Architect + Furniture Designer (1902-1971)
ARNE JACOBSEN (1902-1971) was one of Denmark’s most influential 20th century architects and designers. Both his buildings and products, like his Swan and Egg Chairs, combine modernist ideals with a Nordic love of naturalism.
When a Dane who spoke very little English and seldom left his Copenhagen studio was commissioned in 1958 to design a new college for Oxford University, one eminent architect sent a letter to The Times describing it as the worst insult to British architecture since the 11th century when a Frenchman had been entrusted with the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral.
Undeterred, the dons pressed ahead with the commission and Arne Jacobsen started work on the design of St Catherine’s College. Jacobsen 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.”
Jacobsen interpreted this as being given carte blanche to obsess over everything from the exact shade of grey for the curtains, to the height of the cedar trees he planted in the quadrangle and the combination of fish – chub and golden orfe – to be placed in the pond. The result is a completely coherent, perfectly proportioned, yet very gracious campus: the design of which has remained more or less unchanged since its completion in 1963.
As an architect and an industrial designer, Jacobsen always strove to achieve this grace and coherence. In the process, he emerged as the single most influential Danish architect of the 20th century and the designer of such modernist classics as the Swan, Egg and Ant Chairs as well as the stainless steel, abstract-shaped cutlery which the director Stanley Kubrick chose as timelessly futuristic props for his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Born in Copenhagen in 1902, Arne Jacobsen worked as an apprentice bricklayer before winning a place to study architecture at the Royal Academy of the Arts in 1924. Humble though Jacobsen’s first job may seem, there are echoes with those of other great architects like John Soane and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who worked for their fathers as a bricklayer and stone mason respectively. It also imbued Jacobsen with the love of materials, which became a dominant feature of his work.
As a student, Jacobsen travelled to Paris for the ground-breaking 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, where he won a silver medal for a chair design. On that trip, he was struck by the pioneering aesthetic of Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau pavilion, as was another architecture student, Luis Barragán, who was destined to be as influential in his country, Mexico, as Jacobsen would be in Denmark. Before he left the Academy, Jacobsen also travelled to Berlin, where he discovered the rationalist architecture of Mies and Walter Groupius. Their work influenced his early projects in Denmark including a design for an art gallery which won him a gold medal when he graduated from the Academy.
Like most young architects, Jacobsen started out by designing private houses which, in his case, fused the rationalist simplicity he admired in Mies and Corb’s work with the classicism of his Scandinavian mentors, notably the veteran Swedish architect Erik Gunnar Asplund. The same combination was apparent in Jacobsen’s larger projects such as an extension to the Nøvo pharmaceuticals factory and the Stelling Hus in Copenhagen. With both, Jacobsen was at pains to integrate the new buildings with their surroundings.
Architectural commissions dwindled during World War II, not least because construction materials were so scarce. Being Jewish, Jacobsen was also threatened by the Nazi occupation of Denmark. In 1943, he left the country by rowing across the Sound in a small boat for two years of wartime exile in Sweden, where he designed fabrics and wallpapers. There, he was inspired by Scandinavia’s rich cultural heritage and natural beauty. When he returned to Denmark in 1945, the country urgently needed new housing and public buildings. Jacobsen’s late 1940s houses and apartment blocks were fairly spartan in design and intended to be built at speed. By the 1950s, he had become more experimental in projects like 1952’s Allehusene complex and his 1955 Søholm houses. In 1957, Jacobsen’s experiments culminated in the circular Round House he designed for the manager of a local fish-smoking plant on the island of Sjaellands.
During the 1950s, Jacobsen became increasingly interested in product design inspired by the work of the US furniture designers, Charles and Ray Eames. He was also influenced both by the ideals of his textile designer wife, Joanna, and the Italian design historian Ernesto Rogers, who believed that the design of every element was equally important “from the spoon to the city”.
In 1951, Jacobsen completed work on the Ant Chair – Model 3100, an intricately moulded plywood seat on three splindly steel legs. This was followed by the simpler hourglass form of the 1955 Model 3107 – Series 7 Chair. Like the Ant, the Series 7 was perfect for modern living being light, compact and easily stackable, but not even Jacobsen could have anticipated that it would become one of the most popular chairs of the late 20th and early 21st centuries even featuring on the set of the BBC soap opera EastEnders.
By the late 1950s, Jacobsen was given an opportunity to put his theories of integrated design and architecture into practise in the design of the SAS Ari Terminal and Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. He designed every element of the building from its skyscraping structure down to the ceramic ashtrays sold in the souvenir shop and the stainless steel cutlery later chosen by Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jacobsen also created another pair of classic 20th century chairs for the hotel in 1957’s Swan and Egg with strikingly organically shaped upholstered seats on slender metal bases.
The elegant functionalism of the SAS Royal Hotel and the 1950s schools Jacobsen had built in and around Copenhagen persuaded the Oxford dons who were touring Scandinavia in search of an architect for St Catherine’s College that he was the ideal candidate. Together with the SAS Royal Hotel and the later National Bank of Denmark headquarters, St Catherine’s is regarded as one of Jacobsen’s architectural masterpieces.
From the 1950s onwards Jacobsen, or “the fat man” as he was called, was the dominant figure in Danish architecture, but outside Denmark he made his mark as a furniture and product designer. As well as the Swan, Egg and Series 7, he was responsible for another 20th century classic, the Cylinda Line stainless steel cocktail kit and tableware which he designed in the late 1960s for Stelton, a company run by his foster son Peter Holmblad. Jacobsen spent three years finessing the project and finally produced a collection of 17 objects for Stelton, all based on the shape of a cylinder. When the Cylinda Line was launched, sales were so poor that Holmblad sent his wife into the Copenhagen department stores to place orders for it. The Cylinda Line then went on to win numerous international design awards, although the abstemious Jacobsen insisted on using the Martini mixer for hot soup.
Months before his death in 1971, Arne Jacobsen reflected on his career. “The fundamental factor is proportion,” he concluded. “Proportion is precisely what makes the old Greek temples beautiful…And when we look at some of the most admired buildings of the Renaissance or the Baroque, we notice that they are all well-proportioned. That is the essential thing.”
1902 Born in Copenhagen.
1924 Enrols as an architecture student at the Royal Academy of the Arts in Copenhagen.
1925 Wins a silver medal for a chair design at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris where he discovers Le Corbusier’s work.
1927 Visits Berlin where he sees the architecture of Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Wins a gold medal on graduating from the Royal Academy.
1930 After years of designing private houses as a young architect, Jacobsen wins his first public project to modernise the beach at Bellevue.
1935 Completes the groundbreaking Bellavista apartment blocks, now regarded as a classic of the Danish modern movement, in Klampenborg.
1935 Designs the controversial Stelling Hus building in Copenhagen.
1943 Begins two years of wartime exile in Sweden where he concentrates on textile and wallpaper design and a summer house for two doctors.
1945 Returns to Denmark in peacetime to spend several years working on housing and schools.
1950 Starts a five year project to design the Søholm series of houses in Klampenborg, which mark the start of a looser, more experimental phase.
1951 Inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture, Jacobsen designs the moulded plywood Ant Chair, later refined into
1955’s best-selling Series 7.
1956 Designs two upholstered chairs – the Egg and Swan – for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen as well as the stainless steel cutlery later chosen by Stanley Kubrick as a prop in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
1957 Completes the circular Round House on the island of Sjaellands as the culmination of his experiments with the “houses of the future”.
1960 Wins the commission to design St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He insists on designing the fixtures, fittings and garden as well as the buildings.
1961 SAS Royal Hotel opens in Copenhagen as the apogee of Jacobsen’s ambition to design a building in its entirety down to the smallest fixtures.
1964 The futuristic Belvedere Restaurant opens in Hannover above an early 18th century garden. Jacobsen begins a three year collaboration with Stelton, run by his foster son Peter Holmblad, on the Cylinda Line cocktail kit.
1966 Jacobsen wins the competition to design the new National Bank of Denmark headquarters in Copenhagen. Construction continues after his death with the building opening in 1978.
1971 Arne Jacobsen dies in Copenhagen.