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Arne Jacobsen

Arne Jacobsen - Danish designer

On 11 February I noted the birthday of the wonderful Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen 11 February 1902 – 24 March 1971. Famed for his iconic ‘egg chair’ he did so much to change our thinking on design. I saw some of his work at the Design Museum København last year. www.designmuseum.org/design/arne-jacobsen and was astonished at how fresh and relevant much of it is. He is mainly remembered for his furniture design but saw himself primarily as an architect, with a string of what were at the time ground-breaking designs mainly in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, as well as the Parliament House in Islamabad, Pakistan. He was influenced by the modernist and rationalist architects Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, identifying with their democratising anti-monumental aesthetic. His buildings can look quite unexceptional to our 21st Century eyes, but this belies the fact that at the time they were highly controversial, leading at times to protest: one Danish Newspaper demanded that Jacobsen be banned from architecture for life.

He was the master of designing modern buildings that work in the context of the past and I suspect we owe him a debt of gratitude for showing just how the modern could sit along side the historic, compromising neither but managing to enhance the relevance of our pasts. in 1958 Jacobsen was commissioned to design the new St Catherine’s College Oxford, and despite cries of outrage, including the obligatory letters to the Times from his critics, not least because he was Danish rather than British, the building is regarded as one of his architectural masterpieces.

St Catherine's College Oxford

St Catherine’s College

St Catherine's College Oxford with tower

St Catherine’s College with the tower

In many ways Jacobsen was the consummate designer. He believed that the design of every element of a building had to be harmonious – down to the doorknobs. He insisted on adding a clause to his contract stating that: “Professor Jacobsen should undertake as much as possible of the landscape design and the design of fixtures and fittings.” This almost obsessive attention to detail is one of the things that marks out designers. He had worked as an apprentice bricklayer before winning a place to study architecture at the Royal Academy of the Arts in 1924. There are echoes of other great architects like John Soane and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who worked for their fathers as bricklayers and stone masons, and this early hands-on experience gave Jacobsen a deep appreciation of materials, which is reflected in his architecture and design work.

In 1943, under the Nazi occupation of Denmark, fearing for his safety as a Jew, he was forced to flee by rowing boat across the Øresund to Sweden. He managed to return to Copenhagen two years later, designing new cheap housing to fulfil the chronic post-war shortage, going on to work on more ambitious projects such as the Allehusene complex and his 1955 Søholm houses.

Søholm houses

Søholm houses

Outside Denmark Jacobsen was perhaps better know for his Charles Eames inspired furniture design. In 1957 he created the Swan and Egg chairs for the SAS Ari Terminal and the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, masterpieces of functional beauty that still work for me.

Swan and Egg chairs

Swan and Egg chairs

R. Craig Miller, author of Design 1935-1989, What Modern was, called Jacobsen’s work “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.”

A design legend remembered.

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