In the good-life lab
by Martina Metzner
Jul 16, 2014

One could currently describe Denmark as something like the good-life lab, enviously watched by the rest of the world. While other countries have to contend with recessions, high unemployment, pollution and a lack of electricity, with civil conflict and no future perspectives, such dire factors seemingly have no bearing in the small Nordic country, which must somehow be protected by some special shield. Denmark has long since been considered one of the few countries in which, so the surveys reveal, the happiest people live, where humans and nature are side by side in harmony, democracy and responsible coexistence is emphasized, the education system functions, there is real gender equality (the state is led by two women, Queen Margarethe II and Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt) and people look to the future with hope. And as if that were not enough of the good side, for a few years now Denmark has had its finger on the pulse of architecture, design and fashion – as it did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Anyone traveling to Denmark or its capital Copenhagen will nevertheless have a few questions: How on earth do the Danes do it? What is their recipe for design and future-oriented success? What do architects such as Bjarke Ingels of BIG or Henning Larsen do differently? What do design-makers such as Muuto and Gubi and fashion labels such as By Marlene Birger and Day Birger Mikkelsen have that others don’t? It’s not easy to answer such questions, not even in the field of design, which is once again astonishingly successful. Can current Danish product and furniture design sever its links to the pioneers of Danish Modernism, the Arne Jacobsens, Hans J. Wegners, Finn Juhls and Børge Mogensens of this world? Or does much simply amount to an updated rehash of the tried-and-true? Moreover, is the approach in design really socially responsible and ecologically correct, as the Danish design industry claims? Or is this all just a great marketing gimmick?

A good opportunity to get to the heart of such questions was a two-day visit to Copenhagen as part of the press for the “3DaysofDesign”, sponsored by local furniture makers who were participating. Beautiful weather for the end of May an unusual 27 degrees and non-stop sun welcomed the small group of press representatives from eight European countries who had arrived to explore the “3DaysofDesign”, a young idea destined to strengthen Denmark as a design hub – especially as there is no international design fair or something similar here.

Around 40 companies from inside and outside Denmark were at hand, alongside Arper, Boffi and Luceplan there were of course Danish manufacturers such as Boform, Carl Hansen & Son, Fredericia, Fritz Hansen, Georg Jensen, Gubi, Kvadrat, Louis Poulsen, Montana, Muuto, Onecollection, Paustian, PP Møbler, Vipp and Vola – to name just the best known. Many of them have a showroom in Pakhus, an airy and spacious warehouse in Nyhavn. It was there that they came up with the idea of showroom days for end consumers and business partners.

In great shape

A lot of effort was made to welcome us in each and every showroom. We were able to chat with the managing directors and the designers who collaborate with the respective companies. And it soon emerged that the Danish design industry is in great shape and in the institutions, such as Designmuseum Danmark and the Danish Architecture Center (DAC) it was noticeable how the southern European press reps became ever quieter and more reverent, perhaps stunned by the difference to economic conditions back home. That said, for all the chic new builds and the emphatic pro-present and pro-future stance, the past is omnipresent.

Our tour started at the harbor, not far from the Little Mermaid: at Onecollection, which offers classic furniture items designed by one of the greats of Danish Modernism: Finn Juhl (1912 to 1989). In 1990, Henrik Sørensen and Ivan Hansen, who term themselves furniture nerds, launched the firm, and its daring start reads a bit like the prototypical US garage story. Today, Onecollection is a well-established furniture company that at present turns out 39 Finn Juhl classics, in part in its own workshop at the head office in Ringkøbing some 400 kilometers west of Copenhagen. The company is cautiously and gradually re-launching old Juhl designs.

Finn Juhl, so Henrik Sørensen explains, was not a designer of the likes of Hans J. Wegner, who wanted to produce for the masses. Juhl focused on the elite. The curved (many call it organic) shapes of his chairs, tables and upholstered furniture with their elaborate transitions demanded a lot of craftsmen at the time (CNC lathes make things a whole lot easier now) and above all the Americans lapped them up. At least here you can forget the stereotype Danish = democratic.

Adaptations welcome

Henrik Sørensen is especially proud of having outfitted the meeting room of the Trusteeship Council at the UN Headquarters in New York, which was originally furnished in the early 1950s by Finn Juhl and in April 2013, after modernization lasting two years, re-opened its doors: 260 purpose-made wooden chairs with blue upholstery as well as 20 “Council Chair”, a re-interpretation of Arne Jacobsen’s “Swan” by the designer due of Kaspar Salto and Thomas Sigsgaard now beautify the so-called “Finn Juhl Chamber”. The latter was the result of a competition held by the “Danish Arts Foundation Committee for Crafts and Design” specially for the meeting room in the UN building in New York and requesting new takes on classics of Danish furniture. In short: The chair is no lounger like the “Swan”, but more refined.

Nadja Lassen is the great-granddaughter of architect Mogens Lassen (1901 to 1987), and three years ago she joined forces with her uncle Søren Lassen to found the “By Lassen” label. She welcomes us at our next stop downtown. She, too, is keeping Danish Modernism alive be re-issuing works by her great granddad and his brother Flemming Lassen (1902 to 1984), likewise an architect and both acquaintances of Arne Jacobsen. For example, there’s the striking, cube candlestick “Kubus”, which Mogens Lassen created in 1962, and the “Frame” shelving system dating from 1943. By Lassen does not yet have many items in its portfolio, but since its foundation the company has posted annual growth in excess of 100 percent. “People love classics, specifically in Denmark,” Nadia Lassen explains nonchalantly.

Rasmus Graversen also cares for a heritage. The young man with the clean-cut outfit is the grandson of Andreas Graversen, who once founded furniture firm Fredericia and worked closely with Børge Mogensen. Rasmus Graversen is a relative newcomer to the company. He studied in Berlin and wants to guide Fredericia into the future. He tells us how since childhood he has been surrounded by Børge Mogensen furniture. His favorite chair is the “Hunting Chair”, which Mogensen designed in 1950. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great pioneer of Danish Modernism, the Fredercia showroom on Frederiksborggade close to downtown is dedicated to Mogensen’s oeuvre. On the wall, there’s an outsized picture of the “architect-designer”, as people here like to call designers who trained as architects, reclining on his class “2213” sofa. Mogensen also created Denmark’s famed chair number “J39”, essentially the prototype of the Danish dining table chair with round legs a narrow backrest and a wickerwork seat. But back to the present: Graversen shows us the “Søborg Chair”, designed by Mogensen in 1952, and explains how much effort the company has put into re-issuing it ready for this year’s special anniversary, adapting the details to today’s needs. And soon we are all convinced that the “Søborg Chair” is a marvel, and not just in terms of design history.

Just one good chair

There’re plenty more family photo albums one could browse through, for example together with Niels Jørgensen, son of furniture entrepreneur Erik Jørgensen, who brings out Hans J. Wegner’s “OX Chair” and Paul M. Volther’s “Corona” chair and has teamed up with Anne Boysen, a young 34-year-old Danish architect, to create a modular sofa. Or in the case of Sofie Eglund’s “Vipp” (she’s the granddaughter of the inventor of the sheet metal flip-top waste bin), who along with her mother and brother has just expanded the company portfolio to include an entire kitchen. Not to mention the “Just one good chair” exhibition at Designmuseum Danmark, devoted to Hans J. Wegner to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, and an extensive show it is that the Director and curator Christian Holmsted Olesen guides us round – astonishingly he’s the spitting image of the young Hans J. Wegner.

All these stories go to show that the Danes are well aware of the rich seam of their past furniture culture and take it to heart, with a good feel for the present. To name but one minor example: At Designmuseum Danmark, Hans J. Wegner’s desk along with drawings pinned to the top stands there ready to be touched, inconceivable in a German museum. Another example illustrates just how matter of course “classics” are here: The “Council Chair”: Salto & Sigsgaard simply adapted Jacobsen’s “Swan” to meet current needs.

Part 2 of the article you'll find here:

A new Nordic perspective: And we continue at "3DaysofDesign" in Copenhagen to find out if it's really true the Danes produce their wares sustainably and in their own country.
(21 July 2014)

Exhibition "Wegner - Just One Good Chair"
Til 11 February 2015
Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen

Catalogue for the exhibition in the Designmuseum Danmark:
Hans J. Wegner - Just One Good Chair
Texts by Christian Holmsted Olesen, graphic design by Rasmus Koch
Clothbound, 256 pages, German
Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern/Germany, 2014

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