Studio International

Published 22/02/2002

Arne Jacobsen Centenary

February sees the end of the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Danish architect and designer, Arne Jacobsen. Shops and salesrooms in Copenhagen have celebrated the occasion with displays of his furniture, cutlery, hollowware, light fittings and sanitaryware. Some are augmented by special editions of products such as the teapot and coffee jug, milk jug and tea strainer by the manufacturers, Stelton, and by the rarely produced and elliptically shaped table made by Fritz Hansen. In addition, there has been the publication of a massive book on Jacobsen by Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum plus numerous exhibitions. Of these, the most significant were ‘Evergreens and Nevergreens’ which opened at the Danish Design Centre, Copenhagen before travelling to other countries; and ‘How to be Modern: Arne Jacobsen in the 21st Century’ which was held in the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (England) during the summer. It looked at, in particular, St Catherine's College in Oxford designed by Jacobsen in 1962. Now listed as a Grade 1 building, St Catz was described by Jacobsen as his favourite design.

Since Jacobsen died in 1971, well before the world of architecture and design was transformed by such revolutionary developments as Memphis and the post modern movement, it may seem surprising that so much of his furniture remains in production today. It includes the stackable Ant chair with its moulded, plywood seat-and-back and tubular steel legs, and its successor, the Series 7 group of chairs. It is a plagiarised version of the latter which was used to conceal part of a young woman's naked torso in what must be one of the most famous photographs of a chair ever taken - that by Lewis Morley of Christine Keeler, a call girl whose liaison with the British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and the Russian Assistant Naval Attache, Eugene Ivanov, led to a major scandal in the early 1960s. As Emily King pointed out in the catalogue to the Oxford exhibition, 'the chair in the Morley photograph stands in for modernity's steady erosion of privacy and class-derived privilege. Keeler would not have exposed nearly so much were she sitting backward on a piece of late 19th century baroque revival'.

Introduced in 1952 and 1955 respectively, the Ant and the Series 7 have been in continuous production ever since and have become as widely copied as Hille's polypropylene chair of 1964. Their design (drawn on a small piece of paper followed by models and then prototypes) demonstrated Jacobsen's ability to work closely with the manufacturer in a way that was not dissimilar to that practised by Italian industrial designers of the same period and their success has enabled relatively small Danish companies to export throughout the world. These chairs were followed by (among others) the Swan and Egg chairs of 1958, and the Oxford chair of 1965. At the same time, Jacobsen was also designing his AJ cutlery, which Stanley Kubrick used in his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey of 1968. Jacobsen's Cylinda Line stainless steel hollowware for Stelton followed in 1967.

What distinguishes so much of Jacobsen's furniture and product design is the mixture of innovative ideas with technical expertise. The three-legged Ant, for example, long predates the three-legged chairs designed by Philippe Starck. Both the Ant and the Series 7 are minimal in their use of materials, elegant in their shape (the Series 7 more so than the Ant), and easy and comfortable to use. The Egg chair, on the other hand, is a design icon. Is its appeal because it is womb-like as well as protective? And is the appeal of other chairs by Jacobsen because (as the critic Peter Dormer said) they cross the divide between the crafts and industrial design, are middle class and democratic? They may also appeal because many young people in Europe today are having to live in small spaces as did those who bought the chairs in the 1950s and because there is now a reaction against the overblown decoration of the 1980s. Or it may just be that these designs by Jacobsen are timeless.

There is, in fact, a simplicity of overall concept, allied to immaculate craftsmanship and the occasional elaboration of structural details, that runs through much of Danish furniture design. Thus, in addition to Jacobsen's minimalist designs, Hans Wegner produced his wooden and cane-upholstered chair of 1949, so simple and elegant that it was simply called The Chair, while Borge Mogensen's Spanish chair of 1958 is equally simple in its wooden construction, if a little playful in the way in which its separate leather seat and back are threaded through the structural members. Clarity of concept also marked Poul Kjaerholm's designs such as his Hammock chair of 1965 which, in its use of metal, also aligns him to the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier. And even Werner Panton, who worked in Jacobsen's office in the early 1950s, kept to very simple and easily readable construction when designing chairs with wire frames, or in plexiglass and plastics.

Indeed, the concept of design prevalent in Jacobsen's work goes back to furniture designed by Mogens Koch, Kaare Klint and Finn Juhl in the 1930s and 1940s, and forward to the Campus chair designed by Peter Hiort-Lorenzen in 1990. More recent designs include the Kildevaeld 2000 chair and Flying Float chair (1999), designed by Philip Bro Ludvigsen and Thomas Krause, and Troels Grum-Schwensen, respectively. They all reflect a tradition that Jacobsen epitomises - a tradition that seems able to remain true to its roots while being continually renewed so that it never seems out of date.

Richard Carr