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Danish Rocking Sheep - a hit in USA

The Povl Kjer rocking sheep has now turned 25 years of age, having achieved the status of a modern classic in Scandinavia a long time ago. However, these sheep were still met with enormous interest and welcomed into the ranks of international class craft and design when Danish Crafts presented them at the ICFF fair in New York.

By Kirsten Sørrig

While he works in his beautifully located sculptor’s studio near the village of Ry and the ironically named (and only) Danish mountain, Himmelbjerget – the Mountain of Heaven - in the midst of the highland lakes of Denmark’s mainland peninsula of Jutland, Povl Kjær is always surrounded by a flock of sheep of the race ‘rocking sheep’.

The flock usually consists of 50 sheep and grows day by day under his experienced hands. He produces about 500 sheep a year and they have been in great demand since they were presented by Danish Crafts, first at Ambiente in Frankfurt and then at ICFF in New York in May 2007.

Povl Kjer’s rocking sheep are represented in Danish Crafts latest collection, CC11, and this sent the sheep out into the world in earnest – interest is particularly strong in the USA. ‘It is something quite new for me to be marketed internationally in this way. Earlier people found their way to me, I haven’t sought customers out at all,’ says Povl Kjær.

However, through the years the design and furniture stores have ensured that rocking sheep live in European countries such as Holland, Belgium and Italy as well as in Japan and the USA.

In Denmark and the other Nordic countries they achieved the status of modern classics a long time ago,

showing that they can thrive anywhere – rocking sheep usually live to a ripe old age and can easily rock several generations of children. The great-grandmother of them all came to the world in 1981 as a gift to Povl Kjer’s one year old niece, Julie. It was produced from recycled wood and a fleece from her grandparents’ sheep. The first rocking sheep was made as a toy to remind the little city-girl that her family originally came from the country. Today however, the rocking sheep is valued for its unique craftsmanship and as a beautiful piece of furniture rather than as a toy.

In fact, it’s a piece of furniture which is produced as a piece of furniture and used as a piece of furniture,’ says Povl Kjer. ‘It sits very nicely in an interior and therefore it’s very rare for a rocking sheep to be hidden away in a child’s bedroom after the child has grown too big to rock on it.

Rocking sheep are often to be seen in public institutions, in banks and in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms where they signal good design and craftsmanship and create a humorous and cosy atmosphere.

Povl Kjer trained at Kolding Design School and the Aarhus School of Architecture. This was followed by a period in Norway at the Rauland Academy where he studied folk-art and became smitten by woodcarving. In 1981 he finished his apprenticeship as a carver and

established his own studio where he has since worked with sculpture, design, models and reconstruction.

Despite the recent growth of interest in the rocking sheep, his production methods haven’t changed, and in general there are only a very few changes from the original idea. Today they are made of pinewood and black, white, brown or grey lamb’s wool fleeces from a small, family-owned tannery in Norway.

‘I make everything from scratch and any kind of serial production can’t get much bigger than 50 at a time because this is exclusive craftsmanship and besides, there’s not room in my studio,’ he says. ‘Apart from anything else, I’d start getting bored if I only did sheep all the time. I couldn’t bear to have to stand and turn the legs for 500 sheep in a row!’ The rocking sheep form the perfect complement to the rest of his work. His production is divided into three main categories: commissions for museums, business companies and experience-centres, his free artistic work, and the rocking sheep.

‘It gives a good balance, because just as I can’t stand to turn sheep’s legs for several weeks at a time, I can’t concentrate on working on a sculpture eight hours a day for weeks at a time either. So when I’m doing a piece of sculpture the sheep are a good break where I can relax a bit.’

At present Povl Kjer is in the process of carrying out a museum commission involving historical figures – fifteen officials in historical garments for the diocese of Viborg. He has also carved lively figures, working and beer-drinking, for the Carlsberg visitor’s centre in Copenhagen, figures for Aarhus City Museum, the town of Ribe’s Vikings and the Fyrkat Viking Centre, the monastery of Esrum Kloster, the Natural History Museum of Aarhus, and a large collection of figures for the museum Hans Christian Andersen’s House in Odense.

When the bicentennial of the world famous author’s birth was celebrated, Povl Kjer created a large wooden statue of the fairy tale writer for the entrance to the museum’s new annex. And when that was done he began to work on no less than 27 wooden figures from Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, including among others, The Little Mermaid.

‘Looking back on the last 20 years of my life, there have always been sheep in the studio. So even though I’m usually involved in new, original pieces of work or commissions, at the end of the day it is the sheep for which I’m renowned and the sheep which I’ll always remember as my faithful companions,’ he says.