Marking 40 years since the death of Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen, Anne Watson reviews the career of a true Modernist whose work was ahead of its time. It’s a classic case of the future catching up with the past. According to Samsung in a recent patent infringement lawsuit brought by Apple, the iPad wasn’t invented by Apple. Samsung has claimed that the concept of a small tablet computer originated in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cult sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically in a well-known scene where the two hapless astronauts peer at iPad look-alikes while eating their mushy space dinners. For design tragics, however, the scene has a different significance: the astronauts are eating with cutlery designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1957. That the stainless steel AJ cutlery looked futuristic in 1968, and is still sleekly modern today, reflects the essence of Jacobsen’s particular genius: the enduring modernity and appeal of his timeless designs.
In 2002, the centenary of Jacobsen’s birth, visitors queued to get into the landmark retrospective of the architect’s work at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Over seven decades earlier people had queued to see Jacobsen’s first major project, the winning entry in a competition to design a demonstration House of the Future for a 1929 housing exhibition in Copenhagen. Designed with Flemming Lassen, the House of the Future was an exercise in creative rule breaking and futuristic lateral thinking that engaged the young Jacobsen’s enthusiasm for the radical new aesthetic of Modernism and the seemingly limitless possibilities of future technologies. The house itself became the sensational launch pad for the innovative thinking that would characterise the rest of Jacobsen’s career.
A graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1927, Jacobsen absorbed early Modernism’s ideologies, but soon forged his own response to the geometric discipline and social program of the interwar design agenda. During the 1930s, his designs – houses for himself and private clients, the Bellavista residential complex near Copenhagen, and the monumental Aarhus Town Hall – all adapted Modernism’s severe boxy aesthetic to the Danish landscape and sensibility. Notable at Aarhus was the rich integration of interior fittings, finishes and furnishings, the modernist concept of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ that Jacobsen would carry to sophisticated perfection 20 years later in the incomparable SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen.
The occupation of Denmark by Germany during World War II forced Jacobsen, a Jew, to flee to Sweden in 1943, a temporary displacement that involved a dangerously thrilling midnight journey across the Øresund in a leaky boat with lighting designer Poul Henningsen and their respective wives. While for Jacobsen the war was a severe disruption, its catalytic role in redirecting the course of Modernism towards a more organic design aesthetic was pivotal for his own work. It was during the 1950s that the architect created his now celebrated series of graceful, sculpted chairs, a legacy of the advances in plywood and plastics technology pioneered by designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen. Jacobsen’s unique contribution, however, was his fusion of mass-production technologies with a design minimalism so perfectly tuned to style and function that it has not been bettered in over 50 years. There could be few chairs, for example, that rival the natural grace – and legendary status – of the Series 7 plywood chair, a development of Jacobsen’s groundbreaking, stackable Ant chair of 1952. Supporter of innumerable celebrity bottoms in countless photo shoots, the Series 7 has been endlessly reproduced – legitimately and otherwise – and has spawned scores of look-alikes.
The bending technology that made Jacobsen’s lightweight, one-piece plywood chairs realisable was developed in conjunction with the manufacturer Fritz Hansen. It was this same company whose experimentation with a new mouldable synthetic product, Styropor, enabled the body-hugging curves of the Swan and Egg chairs in the late 1950s. Designed for Jacobsen’s SAS Royal Hotel, Copenhagen’s first multistorey, curtain-wall building, these chairs were part of a range of furniture, lighting, tableware and textiles designed by Jacobsen to create a dramatic, integrated visual coherence. Sadly, the hotel’s interiors have since been ‘modernised’, although room 606 has been recreated in celebration of Jacobsen’s original design. It is well worth a visit, as is Jacobsen’s monumental National Bank of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Jacobsen’s design legacy is extensive and enduring. Since the early 1960s his seating furniture has been internationally available and recognised. In 1967 an Egg chair was central to an Australian Wool Board promotion set against the iconic Sydney Opera House. The symmetry of the Danish origins of the designers of both chair and building is telling, but so too is the longevity and appeal of each design. For Arne Jacobsen and Jørn Utzon the essential challenge was to create a universally understood language that defied the boundaries of time.