Olsen, Founding Faculty in Design, Dies at 86

Known for Scandinavian Furniture Design Accessible to All

Older couple sitting in light wooden furniture
The Olsens show off their specifically designed furniture. (Justin Han/UC Davis)

Quick Summary

  • His research and creative work reflected his conviction that design should be universal and serve everyone

Helge Olsen, professor emeritus and a founding member of the UC Davis Department of Design who was widely recognized for his furniture design, died on July 11. He was 86.

Olsen’s research and creative work reflected his conviction that design should be universal and serve everyone. He worked as the creative director for design studios in Sweden and the United States, where he designed residential and commercial interior architecture. He received numerous awards and recognition for his furniture designs and commissioned architectural projects, including the 1992 renovation of the International House in Davis. His work designing play environments for children with disabilities includes Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa.

In 2019, the UC Davis Design Museum exhibited the work of Helge Olsen and his wife Birgitta with an installation “Weaving and Woodwork: A Scandinavian Design Partnership." It showcased his furniture and her woven wall tapestries, which reflected their Scandinavian upbringing, training and design aesthetic. That exhibit was covered in the Arts Blog here.  The exhibit had been co-curated by Tim McNeil, professor of design and director of the Design Museum, and Ann Savageau, professor emerita of design. 

“Their work typifies Scandinavian resourcefulness and themes. What today we would call sustainability was historically a matter of practicality and economy.

“Helge’s furniture maximizes material with very little waste, and many of his pieces have more than one function such as the step stool that turns into a high chair for toddlers.” — McNeil

Olsen joined UC Davis in 1967 as an instructor in what was then the Department of Environmental Design and eventually served as chair. During his tenure at UC Davis, he was honored with the Magnar Ronning Award for Teaching Excellence. He retired in 2004.

Olsen grew up in a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark. He received his diploma in furniture and interior architecture from School of Interior Design Copenhagen.

A video about the 2019 exhibit is below. (Video by Nicole Breznik)



Olsen is survived by his sons Henrik and Erik, daughters-in-law Deborah and Elodie, and four grandchildren, Caroline, Christian, Aela and Julien.

See a video interview here. (In this conversation, Emeritus Professor Helge Olsen discusses his career at the University of California at Davis, including important persons and events that shaped his interests and scholarship, how he came to the Davis campus and his experiences, relationships and accomplishments as a member of the University and the local community.)

More information and photos here.

Media Resources

Media contacts:

  • Karen Nikos-Rose, kmnikos@ucdavis.edu; 530-219-5472
  • Michael G. French, mgfrench@ucdavis.edu

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