christensen uniquely shaped the craft of silversmithing in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark January 21,1924, to Holger Christensen, an accountant, and Valborg Makkenbol who took an interest in the arts, Hans was directed to a career in silversmithing by his business-wise father.
Apprenticed to the world renowned Georg Jensen Silversmithy in 1939 concurrent with student classes at the Copenhagen and Oslo School for Arts and Crafts, Hans completed basic apprentice training in 1944 with the creation of a journeymans project that won top honors in a yearly nationwide competition. Honored personally by King Frederick of Denmark Hans received two silver medallions for design and execution of his now famous Tea Pot. The next eight years saw Mr. Christensen rise to the top position in the prototype department of the Jensen organization and interacted daily with many of the artists who made up the prestigious Jensen design staff.
Hans accepted an invitation to a faculty position at the recently formed School for American Craftsman in 1954 and taught generations of silversmiths and designers for the next 29 years. Hans was first to hold the Charlotte Fredericks Mowris Professorship of Contemporary Crafts, the only endowed position for contemporary craft in the nation, from its inception. Honors were many for Mr. Christensen who exhibited widely throughout his career including an award winning presentation at the Brussels Worlds Fair in 1958. He was named to lifelong status as a Fellow of the American Crafts Council in 1979, was a member of the Guldsmedehøjskolen, Copenhagen, the Institute for Arts and Letters, Switzerland, the Society of North American Goldsmiths and a member of the Nathaniel Rochester Society. His work was reviewed in 13 American and 51 European publications and his work resides in the permanent collections of the royal families of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, England and Iran, past presidents of the United States, the Vatican as well as numerous other political, literary, sports and entertainment figures.
He had recently completed work on a sterling silver ceremonial collar of office for R.I.T., a cross for Bishop Matthew Clark of the Rochester Diocese and had recently received notice that a sterling silver chalice had been accepted to the permanent Vatican Collection of Contemporary Art. At the time of his passing in 1983 he was survived by his wife Els Christensen of Rochester, New York, his mother Valborg Christensen and brother Per Christensen both of Copenhagen.
Hans died in an automobile accident on January 16, 1983.
Thoughts from Bernard Bernstein...
Twenty-four years have passed since I first drove down the leafy colonnade of Rochester's East Avenue. I arrived where a little street, unbelievably named Goldsmith's Alley, ended in front of the decaying building that was home to the School for American Craftsmen.
I was to make that trip for four summers until both a journeyman's piece and a masters thesis were behind me. Two summers later, I made the trip again. Just for the fun of it. The fun of it, as always, was Hans Christensen.
I had come to R.I.T. in 1959 to study with the legendary Dane for whom no shape was impossible to raise or planish. The legend held up, but I also discovered Hans, the person. He would have awed me had he never swung a hammer at all. I am surprised at how much I remember after all these years. But with Hans, forgettable things became memorable.
I remember his wit. Did those nutty things happen only when Hans was around, or was it how he recreated stories of ordinary events that made them linger in your mind? Was there really a tourist who innocently ate the plateful of moldy cookies that one Copenhagen bartender had been using for years as "food" to comply with the local liquor laws? Did Danish akavit really look and taste like water to a group of Americans visiting the Georg Jensen factory until they fell down the stairs five minutes later? And what about that impromptu trip from Rochester to New York's Fulton Fish Market one night because he and Tage Frid had a nostalgia attack about the flounder they enjoyed in Copenhagen? Yes, those were funny stories, but the elfin grin, the laughing eyes and the fractured Danglish made everything seem funnier.
I remember his teaching. Summer students were a motley mix of dilettantes, degree candidates and assorted lost souls thrown together to form an educational mine field. For Hans, however, everyone was preparing for the Guild exam and he taught like he believed it. I heard that one winter when he was home nursing a cold, a group of students invaded his house, dragging hammers and stakes, and planished away merrily in the presence of his eagle eye, from which no vagrant bump or hollow could hide.
Lecturing in English was a creative art for Hans. How many generations from now will some silversmiths still call that Z-shaped tool a "snareling iron?" Yet, all the important ideas were thrust home with his special brand of pungent economy. I remember: "You may as well do it right; it's going to be ugly for a long time"; and "Hold the hammer straight or else you'll have all those little half-moons sitting there smiling at you.
He was frantic for months over the disappearance of a particular hammer. It was the "magic hammer," which planished beautifully even in the hands of hopeless clods or southpaws like me.
I remember his integrity. Hans's thoughts and actions defined the term "social responsibility." He cared about things very deeply and followed a code that might be considered old fashioned by today's standards. Hans enjoyed sharing his ideas and convictions out on the lawn during coffee and lunch breaks. No, situational ethics was not his game, and enough years have gone by so I can tell about the time an advanced student sought advice about a prestigious national design competition. Hans showed the student his entry. A short time later the student came up with a design that was remarkably similar. When the student refused to withdraw his design, Hans withdrew his own.
He was a gifted
artist, teacher and person, and his leaving has created an unfillable
space. I treasure my memories of Hans Christensen. I mourn the reason
they all flooded back in one day.
For a more comprehensive biography, go here.