Meet Morten Engelbrecht: The Man Who Hacked the Stackable Chair
In 1989, at the young age of 28, Morten Engelbrecht embarked on a career journey that would eventually enshrine him in the pantheon of Danish design: he founded Engelbrechts Furniture, a company that would not only bear his name but also disrupt the international design world with a clean, honest, and timeless aesthetic. In fact, with the launch of Erik Magnussen’s CHAIRIK chair in 1996, Engelbrechts unleashed a revolutionary product that hacked the traditional stackable chair and maximized efficiency and space by allowing the storage of up 1000 chairs in just 150 sq.ft.
Now, 25 years later, Engelbrechts Furniture is stepping beyond its traditional B2B framework and engaging with American consumers directly with a new business-to-consumer line.
“The influence Engelbrechts Furniture has had in its nearly 30 years of existence is truly impressive,” said Tina Pilgaard, Deputy Head of Trade and Director of Design at the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. “And it’s exciting to see what impact they will have on the US market in the coming years.”
DenmarkInNY recently caught up with Morten Engelbrecht as he visited New York City to put the final touches on a B2C launch that will see his furniture sold at marquee outlets such as Design Within Reach, among others.
DNY: How did you end up working in design?
Morten Engelbrecht: It’s quite simple. I started working in a furniture shop in Copenhagen. One of the best, famous ones. It wasn’t very big, but it took an interest in the best Danish brands. I was only 17 years old at the time, driving around with furniture, sofas, tables, chairs, and I very fast got an interest for design furniture. Then I tried to apply for the School of Architecture. I applied twice, but I realized that it was never going to happen. Today, I am happy that I didn’t get in because I think it’s more interesting to be on the financial side of the table and then work with the architects.
In 1989, when I was 28 years old, I started my own company. I imported design from three of the biggest and best brands in Europe, one from Italy, Germany and Spain. I didn’t have the money to produce my own furniture yet. In 1992–93, I was asked by a Danish company to produce some of their furniture. We made some office furniture and shelving systems and we got very huge jobs, but I could see that these jobs would end one day. Instead, I spent all the money I had earned developing the first product of Engelbrechts, the CHAIRIK chair. That was my first big product. Then it just took off from there.
What is the specific philosophy behind Engelbrechts furniture?
Simplicity, functionality, high comfort, the design must be useful. We don’t make small details just to make it look nice, that’s not how we work. During the design process, we always ask the architect “why”. “Why should we make it?” “Why should it look that way?” “Why four legs?” “Why three legs?”
In terms of new products, what is the source of inspiration?
The inspiration comes from many different things. First, I map whether there’s a need for a new product. Does it have to be a sofa, lounge furniture, a shelving system? Then we talk to a designer, and then we define in which range we should do it.
To many people, who are not into the world of design, a chair is a chair. How would you step in to say “this is why this one is unique”?
It is like cooking great food. Why go to a Michelin restaurant if you would like a burger? It’s a little bit the same way with us. We make furniture for architects, and I know what attracts the architects. We speak a language that architects understand, so we’re not only creating furniture to make a new stacking chair, it’s extremely easy to make a stacking chair, but to make it nice and to have a unique idea, that is not easy. That’s probably why we don’t have that many products in our range.
How did you end up hacking the stackable chair, figuring out how to create the most efficient one, ending up with the CHAIRIK?
I was lucky enough to meet architect Erik Magnussen, and I asked him to make a sofa system with different, simple units. He came back two months later without a sofa, but with the design of a stackable chair. He had already tried to sell it to a big Danish company but was turned down. I saw the model and from the first view, I was… It’s not a loud shouting chair, it’s very calm, but I could tell that it had something special in its DNA.
What was the reception, when the CHAIRIK came out?
Extremely well. Very fast, many people — mainly architects — could tell that the simple design was unique. They grew fond of it, and we got huge jobs. Selling 500 chairs, 1000 chairs, 2000 chairs. It grew in a very fast pace.
You’ve said that Engelbrechts is about “attention to details and making no compromises” and that you even design your own screws. Why is that important to you?
Because we want to talk to the architects, and they understand it. If you take a normal person from the street, he doesn’t care, but I often ask the architects if they realize that we create our own knobs, and they do notice. That’s why they choose our design.
How does Engelbrechts’ design play into the Danish tradition of design? Do you see Engelbrechts being a part of the Danish design legacy?
We are a small player, but I definitely think we add something to the generation and the market. I hope so.
Pivoting to the reason why you’re venturing into the US market, what inspired you to take Engelbrechts Furniture to the next level?
The US is a huge market, and I think that if you can succeed here, there is an enormous potential. I see an enormous potential in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Miami. In Manhattan alone, there are 2000 design offices.
What do you hope for Engelbrechts’ future in the US?
I hope the US market will appreciate our products, and eventually, within the next couple of years we will see the Engelbrechts Furniture succeed in the US.