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Disruptor Series: Arne Jacobsen

We explore how the Danish architect and designer democratised design, developing iconic furniture pieces that remain influential today.


3 min read

Arne Jacobsen – Biography Archive

Words: Dominic Lutyens
Images: courtesy of Arne Jacobsen

Disruptor might not leap to mind to as a word to describe Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971), who many primarily associate with his luxuriously comfortable Egg and Swan chairs. But this architect and designer radically changed the design landscape in his native Denmark and beyond its borders. An advocate of the rationalist International Style, he broke from the country’s tradition of hand-crafted cabinet making and embraced mass-production in his quest to democratise design.

Born in Copenhagen, he studied architecture at the city’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts under architects Kay Fisker and Kaj Gottlob, both adherents of Danish functionalism. Yet Jacobsen wasn’t straightforwardly rationalist. He yearned when very young to be an artist but his mother dissuaded him, encouraging him to become an architect. “Many 20th-century architects dreamt of being artists but were persuaded by their families to go into architecture as it was seen as more secure,” says Nina Hertig, co-founder of London gallery Sigmar, specialist in Scandinavian and Central European mid-century design. But he never quite suppressed his artistic urges, evidenced by the extravagantly sculptural, organic forms of his 1950s Ant, Series 7, Swan and Egg chairs.

“Jacobsen also expressed himself through his buildings, which he approached as a Gesamtkunstwerk [total artwork],” adds Hertig. Examples include his designs for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen of 1960 and St Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford of 1962.

Initially Jacobsen was smitten by functionalism. “From the get-go, Jacobsen was interested in the International Style epitomised by Alvar Aalto in Finland and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Germany,” says Simon Andrews, curator and founder of Andrews Art Advisory. “He departed from the teachings of Danish architect and furniture designer Kaare Klint, founder of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts’ furniture school. Klint admired English Georgian furniture and greatly influenced a subsequent generation, including Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl. By contrast, Jacobsen’s designs weren’t specifically Danish but looked towards an international identity.”

As a student, Jacobsen participated in the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris of 1925, where Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau made a huge impression on him. In 1929, in collaboration with Flemming Lassen, Jacobsen won a competition held by the Danish Association of Architects for a ‘House of the Future’, showcased at Forum Copenhagen, a multi-purpose venue. This was an ultra-modern concrete and glass, spiral-shaped structure with a flat roof, boasting a garage, boathouse and helipad. He also visited the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, Germany, a showcase of international modernist housing, overseen by van der Rohe.

Setting up his studio in 1930, Jacobsen designed a seaside resort in Klampenborg, north of Copenhagen. This included the Bellevue Theatre fitted with a retractable roof suitable for open-air performances. Its restaurant featured bar stools with whimsical, emphatically biomorphic backrests that prefigured the Ant and Swan chairs, demonstrating he was ahead of the curve. At times, there was a price to pay for his iconoclasm. His reinforced concrete building, Stelling House, of 1937, at Gammeltorv, Copenhagen’s oldest square, provoked a public outcry (it’s now a listed building). Yet he enjoyed enormous success from the 1930s onwards. “After World War II, Jacobsen was well-versed in embracing the new attitude in architecture, design and society,” comments Andrews.

Jacobsen designed his Egg and Swan chairs, manufactured by Fritz Hansen, for the lobby of the SAS Royal Hotel, which incorporates a high-rise tower (Copenhagen’s first skyscraper). He also dreamt up its streamlined cutlery, made by Georg Jensen, and AJ lighting, produced by Louis Poulsen. In the 1960s, he designed his sleek stainless-steel Cylinda Line tableware for Stelton and his Vola taps for the National Bank of Denmark, which opened in 1971. “When one looks at Jacobsen’s objects, almost all are suitable for mass-production but there’s an element of craft in them,” says Andrews.

“Jacobsen sculpted the prototype for the Egg chair,” says Hertig. “It was sent back and forth to his summer house from the workshop that manufactured it, so he could refine its shape.” Few items that Jacobsen designed 50, 60 or 70 years ago are no longer in production – testament of his lasting popularity and influence. “Very few creatives have been able to offer that enduring appeal over successive generations on an international scale,” says Andrews.

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