From Mattress Springs to Handmade Chairs: the History of Kebe A/S

Humble Beginnings

Every good fairy tale story begins with the words once upon a time. While we love those stories, we all know that real stories are a bit different and not so simple, although not any less interesting. This is a story of how a company started, developed and endured changing circumstances of economic depression and war and how it adapted to become a successful business today.

In 1920 a man named Hjalmar Lystager begin a collaboration with an inventor named Erichsen. The two men’s plans were to produce hairpins in Aarhus under the name Dansk Traadvare Industri. However, the two men were very different in their approach to business and their collaboration soon ended.

Hjalmar Lystager decided to continue Dansk Traadvare Industri by himself on the premises of Hjelmensgade 4 in 1922. His production consisted of chains, hooks and coil springs for bed bases. He was determined but he also knew he wouldn’t get far by himself. In July that year he hired a man named Clemen Laursen who soon became a key figure in the development of the business.

In 1924 only Hjalmar Lystager and Clemen Laursen were responsible for all production of mattress coil springs. However, that soon changed and by 1925, when the factory moved to Viby, the labor force was made up of six men. As the demand for furniture springs increased, the company’s production expanded and especially with the purchase of new machinery a successful business model emerged. What started as a production of two men was now becoming an established company specializing in the production of mattress springs.

The Factory Grows

In 1929, a completely new factory was built on the corner of Ormslevvej and not yet laid out Krabbesholms Alle. Hjalmar was progressive in his company development and bought the rights to patented new spring manufacture technologies to use them in his factory. His eldest son Anker was sent to Wuppertal in Germany to learn the new system. New machines were purchased and in 1930 the workforce amounted to approx. 20 people. The production of flat springs started in 1933.

The mid-thirties were a period of depression but despite this the sales of springs for mattresses was going well. The factory supplied springs to automobile factories such as Ford, Adler, Opel, Citroën and others, the state railways’ new light rail, as well as first-class carriages, and last but not least the brand new royal carriage. Records from that period indicate business was made with new ferries and a number of ships from Danish shipyards. Other customers of note included the new County Hospital in Aarhus and many furniture and mattress factories.

According to newspapers of that time the factory sustained some damage due to a strong storm on the evening of 23 January 1935. A back wall to the 1st floor extension and the roof collapsed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. A newspaper article about the incident indicates that there were fears that people may be trapped in the rubble of the collapsed part of the building and a rescue crew was deployed. The total damage ran up to approx. 10,000 kr., which in today’s value would amount to about 20,000 Euro. Restoration work was done quickly and production continued into the war years with a workforce of about 80 men.

The German Occupation

During World War II, the Germans considered the factory as a potential opportunity for the production of war material but Hjalmar and Anker Lystager would not hear of it. The rejection of a collaboration with the occupying power posed a great risk to the Lystager family.

Many famous Danes had been murdered by the Germans or by their Danish henchmen as a fear tactic and a warning to the rest of the population. That was how the Nazis took revenge on the Danish resistance fighters. Hjalmar went underground and Anker went to Sweden and joined the Danish Brigade. Anker’s wife Gudrun and sons Jørge and Henning stayed in a safe place.

The danger was very real as was proven on the night of October 1, 1944. Exactly at. 01:03 am the factory was blown up by the German terrorist group Petersgruppen. After the explosion, there was nothing that remained of the factory but rubble and part of a wall with the iconic metal spring on top.

Left: photo taken by former Kebe A/S director Henning Lystager of his childhood friend Finn Zachariassen, on top of the new factory in 1948
Right: the old factory building after the explosion on October 1, 1944

The damage was calculated at DKK 494,219 (today’s equivalent of nearly a million Euro) but the company gradually managed to resume production just a few months after this disaster.

Expansion After the War

After the war ended, on May 5, 1945, the Lystager family returned back to Viby. The construction of the new factory now really took off. By Christmas time 1947 the new offices were ready.  On April 19, 1948 the opening of the factory was celebrated with festivities at the canteen and the sound of spinning machines was again a part of the workers’ everyday life. By then Anker Lystager was directing all operation at the factory.

In the following years, the factory expanded tremendously. New productions were taken up and new factory halls were built. In 1960 the factory staff had increased to 40 workers and 4 salaried employees. In the 1960’s there was an incredible amount of development in the Danish furniture industry. Newly invented materials and new upholstery methods were changing the market. To secure the company’s future Anker Lystager explored the manufacture of foam rubber since this new was gradually replacing metal mattress springs. Soon Hj. Lystager A / S became strongly involved in the foam industry.

All these changes resulted in building of a new factory in Hornslet, and the location in Viby was abandoned. In 1958, Anker Lystager’s eldest son Jørgen Lystager, a civil engineer with a degree from Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen, joined the company. He directed all business operations after his father Anker died in 1965. He was the third generation in a direct line of Lystagers who managed the business.

In autumn of 1967, the new factory halls in Hornslet were ready for use, with part of the work now automated. Automatic and semi-automatic machines now did the heavy lifting, enabling more production and more profit. The old factory location in Ormslevvej was slowly becoming obsolete, although it continued to produce mattress inserts through the nineteen seventies. The company operated at that location for a total of 64 years.

The Company Today

A conversion to a furniture production, located at the factory in Hornslet, was in full swing. The company was now producing high quality interior frames and swivel bases for different types of chairs from comfortable recliners to bar stools. To signify the change of manufactured products, the company also changed its name to Kebe Møbler A / S in 1978 under the direction of Henning Lystager. When he died in June 2002 the position of director was the taken over by his eldest son Henrik Lystager.

Today there are no more members of the Lystager family affiliated with Kebe A/S, but the memory of a family’s enduring spirit, as well as their contributions to the Danish business community and the furniture industry lives on. Kebe A/S is still headquartered in Denmark but has production locations in Europe and Asia as well. Currently the company’s managing director is Henrik Schougaard.

The business that had its humble beginnings as a two men operation is now a company recognized for its expert craftsmanship in the production of beautiful premium quality chairs and sofas.

Translated from article by Finn Zachariassen in Vibybogen 2013.

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