LONDON — Georg Jensen seems a highly unlikely brand for David Chu, the serial entrepreneur who turned Nautica into a $1 billion business, to embrace. The Taiwan-born Chu sees things differently, however, and says his latest venture plays to one of his long-held passions — and it’s not golf.
“I love house design; I think in my heart I want to be an architect. So I want to make the living business even greater than it already is at Georg Jensen. People are spending more and more time thinking about their living environment — and opportunity is tremendous,” he said.
Silver holloware — for which Jensen is probably best known — is only one part of his grand design. It’s other home objects that really excite him.
“We’re making some beautiful decorative pieces, ceramics, lighting, candle sticks. Jensen did furniture in the Fifties. In the Fifties and Sixties, Denmark went through a design explosion. The Italians, the English, the show “Mad Men” — all of that furniture came from Danish inspiration,” he said.
Chu has only just begun to realize his vision for the Danish brand, for which he and Bahrain-based Investcorp paid $140 million in 2012. Home interiors, jewelry — and to a lesser extent silver holloware — will be a pillar of the company, which was founded by Georg Jensen as a silversmith’s in Copenhagen in 1904.
Chu also wants to cast Jensen as the artistic young person’s go-to design brand — in Europe and Asia in particular. “I don’t want to say ‘OK, Jensen is the next luxury brand.’ For me, it’s really about building Jensen as a true art and design house. If people enjoy art and they enjoy design, then Jensen is for them.”
This month, the brand is opening a House of Jensen in Beijing. It’s a 10,800-square-foot space that will sell the full range of products and have a café — with a chef and manager from Denmark — as well as an art and design bookstore. It’s also located next door to Beijing Centre of Arts, one of the city’s first modern galleries.
“I want to create this place as a café society where people can come to hang out, a salon for the new generation, a place where people can understand what Georg Jensen — and Scandinavian design — is all about,” Chu said, adding that his plan dovetails with one of the Chinese government’s aims. “They’re now realizing they can’t just keep going and building for monetary reasons, and that they have to think about how they can create a new generation of culture appreciation.”
Chu’s approach in Europe is different, but still with art and design at its core. Also this month, in London Chu will officially open a new-generation flagship on Mount Street in Mayfair, home to a mix of young fashion labels like Christopher Kane, heritage brands including Goyard, and the jewelry designer Solange Azagury-Partridge.
Designed by Danish interior architect David Thulstrup, the 1,890-square-foot store spans two floors, and feels like an art gallery with white textured walls, and gold and silver jewelry displayed in black-framed cases. There are watches and men’s accessories — two categories that Chu has recently bulked up — while holloware and vintage pieces — jewelry and otherwise — are downstairs.
Both floors feature custom-made wooden tables — their edges rough and uneven as if they’d been chopped and hauled from the forest that morning — and surfaces dotted and inlaid with bits of silver. Designed by the artist Laura Bergsøe, the tables are meant to reference the silversmith’s work space.
This is the first time in more than 80 years that Jensen does not have a space on Bond Street, which is all part of Chu’s plan.
“Mount Street is a much cooler — and newer — kind of position for this brand. It’s relevant and matches what we’re trying to do.” The store, housed in a former art gallery, is also bigger than the old unit on Bond to accommodate the silver hollowware and home design pieces.
The store is the fifth and largest unit that Jensen has opened in London this year, after shops in the Burlington Arcade, the Royal Exchange, the luxury area of Westfield London and Harrods’ Silver Room. The brand has also moved its location in Selfridges next to Cartier in the Wonder Room.
The Mount Street store also comes on the heels of a new flagship in Munich — Germany is Jensen’s oldest export market — in May. Chu said the U.K. and Germany remain the most important European markets outside Scandinavia.
Although the brand built its name on silver holloware — collaborating with midcentury modern greats including Arne Jacobsen and Henning Koppel — Chu plans to make this a small part of the business, in limited edition quantities. Everyday, moderately priced silver classics such as the voluptuously curving Koppel pitcher and the crinkled Panton tray will remain.
“Holloware today is a bespoke business. It used to be an everyday one, but today young people don’t buy it, and they don’t have time to take care of it. It’s part of the classic tradition, more of a collector’s item. Silver to me is more like an art — and I’m creating an expectation that what you are buying is special,” said Chu.
He’s asked the industrial designer Marc Newson — who trained as a silversmith — to create a limited-edition silver handmade tea set that has launched in Beijing, and will make its worldwide debut in November. All 10 sets will be made to order. Newson is also working on a separate silver holloware tea set for the Japanese tea ceremony, which will also be limited edition.
He is taking a similar tack with jewelry, which remains the brand’s biggest business. Jensen returned to Baselworld last spring after a five-year hiatus with an expanded fine jewelry and watch offering targeted at a younger audience. While entry price points remain, there is now a greater variety of jewelry done in silver, gold, rose gold, diamonds and colored gemstones.
Last month, the brand unveiled its first jewelry collaboration in 15 years, a tie-up with Jordan Askill that is a collection of butterfly-inspired designs based on a Thirties brooch he found in the archives, done in gold, silver and diamonds or bespoke-cut blue topaz or citrine.
Askill said he wanted to work with the brand because of its “creative, experimental design history,” its mix of old and new product — and its people. “There’s a lot of love and passion at the company and people who have been working there for decades. The collaboration was a beautiful moment for me,” said the designer, whose pieces recently sold out during a recent trunk show in Taipei.
Chu declined to reveal Jensen’s sales volume, but said revenues have been growing in the double digits. Industry sources estimate they were $150 million last year. He also said it’s too early to start talking about long-term goals for the brand, such as an initial public offering. That would not be unusual considering that Investcorp acquired — and later floated — both Tiffany & Co. and Gucci.
Chu said that going public would be “a potential opportunity,” among others. “Let’s make it successful — and then we can figure out what the options are,” said the man whose heart is now in the house and home.