Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971) was one of Denmark’s most influential architects and designers. A hero to lovers of Nordic style – his Swan and Egg chairs are iconic – no visit to Copenhagen is complete without taking in some of his legacy.
Although he is known today mostly for his modernist furniture, Jacobsen actually disapproved of the term designer, considering himself an architect first and foremost. Indeed many of the furnishings that established his reputation were initially part of the overall designs of his architectural projects. He was a modernist and naturalist that prized utility.
Fastidious to the point of distraction, Jacobsen was noted for his close attention-to-detail in everything connected to a structure, from its grounds to its interior furnishings. It became a trademark, perhaps best illustrated by the SAS Hotel in Copenhagen that he designed in the late fifties, where Jacobsen assumed responsibility for everything from the striking cigar-box shape down to the ashtrays in the rooms. Like much of Jacobsen’s architectural work, the hotel was initially controversial with a public that disapproved of the stark, almost brutish geometric forms. Yet is has now become a defining landmark on the Copenhagen skyline and is considered the world’s first “designer hotel.”
He had originally planned to become a painter, but switched to architecture at the suggestion of his father, who viewed it as a more secure future. Jacobsen’s artistic skill is evident though in his surviving presentation drawings. Having studied under Kay Fisker at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Jacobsen won plaudits early in his career, and became known for his avant-garde, ultra-modernist outlook, as well as an abject refusal to compromise on quality at any step.
In 1943 Jacobsen escaped to Sweden, where he focused on wallpaper and fabrics, before returning after the war to a Denmark in urgent need of housing and new public buildings, that welcomed his Spartan, cost-effective approach. Architectural functionalism was embraced by the Danes in the sixties, and Jacobsen’s work was in great demand. Many large commissions followed, but by this stage his furniture was also meeting significant critical approval.
Having travelled extensively in his youth, whilst Jacobsen’s designs never relinquished their Danish roots, they also possessed a distinct international outlook. Perhaps his best-known work, the innovative Seven Series chair, was inspired by his American contemporaries Charles and Ray Eames and their work with plywood bent into several dimensions. It went on to sell over five million units, and become possibly the world’s most copied chair design, one of which was made notorious by Christine Keeler’s provocative pose. Like so much of Arne Jacobsen’s output, the Seven Series was notable not only for style, but functionality – lightweight, stackable and compact, a Modernist’s dream.
Arne Jacobsen’s Ant, Egg and Swan chairs similarly went on to become timeless design classics, instantly recognisable by their unique silhouettes. Jacobsen also produced the Cylinda Line of tableware for Stelton, which made waves with their brushed stainless-steel finish and simplistic cylindrical outlines.
To Jacobsen, the thought of relaxation was completely alien, and several of his projects were still to be completed at the time of his death. He was known for inflicting punishing round-the-clock schedules on his team, and for his perfectionism (born from a need to test the outer reaches of his design and materials) that led to frequent delays. Yet this avuncular pipe-smoker also had a great sense of fun, as can easily be seen in the charming illuminated “mushroom” canopy of his early filling-station at Skovshoved, and the comic lifeguard towers at one of his best-remembered projects, the Bellevue Beach Complex.
Jacobsen designed some stunning lights, our favourites being the Bellevue light in 1929 and the AJ1 suspension light which he designed specifically for the Hotel SAS in Copenhagen.
Arne Jacobsen to summarize was a Danish design visionary and genius. Without him today design would be different.
The Team at Cimmermann
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