Why Arne Jacobsen Is On The Tip of Every Design-Savvy Tongue
Even if his name doesn't ring a bell, you have probably seen the work of Arne Jacobsen. You don't need to be an expert on mid-century modern chairs to know and appreciate this Copenhagen designer's work. While Jacobsen is not considered the father of the Danish modern movement (that distinction goes to Kaare Klint), Jacobsen and colleague Hans Wegner helped popularize this style in the wake of World War II.
This style, born from Bauhaus philosophies, promotes clean, pure lines on classical furniture using humble materials and designs that work in proportion with the human body. It was first introduced at the International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries in Paris in 1925—the event that coined the term Art Deco. According to R. Craig Miller, author of Design 1935–1989: What Modern Was, Jacobsen was pivotal in propelling the movement forward. He says in the book: "[Jacobsen’s work] is an important and original contribution both to modernism and to the specific place Denmark and the Scandinavian countries have in the modern movement. One might in fact argue that much of what the modern movement stands for, would have been lost and simply forgotten if Scandinavian designers and architects like Arne Jacobsen would not have added that humane element to it.” His work contributed significantly to what became known as the functionalist movement.
Indeed, Jacobsen left an impressive body of work to exemplify this effort both in architecture and furniture design that propelled the notion of modernity that still resonates in today's world. Nest Casa explores the life and work of this seminal designer, who is responsible for some of the most coveted designs introduced in the past 100 years.
Early Life: Arne Jacobsen
Jacobsen's artistic inclinations were evident from his early childhood. He was born to industrious, hard-working parents Johan and Pouline Jacobsen on February 11, 1902. His father was a wholesale trader who dealt in safety pins and snap fasteners, a blossoming trade that was revolutionizing fashion. His mother was a bank teller with a knack for dabbling in floral motifs. According to Stirworld, the architecture and design website, young Jacobsen once painted over his mother's heavily embellished Victorian wallpaper, making it a modern, stark white. His practically minded mother steered him toward architecture, as it promised a more secure future than the life of an artist.
After a quick stint as a stonemason's apprentice, he enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Architecture. He studied under prestigious architects Kay Fisker and Kaj Gottlob from 1924 until 1927. His first accolades came when Jacobsen exhibited a chair design at the 1925 Paris exposition, winning a silver medal for chair design. There, he discovered Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau with Amédée Ozenfant and Pierre Jeanneret (the birthplace of the term Art Deco). He was also introduced to the work of Mies Van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, whose influence Jacobsen would employ for his graduation project, which earned him a gold medal. He took a job working for a local city architect.
Arne Jacobsen's House of the Future
A post-grad project for the Danish Associationof Architects cemented Jacobsen's path to success. The budding young architect (along with Flemming Lassen) designed the full-scale "House of the Future'' in 1929, shown at the Housing and Building Exhibition at the Forum Copenhagen. The futuristic house (not unlike these futuristic houses) was made from glass and concrete and was circular bearing a flat roof with a central living room, which the other rooms revolved around, devised to take advantage of natural light. Novelties included windows that rolled up and down like a car's; a doormat equipped with a suction cup to remove dirt from shoes; and a minimally equipped kitchen designed for pre-made meals (an inspiration for the first T.V. dinners, perhaps?). The house contained a garage, helicopter pad, and boathouse, indicating a level of wealth that would be required in this future. The house didn't make it to the future, though. The Danish Resistance demolished the Forum in an act of defiance against the Germans during World War II.
Arne Jacobsen: Architect
The “House of the Future” project yielded the young architect significant recognition as an ultra-modern designer, propelling him to form a firm called the Hellerup agency. During this time, he made the Rothenborg House for Max Rothenborg, which still sits in Klampenborg, Denmark. He followed that private project up with the Bellevue Beach Bath, a seaside resort on the Øresund Coast. In 1937, the Bellevue Theatre with a retractable roof was completed. These buildings and the Skovshoved Petrol Station demonstrated the influence of white Cubist architecture that Jacobsen had discovered in Stuttgart, Germany.
However, not everyone was impressed. It seems that accolades (Jacobsen was known to build the dream of a modern lifestyle) were equally matched with protests of his work. His Stelling House on Gammeltorv in Copenhagen, a historic square, was heavily opposed. Another recipient of criticism was the Aarhus City Hall, a project that he had won via competition. He had to adjust his vision to include a tower and marble cladding to appease the public officials.
Jacobsen would go on to design what has been dubbed the world's first designer hotel, the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. He also designed St. Catherine's College at the University of Oxford before going onto become a professor of architecture at his alma mater, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen from 1956 until his death in 1971. Before this, though, World War II had other plans for Jacobsen.
Arne Jacobsen and World War II
The conditions of World War II meant that building materials were scarce commodities—as were available projects. In Jacobsen's case, this was further complicated by his Jewish heritage. He eventually sought refuge in Sweden, fleeing Denmark in 1943. His sole architecture project during this time was a summer house for two doctors. Otherwise, his time was spent designing wallpaper and textiles. When the war ended in 1945, he would return to Copenhagen to help in the rebuilding effort across Denmark. He would make the seminal Søholm Row Houses which later would become the basis for modern, two-story apartment and condominium developments in the 1970s in the United States. Other critical projects during this time include the Rødovre Town Hall, remarkable for its mixed materials use, and the Munkegaard School—which, with its glass corridors surrounding small courtyards, would influence school design globally.
Arne Jacobsen: Furniture Designer
Jacobsen's oeuvre extended beyond architecture, influencing interior design on a global scale. His furniture designs (recall that it was a chair for which he won his first award) are still being used today. His approach was to look at architecture as a whole—or, as gesamtkunstwerk, which translates to “total work of art.” It's the reason, for instance, that his “House of the Future” was outfitted from top to bottom.
While he made lamps and lighting fixtures with Louis Poulsen, he is primarily known for his famous chairs. A partnership with furniture designer Fritz Hansen forged in 1934 would propel his designs into a lucrative business venture. Today, the furniture company is still manufacturing several of Jacobsen's designs. (Not to mention the many reproductions of his styles that exist elsewhere.) The most famous of his creations are the Ant chair, the Series 7chair, the Swan chair, and the Egg chair.
- The Ant Chair: Introduced in 1952, this design launched Jacobsen into notoriety as a furniture designer—though, famously, Jacobsen never really liked that moniker and always insisted that he was an architect. By this point of his career, Jacobsen was fascinated by the bent, plywood designs of Charles and Ray Eames The Ant chair was the first of several lightweight chairs featuring a seatback and seat that were one piece of molded wood. It was aptly named for the resemblance to the insect with the three-section body.
The Series 7 Chair: The Model 3107, commonly referred to as the Series 7 chair, arrived next in 1955. Also made from a single piece of wood, the back section of this chair curves like two 7s facing inward toward each other. This chair is famously recognizable—especially since, in 1963, photographer Lewis Morley used a copy he had in his studio to cleverly hide Christine Keeler's nudity when he photographed her after her involvement in Britain's scandalous Profumo affair. This chair endures as a modern and functional design until the present day with plenty of imitations available. Originally, the style came in black, white, and beechwood; presently, it comes in additional colors and upholstered versions.
The Swan Chair: The Swan chair was commissioned in 1958 to grace the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, which was built between 1956 and 1961. While the building, itself, was stiff, angular, and upright, the Swan chair served as a counterpoint. It was an organic, curved, easy chair. It was technologically innovative at the time, as it contained no straight lines. It was made from a molded shell of synthetic material covered in foam-filled upholstery that rested on an aluminum swivel base. Once again, Jacobsen named this chair for the silhouette that resembled the fine avian creature.
The Egg Chair: This chair was also commissioned in 1958 for the SAS Royal Hotel of Copenhagen. Similarly to the Swan chair, the Egg chair poses in juxtaposition to the building. Jacobsen perfected a new technique, creating a single layer of polyurethane foam (inside the egg’s glass fiber shell)—which is hidden under the upholstery on the Egg chair. He first sculpted the shape out of clay. As the chair allows one sitting in it to sink in behind the curved sides, it provides a bit of privacy that’s perfect for hotel lobbies.
Arne Jacobsen's Final Projects and Legacy
In 1971, Arne Jacobsen died suddenly of a heart attack while in the middle of several large projects, including: new town halls in both Mainz and Castrop-Rauxel, Germany; the Danish National Bank in Copenhagen; and the Royal Danish Embassy in London. A firm set up by former key employees Hans Dissing and Otto Weitling finished these works in a tribute to Jacobsen. However long has passed, Jacobsen's work continues to prove its classic and timeless nature while being modern and futuristic. Considering the chairs are an object found everywhere worldwide, it's a wonder that his household name status is just beginning.