Letter from… Copenhagen

Denmark’s global presence in design owes much to the country’s greatest modernist, Arne Jacobsen, who created a family of design classics in his furniture for Fritz Hansen. Herbert Wright checks out his architectural legacy in the Nordic bastion of urban cool that is the capital Copenhagen, and experiences colours that are reinvigorating Danish design, and the world’s favourite chair


The world can take a while to catch up with ideas from Copenhagen, but it does. The nouveau-Nordic dockside restaurant Noma took eight years to get acclaimed as the World's Best. Thames Baths campaigns for a London freshwater swimming pool, but Copenhagen built its first, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and JDS Architects, in 2003, at Islands Brygge. The great urbanist Jan Gehl started evangelising human-scale urbanism in 1971. The Strøget lanes, now a vast central pedestrian zone, are over 50 years old. Since Gehl advised New York, his ideas are now getting transplanted there.

The skyscraper was transplanted the other way, by Denmark's greatest modernist designer Arne Jacobsen, widely known for his chairs, which we shall settle on soon. When the Scandinavian airline SAS introduced a transatlantic jet service in 1956, it cut the New York trip from 27 hours to 12 and the Danes realised they'd better build something big to handle the incoming jet set. What was to be an air terminal became the SAS Royal Hotel, opened in 1960. Jacobsen chose the tower-and-podium formula, just realised by SOM at Lever House on NY's Park Avenue.

Arne Jacobsen's SAS

Arne Jacobsen's watercolour of his SAS Hotel design

He worried that his 70m-high tower would impact on Copenhagen's skyline, which includes Martin Nyrop's 105m-high clocktower at the must-see Arts-and-Crafts Radhus (Town Hall) (1905), and Lauritz de Thura's 90m-high steeple at Vor Frelsers (Our Saviour's) Church (1752), with its fairytale exterior golden spiral staircase. Jacobsen commissioned especially thin aluminium mullions from Germany so that the curtain wall would disappear into the sky, just as Renzo Piano and his imitators still aspire to.

Not that Jacobsen was a tower man. He only added a tower to the 1941 Radhus in second city Aarhus (designed with Erik Møller) because the locals felt short-changed without one. Yet his buildings loom large over Danish architecture.

Bellevue Beach's lifeguard towers (1932) mounted on wooden tripods are ancestors of structures in those Copenhagen open pools. The white curvy canopy roof of Copenhagen's central Nørreport station by local practice COBE, finished this year, echoes Jacobsen's 'mushroom' canopy at the white-tiled Skovshoved petrol station (1936) in the suburbs.

Jacobsen's last Copenhagen building was the fortress-like National Bank, completed after his death in 1971. Stepping inside, I am overwhelmed by the sheer power of Jacobsen's design. There is an almost metaphysical gravity in its full-height trapezoid atrium, lined in his favourite Porsgrunn marble.

Nature is fascinatingly ordered in his futuristic courtyard gardens, and a warm, organic modernity flows through its wood-panelled corridors.

Jacobsen designed chairs for the Republic of Fritz Hansen, for which he applied industrial techniques such as molding plywood, pioneered by Ray and Charles Eames in the Forties. The lightweight, stackable Ant chair (1952) was the breakthrough product. Its design was refined in the Series 7 chair (1955), which has now sold more than seven million units worldwide.

Jacobsen knew the great Swedish designer Gunnar Asplund, who famously fused modernist and classical architecture into a distinct Nordic style.

Like him, Jacobsen designed every last detail of projects, right down to - in a few cases, such as the SAS Hotel - the cutlery. Nowadays, the hotel is the Radisson Blu Royal, and changes have been inevitable over the years. Spanish designer Jaime Hayon brings a playful dash of colour and contemporary aesthetic in Room 506, inspired by Jacobsen and incorporating his Drop chair. But a really special suite remains exactly as Jacobsen left it: Room 606. Its curtains, carpets, the wooden panelled walls from which modular desks and bedside tables extend - all are the real thing. Swan, Egg, Series 3300 chairs and a 3300 sofa, all in pale blue, define period comfort with style. Jacobsen's palette is colourful, but muted.

Fredderike by Danbo

Thomas Dambo's Fredderikke breaks a rifle with her bare hands (and leg) (photo Herbert Wright)

Copenhagen itself can feel muted under its often-grey skies; but this is a vibrant city. I ventured into Nørrebro, an inner city area that some media suggest is a hotbed of ethnic tension. In fact, public housing meshes into 19th-century streets where bohemia and brilliant kebabs have not yet been smothered by gentrification. In front of a construction site for the new Cityringen Metro line at Nørrebros Runddel, a naked, defiant figure called Frederikke breaks a machine gun over her leg - a sculpture by scrap-wood artist Thomas Dambo (who created a fantastic set of giant creatures for the Roskilde Festival). A kilometre further out is Superkilen, the striking linear park opened in 2012 and designed by BIG and German landscape firm Topotek1. Fixtures and features from Moroccan fountains to Soviet stars and American doughnut signs make it a walk-through of world icons, in three zones - bright red, black and green-grassed.

BIG's Superkilen

Red and black zones in BIG's linear park, Superkilen (photos Herbert Wright)

Colour was the answer when Fritz Hansen sought a new take on the world's most popular 20th-century chair, the Series 7. My last stop with the company is the downtown studio of the artist it commissioned, Tal R. The floor is a playground of strange, organic objects in exuberant hues, there are drawings on pink paper, and on a far wall an unfinished canvas as vivid as a Dexter Dalwood. The Jacobsen chairs sit all jumbled and jolly, beside Tal R and his giant dog Fanny. He talks about the colours. The green, he says, is 'like the buses of Istanbul', and recalls how the Turks have a word for the specific nostalgia for a lost past: 'hüzün'. 'Turks feel like this about Istanbul...' The blue is about 'a city I've never been in, it's imagination'. Trieste, he heard, was so windy the streets had ropes for people to hold on to.

The artist Tal R... and his Great Dane, Fanny. Photo: G Hos
The artist Tal R... and his Great Dane, Fanny. Photo: G Hos

Tal R says that if a great piece of furniture has a scratch on it, 'it's still great'. In a relentlessly renewing world, there's another Copenhagen idea to catch up with.

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2023, All rights reserved.