By Anne Theresa Valbæk
The Master of Modernism
The famous Danish architect Arne Jacobsen would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. He designed some of the most striking buildings of our time, and his industrial designs are familiar household items in thousands of homes worldwide
The impressive building by Frederiksholms Canal in central Copenhagen with its gleaming façade is famous far beyond Denmark. The architecture is world-class, and the building is one of the most splendid by the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen – it’s the Danish National Bank. Construction started in 1965 but wasn’t completed until after Jacobsen’s death in 1971
As one of Arne Jacobsen’s best-preserved projects, the National Bank in Copenhagen is rock-solid proof of the grand master’s ingeniousness and uncompromising approach. His perfectionism and absolute modernism is apparent from top to bottom, giving the building a timeless character like that of many other of Arne Jacobsen’s designs, which are still sought-after homes or objects of everyday use the world over. This is why Denmark in 2002 celebrates the glorious centennial of one of the nation’s most treasured architects ever.
Nothing is impossible
Modernism, perfectionism and an uncompromising approach were key pillars in all of Arne Jacobsen’s work, whether architecture or industrial design. Austerity and streamlined detailing were close to heart, and he never gave up. Once an idea had been drafted, it was brought to completion no matter the difficulties, whether financial or in manufacturing.
Arne Jacobsen’s dream was to create industrial design with a quality that matched traditional craftsmanship. This is why he became the innovator of many industrial methods – as with his famous favourite chair The Ant from 1952 where the seat and backrest is pressure moulded from a single piece of laminated veneer – something very innovative and groundbreaking at the time. Since then, this three-legged stacking chair, and later the four-legged Series 7, have been produced in record-breaking numbers by the Danish furniture house Fritz Hansen, which today is the leading manufacturer of Arne Jacobsen furniture.
In 1929 – two years after graduating from the School of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts – Arne Jacobsen forged ties with the lamp manufacturer Louis Poulsen. Here he continued to develop designs that were very innovative in both production method and style. In his quest to create the right lamp for the right place, Arne Jacobsen developed innovative production methods in close cooperation with technical expertise at the company. Jacobsen didn’t put up with technical explanations. Many a Louis Poulsen technician has been pushed to the limit in developing a new lamp design. But the architect’s strength of will and natural authority usually secured him the result he was looking for.
Arne Jacobsen was a master in creating total ambience. All his buildings were total designs where everything from choice of cellar lighting to roofing materials was subject to architect’s decision. This is why Jacobsen’s lamp designs always originate from a specific architectural project. However, many lamp designs were reused in different contexts and would often end up as standard products at Louis Poulsen due to high demand.
The artist’s dream
Arne Jacobsen was born in Copenhagen on 11 February 1902. He grew up in the residential district of Østerbro. The family originated from Portugal but had lived in Denmark for generations. His father was called Johan Jacobsen and was a safety pin and snap fastener merchant. His mother was called Pouline Jacobsen. She was a banker but very preoccupied with floral motif painting in her spare time.
The home was on Classensgade and distinctly Victorian, heavy with knickknacks and furniture. Even as a child, Arne Jacobsen took interest in a more minimal style. He painted the walls of his boyhood room white – in quiet rebellion to his parent’s abundantly ornate and finicky taste, perhaps.
Arne Jacobsen nurtured great hopes of becoming an artist, but his father disapproved. In his father’s view, being an artist was frivolous whereas being an architect was much more sensible. That’s how things came about. In 1927, Arne Jacobsen graduated as an architect from the Academy in Copenhagen. He was 25 years old and brimming with talent and ambition.
The escape from German forces
Arne Jacobsen’s career was soon on track. A few years after his graduation, the young architect had good jobs on hand. During the 1930s, he built, among other things, the beach development at Bellevue, the Søllerød Town Hall, north of Copenhagen, and the town hall of Denmark’s second-largest town, Århus. He also built apartment blocks, town houses and detached houses in the Gentofte area, north of Copenhagen, and he even designed the corporate head quarters for the Stelling home decoration company on Gammeltorv, a square by Strøget – all with custom-made interior designs.
However, with German occupation of Denmark in 1940 during World War II, Arne Jacobsen was in trouble. Jacobsen was of Jewish decent. He didn’t have direct ties to the Jewish community in Denmark, but was aware of his heritage and of the tragic fate of German Jewry. The Nazi-German authorities soon knew of his Jewish background.
One night in 1943, Arne Jacobsen was forced to flee to Sweden with his wife, textile printer Jonna Jacobsen, and his friend Poul Henningsen and his wife. Sitting in a small boat, the two couples rowed across the Sound from the beach at Skodsborg, north of Copenhagen, to Landskrona on the Swedish coast. For four straight hours they sat in the boat with nerves on end in fear of being traced by German patrol boats before finally reaching land safely.
Arne Jacobsen lived in exile in Sweden for a couple of quiet years. In 1944, some of his nature sketches were adapted as wallpaper patterns and textile prints. Otherwise he found little challenge, professionally. It was a relieved Arne Jacobsen who returned to a liberated Denmark in 1945 where five years of occupation promised plenty of reconstruction.
After the war, he undertook several projects. Among them, the construction of Rødovre Town Hall in suburban Copenhagen in 1955, the Munkegaard School in Gentofte, in 1955. He also designed the famous chairs The Egg and The Swan, both in 1958. In 1964, Arne Jacobsen undertook the one of his favourite architectural projects, St. Catherine’s College in Oxford in 1964.
A man of contrast
Arne Jacobsen was a stringent perfectionist and modernist, yet he also had an embracing and pondering approach to life. Professionally, he designed the future while at the same time spending what little spare time he had either painting romantic watercolours of flowers in his beloved garden or in pursuit of his passionate interest in botany.
To people close to Arne Jacobsen he was both an outright aesthetician but also a playful family man immensely fond of children – someone who always loved to clown and conjure up a funny whim. He was known as a generous and humorous man, despite his demanding aesthetic discipline.
Arne Jacobsen kept a pencil and sketch board by him to the very last. His life was one long working process – an eternal jostling with new ideas. At his death in 1971, the 69-year-old, internationally recognized architect left behind him an abundance of inspiring architecture and designs, bringing great joy to generations to follow.
Arne Jacobsen’s buildings impress and fascinate people throughout the world. His masterly furniture and exceptionally beautiful lamps have set international standards in industrial design. His ingenious architecture and design are conspicuous milestones in Danish art history.
Arne Jacobsen’s buildings are to be seen throughout Copenhagen. Several are open to the public. Furniture and lamps can be purchased from the Arne Jacobsen design manufacturers Fritz Hansen and Louis Poulsen Lighting.
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art celebrates the grand master’s centennial with the most extensive Arne Jacobsen exhibition to date. The Exhibition opened on 30 August 2002, and will close on 12 January 2003.