Arne Jacobsen

by Christopher Mount

(This article is a summary based on text found within this book.)

Arne Jacobsen's name often pops up on various lists of the most influential designers of Mid-Century Modern design.

Born on February 11th, 1902 in Copenhagen to Pouline and and Johan Jacobsen, who were respectively a painter and one of the first women to work in banking in Denmark; and a wholesaler of pins and fasteners. Even in his early years, Arne Jacobsen showed his proclivities towards artistic minimalism, having painted over the ornate wallpaper in his bedroom a pure white: a move which had ended with him being sent off to boarding school, where his mischief continued. While there, he took interest in botany and horticulture, an interest that would continue throughout his life, and sketching and later watercolor, which would serve him well in his later career. In fact it was his father that urged him to apply these skills to the field of architecture. In 1919 he started attending classes at the technical College of Copenhagen Academy, to study building techniques, and spent a summer apprenticing under a mason. His desire to travel however, and for a brief trip to New York, worked as a seafarer. Unfortunately, the sea disagreed with him, and so, he returned to finish his schooling,where he graduated from technical school in 1924. He went on to study architecture in the Beaux Arts tradition at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, which suited his skills at drafting and his earlier interests in sketching the botanicals from which the Beaux Arts tradition draws.

After graduating in 1927, Arne Jacobsen married a woman named Marie Jelstrop Holm, and later had two sons, Neils and Johan, however the differences in their personalities would prove to be their marriage's undoing.

Arne Jacobsen began his career in the time after the first World War, which had left the European landscapes torn and battered. Within this overwhelming need for architects to help with rebuilding, divisions formed between those still attached to the idea of reconstruction in the traditional styles and the developing modernist movements, which had sought comfort in the rationality and order of the machine and production line. Although it would seem that someone heralded as one of the "fathers of Modern Design" would view this favorably, Arne Jacobsen had repeatedly stated his dislike for Bauhaus and its streamlined unornamented forms. It almost seems paradoxical considering that the designs he has become known for have a sober, unornamented design as well. His primary mode of design has been to emphasize function, claiming "it must make sense" and that form follows the function it must uphold. Perhaps its a matter of the methodology represented within the two that has caused this dissonance within his artistic sensibilities. In many ways, however, this resistance to modernism would continue later on in his personal life, where he would decorate his own home with a mixture of traditional and rustic crafts with more modern pieces.

At the beginning, his architectural firm was focused on more traditional Danish style homes, though his sobriety would a slightly modernist touch. It wasn't until he entered the "House of the Future" competition with his partner Flemming Lassen. His winning design featured futuristic and idealistic features such as a heliport on the roof, a car garage, and a boat dock. The house was circular, with the furniture inside made from steel tubes, and it's good reception helped to debut Arne Jacobsen's talents to the general audience.

A year later, he won the design competition for the Bellevue beach resort, just north of Copenhagen, and designed not just the buildings but smaller outcroppings as well. The lifeguard stands and smaller booths were given a Mediterranean flair, having chosen a white concrete for their construction. Being close to the ocean, he opted for certain design elements of the theater to be reminiscent of waves. The most critical piece designed for this project, perhaps is the Texaco station nearby, which featured a canopy that had a very similar shape to the Ant chair for which he is famous.

With the onset of WWII, and Germany's occupation of Denmark, Arne Jacobsen's business would stutter. Although Arne Jacobsen was not Jewish, he had been defiant of the Nazi's and sought to flee for more neutral Sweden, where he would meet Alvar Aalto, whom helped set up an apartment for him and an arrangement which allowed Arne to continue his business in Copenhagen until his return after the war.

After WWII, the European nations were once again in dire need of rebuilding and reconstruction. The worst hit were of course, Germany, France, and Austria, the countries most involved in the conflict, however Denmark, Sweden, and the Scandinavian nations remained relatively unscathed. Once again, designers turned toward modernist design, however, in reaction to the rationality and uniformity of the previous "modernism" and the culture which embraced these ideals, a new interest in more organic softer forms emerged. (another designer whom embodied this ideal more firmly, and had his own story to tell of his time in Sweden, Henning Koppel, can be read about HERE).

The softer forms and materials fit well with more traditional Danish aesthetics, and to Arne Jacobsen's as well. As such, he became increasingly more interested in designing the furniture and fixtures within his buildings, using the organic shapes he loved. Although much of his furniture found commercial success, the pieces had been originally designed for smaller projects. A perfect example of this is the aforementioned Ant chair, which began as a project in 1952 to design the cafeteria for Novo Pharmaceuticals. An inexpensive stackable (and therefor also lightweight) chair which was also compact yet sturdy, and able to fit with a round table. Borrowing from Eames' experiments with bentwood chairs, Arne Jacobsen set about to design a three legged chair (which conserved floor space), formed from thin laminated sheets of plywood, with a unique cutout back allowing for the the curvature of the back as well as the bends in the seat, which also allowed for less parts and easier manufactury. New to the times, fabric was also utilized between the layers of wood to increase the strength and flexibility of the material. Although originally dubbed model number 3100, it quickly became known as the "Ant" chair for its uniquely shaped back. Later, an improvement was made for stability's sake a fourth leg was added.

With the first chair's success, a number of bent wood chairs and teak topped tables soon ensued. Number 3603, for example, was an egg shaped table that paired well with the aforementioned chair. Number 3607, a curious chair model, bore the shape of or a curved tongue (and hence was named the "Tongue" chair). In 1955, at the H55 exhibition, Series 7 debuted, which were variations on the first chair, and included chairs with arms, different bases, wheels, and different backs, the most popular of which features an hourglass shape. All of these pieces fared well on the market, due to the original requirements of the initial project: A small, lightweight, durable chair which was both comfortable and affordable.

The next big step in Arne Jacobsen's career came from the designing of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. Outside it was described as "two cigarette packs placed perpendicular to each other", however, the interior was less severe, featuring the Drop, Swan, and Egg chairs, which were designed specifically for this project, and lent an organic, softer feel to the interior. Although all of these additional chairs would find success elsewhere, the Egg chair is perhaps the most iconic, still making appearances in pop culture today. The chair itself is constructed from a heat- moldable foam, which allows for its graceful form which envelops the sitter and gives a sense of security and privacy.

His designs for the interior did not stop at the furniture, however, and continued down to the smaller details. The door handles, for example, feature a comfortable propeller shaped grip, which is often copied or modified even today within the field of ergonomic design. The glassware and condiment jars for the restaurant were designed to be reminiscent of the curves and proportions of the furniture, with generous organic curvature.

The flatware set for this particular project, however, was met with resistance. Arne Jacobsen had designed each of the utensils to eschew the formal divisions in the set between handle, shoulder, and tines, bowl, or blade for a continuously flowing look. Looking as though they were stamped from a singular sheet of metal, and only given the slightest curves necessary, the flatware featured wide yet thin handles that proved unwieldly to use, and smaller bowls, tines, and blades, made the user eat slower and with smaller bites, an admirable goal when wanting to enjoy one's food, however this made its use all the more difficult. The flatware, however, like the Egg Chair, still continues to appear in pop culture from time to time, most notably in film, where it first was used in the iconic movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Towards the end of the 1950's Arne Jacobsen was commissioned to design St. Catherine's College for Oxford University, which was an unpopular choice, considering his Scandinavian tendencies in design over the more traditional architecture of the university. Although clearly modernist, it still featured many of the elements of the other buildings with its arches and flying buttresses, however with a modern flair, and using modern materials like concrete, steel, and glass. The most interesting and well received portion of the design is perhaps the gardens and landscaping, which Arne designed himself, calling upon his own personal love of horticulture.

Ironically, throughout the sixties and the rest of his career, Arne Jacobsen continued his reductionist aesthetic towards more simplified geometric streamlined shapes, the very objection he had raised several years prior towards Bauhaus design. His final few pieces included redesigned bathroom fixtures which are still popular today, and use a unified knob to control the water flow and temperature. He also designed a hollowware service set for Stelton, which uses the concept of steel piping as the core of its design, and features a number of purely cylindrical pieces.

In 1971, Arne Jacobsen died of a heart attack, cutting short his work on the Danish National Bank, which was completed by members of his firm. Although his architectural designs are still of great importance and can be seen even today, it's his contributions to furniture and industrial design that he is most remembered for.