Arne Jacobsen was a designer of everything. A trained architect, he designed the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. It was the city’s first skyscraper, a vision in sea-green glass and steel. He also designed dorm rooms, the tables and chairs of a cafeteria, amoeba-shaped doorknobs that nestled into the palm, and flatware that looked like speeding droplets of stainless steel ending in a (somewhat) functional eating tool. Jacobsen designed the past’s vision of the future, but his present hardly agreed with him. His skyscraper was long-considered the ugliest building in Copenhagen, and his flatware was widely hated for offering up too little food with each bite.
However, rather than disappearing into oblivion, Jacobsen became famous. Today, he has more products still in production than the Eameses. When he died suddenly in 1971, he left unfinished the Danish National Bank, the Danish Embassy in London, and a burgeoning legacy. It took 30 years for trends to catch up to Jacobsen, but today he is a national icon in Denmark and a crucial figure in one of the country’s most prominent exports — design.
Born in Copenhagen, Jacobsen (1902–1971) was encouraged from an early age to professionalize his artistic talents, and after studying architecture at the Danish Royal Academy of Art, he ran his own architecture firm. His limited success did not stop him, it took the Nazi occupation of Denmark to put an end to his practice. Like all Danish Jews, Jacobsen was forced to flee the country. He crossed the Öresun Sound to neutral Sweden, where he was exiled for two years, making prints for textiles and wallpaper.
When he returned to Denmark, Jacobsen began a new phase of his creative career in which he was more than just an architect. And unlike his design contemporaries in war-torn Germany, Austria and France, who were consumed with rebuilding even the most basic infrastructure, Jacobsen could turn his focus to product design.
Arne Jacobsen believed in Gesamtkunstwerk — the total environment — harmonizing the interior with the exterior. Jacobsen took up product design in order to fully complete his visions. For the buildings he constructed, he also designed wallpaper, furniture, textiles, and even made light fixtures to go along with it. There was a sense of beauty in everything Jacobsen touched but also a strong commitment to utility, practicality and simplicity in line and form.
Unlike his Constructionist and Bauhaus predecessors, however, Jacobsen, along with other Scandanavian designers, chose softer more organic forms and materials over the harsh, cold and rigid angularity of prewar designs.
Jacobsen affected a curmudgeonly public demeanor, but his designs tested boundaries and remained playful. Chairs were shaped like eggs, forks curiously small. Dining chairs seemed to have wings to fly, and condiment jars were shaped like enormous drops of water.
Despite being a teetotaler, Jacobsen designed a bar set called Cylinda, manufactured by Stelton, a company run by his step-son. Cylinda featured all of one’s bar needs, from ashtrays to cocktails mixers and ice buckets, but was nevertheless unpopular. Legend has it that the sales of Cylinda were so poor that Jacobsen’s daughter-in-law went to the store incognito to buy it in order to give the impression of Cylinda’s marketability.
Fortunately, Cylinda followed in the arc of Jacobsens’ career. Three decades after it was originally designed, Cylinda was finally discovered by the tide of popular taste.
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Leading image: Gas Station by Arne Jacobsen, 1937.