Kristiansen trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and finished his apprenticeship as a furniture maker in 1948. He soon found employment as a journeyman cabinetmaker with Kaare Klint, a man sometimes referred to as the father of modern Danish furniture design. Inspired by his mentor, Kristiansen would be known for excellent craftsmanship and innovative, human-centred design. He set up his own design shop in 1955 where he worked with a range of manufacturers to create furniture “defined by clean lines and a perfect balance of form and function.” In fact, it was one such business relationship that led to Kristiansen’s most famous design.
More than just a prolific designer himself, Kristiansen loved supporting the work of his contemporaries. To that end, he organized a regional furniture fair from 1956 to 1965, and was the driving force behind the Scandinavian Furniture Fair from 1966 to 1970.
Kai Kristiansen is recognized as one of the most talented Danish designers to emerge in the mid-century period. His designs, with their innovative aesthetics and clever practical elements, are highly sought-after today by both collectors and interior designers.
Kai Kristiansen created the Model 42 chair—also known as the “Z chair”—in 1956 while working with Schou Andersen, a family-owned company established in 1919 and still in operation today. We may never know what exactly the company asked for when it contracted Kristiansen to create a new dining chair, but we can imagine their response when they first saw the Model 42: The design is innovative with striking angles and the clean lines Kristiansen was known for. It has the “floating” quality common to Danish mid-century modern furniture, but still appears grounded and solid. And the excellent craftsmanship is apparent from just one glance.
The human element is also present in the “Z” chair, seen in the pivoting backrest that adapts to each individual’s seating position. Being both comfortable and attractive, the chairs are versatile enough to work as dining room furniture and armchairs in a living room—adding the “functional” portion of the “form and function” equation.
Comfort and style abound in Kristiansen’s other dining chairs, like the gorgeous Model 31, also designed for Schou Andersen. Kristiansen’s Model 121 is another example of humanistic design. Considered one of his finest designs, this lounge chair is minimalist and sleek, yet inviting and comfortable.
Another of Kristiansen’s most renowned designs provides ample evidence of excellence in both form and function. His FM-Reolsystem was first created for Feldballes Møbelfabrik in 1957. Later versions were produced by Fornem Mobelkunst. The FM-Reolsystem consists of a series of teak shelves and cabinets hung on wall-mounted metal uprights. Ads from that era show some of the many possible uses for the shelving unit.
Kristiansen was known for desks which, like all of the pieces he created, included practical elements that flowed from the design. Perhaps his most recognized is the roll front desk, which included a round drawer and book shelves on the reverse side.