John Young discovered in Copenhagen earlier this year that although Danes appreciate good design of all kinds, they can’t stop loving the chair.
First published in Sunday Times, 17 August 2014.
Denmark has a well-deserved reputation as the home of seriously good design. Modern Danish architects such as Bjarke Ingels have earned high praise for their daring apartment blocks in southern Copenhagen, the great concert venues in the capital city draw oohs and aahs from appreciative audiences, and the silversmiths of Georg Jensen continue to impress with their classic lines more than a century after the company was founded in the same city.
Young Danish designers, inspired by the famous ‘artichoke’ design of Poul Henningsen of 1958, still look to lights and lighting as an area where they can shine.
Lego, the world’s biggest and most successful toy company, is synonymous with good design. Every block exists for a reason. Every block is part of a greater plan.
And yet, for Danes, it’s really all about the chair.
This becomes clear within minutes of arriving at the Design Museum Danmark, located a few blocks from Rosenborg Castle and right on one of the very efficient A-bus routes that make getting around Copenhagen a piece of cake. The museum is a few blocks from where Georg Jensen first set up his jewelry business.
When I was there in March, the Museum was undergoing repairs to its roof, so the façade was not exactly inviting, trussed up as it was in plastic sheets and scaffolding against the rain.
But the inside was very warm, as was the welcome. The first exhibition was called ‘3 Perspectives on Everyday Design’, a typically Danish display in the sense that Danes concern themselves with the beauty and design of objects that other people might see as purely utilitarian. There is a very strong democratic impulse that runs through Danish society, and the idea that ‘ordinary’ people should have access to beautiful things is just one strand of that.
Then I came to the room that featured chairs. There were other things in the room, but mostly it was chairs. Iconic chairs like Number Seven, bulbous psychedelic chairs, fragile chairs, wooden chairs, three-legged chairs, wire chairs and plastic chairs. Every kind of chair you can imagine.
Across the harbour at the Danish Architecture Centre you can buy a book called ‘1000 Chairs’ – in the Design Museum it felt as though most of those thousand examples were on display.
I thought there were more than enough chairs for me to feast my eyes on, and it was very interesting to look at these chairs, some of which I recognised and some of which were just weird.
But I missed by a month the opening of an exhibition called ‘Just One Good Chair’. So what I was looking at was just the chairs the museum normally has on display; I can’t imagine how many chairs there would have been in an exhibition devoted to the things!
Danes really love chairs. The ‘Just One Good Chair’ exhibition runs until 2 November.
Arne Jacobsen is a big name in Danish chair design. Not only are The Egg and The Swan his, but his Number Seven, which came out in 1955, proved very popular at public venues because it was so easy to stack, just like its predecessor, the three-legged Ant.
But the name really synonymous with Danish chairs is Hans Wegner, around whom the Design Museum’s chair exhibition revolves. He had the distinction of having his ‘Model 500’ earn the title that most designers can only dream of – his creation became known as ‘The Chair’.
A lot of people remember the television debate between American presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy in 1960 as a defining moment in the evolution of the modern media: Nixon’s five-o-clock shadow made him look shifty and Kennedy’s boyish good looks played well on the small screen. These perceptions made a big impact and were a factor in the final election result. Danes remember that both candidates sat in ‘The Chair’!
In the first half of the 20th century, clean lines and elegant functionalism came to define Danish modernism. Men like Poul Henningsen, Kaare Klint, Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner were producing attractive objects that worked really well and were not only for the rich elite.
Very many Danish homes have fine pieces of furniture or light fixtures. Co-operative organisations like the Foreningen af Danske Brugsforeninger (FDB) had stores across Denmark in the 1950s and 1960s, producing and distributing excellent furniture. This helped bring well-designed household items within the reach of the average family.
Elsewhere in the Design Museum, the ‘Cupboards, cabinets & closets’ collection presented some startling juxtapositions. Leaning against the grandest closet of them all, The Eagle Cupboard, was a contemporary and very laid-back The Casual Cupboard. The first, a shining birch and mahogany vision inlaid with elaborate marquetry was created by PV Jensen Klint in 1904. The latter lean-to affair, made by Louise Campbell for a film, looked like the outline of a canoe seen from above, with sinewy bits inside to keep the sides of the canoe in place, and hold layers of clothing when tipped on its side. Weird, but also quite wonderful.
Every-day design items like a 1934 motor-bike and the earliest versions of floor-polishers and vacuum cleaners are also on show and there’s proof that Paul Gaugin was a potter.
The Design Museum has a rather unhappy looking ceramic head of the great painter, as shaped by Gaugin himself. He apparently spent some time in the city trying to sell tarpaulins. He was better at painting Polynesians.
There are lots of reasons to visit the Design Museum at 68 Bredegade just off Copenhagen’s harbour, but mostly, go for the chairs.
Admission: Kroner 90 (R180)
Getting there: bus (1A) or train (to Ooosterport) or metro (to Kongens Nytorv).
Closed Monday (as are most Copenhagen museums).
Opens at 11am.
On the eastern side of the harbour, The Danish Architecture Centre has excellent displays and exhibitions, a comprehensive book shop and a shop laden with attractive and useful gizmos. Northern Europe’s most famous restaurant, Noma, is one canal block away, and the striking new Opera House, one block beyond that. The Danish Design Centre is right in the middle of Copenhagen, behind the City Hall and opposite Tivoli. It is not open on weekends, but it is open on Mondays when most of the city’s museums are closed. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (a magnificent art and cultural history museum) and the National Museum are also situated in the heart of the city.