Danish Modern
Danish Modern

Mark Mussari

Mark Mussari is an independent scholar, freelance writer, translator and consultant, based in Arizona, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2016


Content Type:

Book Chapter

Objects and Materials:






Schools, Movements and Styles:

Danish Modern, Gesamtkunstwerk

Related Content

Hegelian Reading: Designing Community in the SAS Royal Hotel

DOI: 10.5040/9781474223713.ch-006
Page Range: 91–108

Aage Strüwing’s black and white photograph captures an attractive blonde woman – her hair pulled up à la Inger Stevens in The Farmer’s Daughter – standing in a tailored suit, holding a drink in an elegantly curved glass, and smoking by a bar (Fig. 6.1). The tilt of her head reflects the angle of an orchid suspended between glass walls to the left. The L-shape of the bar, with panels of backlit bronze on its surface, repeats in the muted glow of two banks of rectangular smoked Plexiglas lights hanging above it. A handsome blonde bartender focuses on mixing a drink, while two men in suits are drinking and sharing a conversation at the end of the bar. Blocks of rosewood panelling serve as a backdrop, their verticality echoing both the Plexiglas boxes that comprise the lights and the bronze panels on the front of the bar. The year is 1960, and the entire scene, obviously staged, exudes an understated mid-twentieth-century sophistication: Nordic noir via Mad Men. The scene is the Orchid Bar in what was once the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. The entire hotel, including a two-storey passenger hall that served as the terminal for SAS Airlines, was designed by the architect Arne Jacobsen (1902–1971) between 1956 and 1960. Jacobsen is the most recognized name in modern Danish design from the last century, due in great part to the continuing popularity and appearance of his chair designs, including the machine-manufactured Ant and Seven Chairs (some of the most manufactured in the history of chair design) and, especially, the Egg and Swan Chairs, designed specifically for the hotel.

Figure 6.1. The Orchid Bar in the SAS Hotel: staged mid-twentieth-century Nordic noir. Photo: The Aage Strüwing Collection

When the SAS Royal Hotel opened its doors in 1960, visitors were able to step into one of the last modernist attempts at a Gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art in which every aspect of the structure, from its sheath-like exterior to the organic furniture to the minimalist door handles in the rooms, is supposed to work together to form a whole and to express a unified vision. In Art and Industry: The Principles of Industrial Design (1934), the British theorist Herbert Read addressed the issue of the constructive planning of modes of living: ‘. . .an artist must plan the interiors of such buildings – the shapes of the rooms and their lighting and color . . . the furniture of those rooms, down to the smallest detail, the knives and forks, the cups and saucers, and the door handles.’[1] His words reflect the modernists’ attraction to creating a Gesamtkunstwerk, an effort that would stretch their normative aesthetic sensibility across every aspect of designed space and an approach that Jacobsen embraced wholeheartedly. The composer Richard Wagner first used the word in an 1849 essay bemoaning the fragmentation of the arts; he is often cited as the progenitor of this artistic approach, an encompassing vision in which he synthesized music, literature, and art (Thomas Mann found Wagner’s efforts to be dilettantism raised to the level of genius).

In modernist design, late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century architects built on the notion of uniting all physical elements in approach and style. In Germany, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk is often associated with the work of Peter Behrens (as in the designer’s house at Darmstadt) and in Austria with Josef Hoffmann (for example, in his Palais Stoclet). The progressive artists of the Vienna Secession, founded in 1897 and led by Gustav Klimt, took a holistic approach to their anti-academic designs, also applying a unified visual style to their journal, Ver Sacrum (1898). Even the Secessionists’ building (1898, by Josef Maria Olbrich) presented a unified design front to the Neoclassical architecture prominent in Vienna at that time. Meanwhile, the French Symbolists saw something more spiritual, even mystical, in the total work of art. In a speech to Bauhaus students in 1919, Gropius predicted that ‘out of individual groups a universally great enduring, spiritual-religious idea takes shape, which finally must find its crystalline expression in a great Gesamtkunstwerk.’[2] The notion of a total artwork and interplay among various genres of the arts also occupied the German Expressionists, such as Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and filmmaker Robert Wiene. In Nordic design, the architect most associated with the Gesamtkunstwerk is Alvar Aalto, whose individually enduring designs such as the Paimio Armchair (1931) and the Savoy Vase (designed with his wife Aino Marsio in 1937) were actually part of larger projects, the Paimio Sanitarium and the Savoy Restaurant, respectively.[3]

In Europe and North America, markedly diverse examples of Gesamtkunstwerk emerged, from Victor Horta’s elaborate Art Nouveau masterpiece the Hotel Tassel in Brussels (1893–94) to Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert-driven designs for Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona (1937). The overwhelming curvilinear tendrils of Horta’s designs throughout the Hotel Tassel – in columns, door handles, panels, and windows – bring botanicals into the artifice of architectural design in an all-determining style. In these Art Nouveau efforts, one searches in vain for an ideological force behind the often purely decorative elements. Wright’s angular filigree and rough-hewn locally culled rocks throughout Taliesin West draw the desert landscape, its flora and fauna, into all aspects of the painstakingly designed complex. On this front, one begins to discern a split in effect among the varying holistic visions of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Wright’s Taliesin West hunkers down into its hilly desert surroundings, its buildings and interconnected Southwestern design elements struggling to become a natural part of their rugged environment. George Nelson said of Taliesin West that it ‘has its structure on the outside . . . a jagged outline as sharp and as savage as the cactus that surrounds it.’[4] Just as Heidegger once noted the ancient Greek temples’ ability to draw viewers back to the mountains in the surrounding landscape, Wright’s domestic and educational structures at Taliesin West interact with the natural surroundings in a reflective manner that draws viewers into a consideration of living in this specific desert environment. Rather than intruding upon it, Wright’s architectural artifice reinforces the natural sense of place.

The architectural Gesamtkunstwerk reflects a striving for totality, for an absolute vision that not only drives all elements of the designed environment but also imparts a specific way of looking not only at objects but also at living. From a more philosophical perspective, one might say even a Hegelian one, a Gesamtkunstwerk should erase any sense of estrangement between perceivers and the world around them. The architect Folke Nyberg has defined the concept of Gesamtkunst as ‘the expression of community life based on common myths and materialized through artisanal activity.’[5] Nyberg cites Baukunst – the art of construction – as the platform on which certain modernist artists struggled ‘to meet Hegel’s challenge for art in architectural terms by seeking to develop a dialectical process of building and dwelling.’[6] Nyberg delineates the Marxist, materialist reading of Hegel (the Left-Hegelian point of view), which aligns architecture with economic determinism, from the Right-Hegelian reading, which emphasizes the spiritual function of art, a growth towards the liberation of consciousness. In the latter, the link between people and place serves as an advancement towards spirit. In a speech given in 1958, ‘Function and Gestalt,’ the Swiss designer and theorist Max Bill observed: ‘The environment . . . has a decisive impact on people’s well-being, from which we can conclude that art occupies a key position within our mental and spiritual world, in the sense formulated by Hegel in his aesthetics, namely that art is the form of human expression that speaks highest of the interests of the spirit.’[7] The early modernist movement towards a Gesamtkunstwerk was also the movement away from Stilarchitektur, because in its eclectic nature the latter, particularly in its neoclassical efforts, no longer represented the spirit of the times. Thus, when Nyberg turns his attention to Gesamtkunst, he defines it as ‘the artistic expression of everyday life and of values held in common.’[8]

The Gesamtkunstwerk, from this viewpoint, should embody those shared values in an environment planned, visually, to reflect the spirit of a time and especially its people (the Volksgeist). Nyberg also frames this notion as a conflict in Germany between Muthesius, who wanted to return to the Baukunst of the medieval craft tradition, and Gropius, who viewed Gesamtkunst as a ‘total architecture’ but one driven by the imperatives of industry and struggling towards place-less universals. ‘Baukunst accepts the importance of technology,’ writes Nyberg, ‘but considers building an ontological activity that directs construction to serve dwelling by being place-specific.’[9] A sense of community emerges as a necessity from this approach towards building and dwelling, whereas Bauhaus efforts lean on industry for the construction of art. More than this, in the Hegelian sense, an edifying quality should emerge from every aspect of the successful Gesamtkunstwerk. In ‘Hegel and Architecture,’ John Whiteman defines Hegel’s view as ‘the articulation of architecture as a device of and for human sensibility – a device that has a higher purpose than itself.’[10]

The conflict between machine-driven, universalist approaches to architecture (and design) and more place-specific and communal efforts echoes many of the Danish modernists’ tension between International Modernism and some form of tradition, between Bauhaus-inspired industrialism and craft-driven aesthetics (Baukunst). Jacobsen’s hotel represented another step in the development of the Gesamtkunstwerk, but its coordinated designs also proffered something more than simply a physical environment. The sculptural quality of Jacobsen’s designs inside the hotel is not an extension of the universalist, geometric efforts of the Bauhaus; instead, Jacobsen’s emphasis lies in forms and in the interplay of forms, often organic against the rectilinear. In 1912, Muthesius had argued that ‘far higher than the material is the spiritual, far higher than function, material, and technique, stands Form.’[11] Jacobsen pulls viewers in with his organic yet sculptural and often abstract designs, and in them one senses a yearning for the best possible forms for human interaction. Curvilinear shapes and colour abet this effect to diminish any sense of estrangement between viewer/experiencer and environment. Jacobsen attempted to inscribe the spirit of the times into every aspect of the hotel, a synthesis between the boxy International Style (an outgrowth of the Bauhaus) that drives the building’s architectural shape and the more organic designs that in both their forms and elegance impart a hopeful image of a better and more unified way of living. Even in his approach to materials, Jacobsen reveals a meld of using new industrial materials (like Styropor foam to mould certain chairs and sofas) and the handcrafted sculpting of their forms (emphasized by the hand-stitching tracing their outline). At every turn, a synthesis surfaces in this overall approach.

A number of syntheses drove much of Jacobsen’s oeuvre, especially as time progressed. Architecturally, he was influenced by Asplund and by the Bauhaus, as evidenced in early projects such as his House of the Future (Fremtidens Hus, 1929, designed with Flemming Lassen) and the ‘White Modernism’ of his Bellevue complex (1930), but he was also proficient at constructing low, two-storey row homes in brick, like the diagonally stacked Søholm I (1946–50), where he had his own residence. He was not social in the programmatic sense, like Henningsen and the Danish avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s, yet the botanist in him was painfully aware of environmental effect and the use of nature in and around his buildings (Henningsen had argued for garden homes in urban planning). Jacobsen could blend his training from the Architect School of the Royal Danish Academy with a strong regional sensibility that reflects the Danish striving (which appeared even in some of Henningsen’s rhetoric) to find a place-specific reading of modernist currents. In ‘A Whole Other World: Jacobsen and the Idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk’ (2002), Thau and Vindum note the double influence of both the Bauhaus and the Wiener Werkstätte on Jacobsen. The latter allusion is particularly telling: Loos had been quite negative about the Ruskin- and Morris-influenced efforts of the Werkstätte but, more importantly, Hoffman and Moser, the founders of the Werkstätte, had derided the ‘boundless evil’ of ‘mass-produced goods’ in their 1905 manifesto. Jacobsen produced a synthesis of the Loos-driven distaste for ornament that had helped to give birth to the machine aesthetics of the Bauhaus and the distaste for shoddy industrial goods and the respect for exquisite craftsmanship in the Werkstätte. Presaging some of Henningsen’s contentions in ‘Tradition and Modernism,’ Hoffman and Moser insisted: ‘As long as our towns, houses, rooms, cupboards, utensils, clothes, jewelry, language and feelings fail to express the spirit of the times in a clear, simple, and artistic manner, we shall remain infinitely far behind our ancestors and no pretense will conceal our lack.’[12]

In all of his syntheses, Jacobsen endeavoured to produce designs that reflected the spirit of their times by combining technological advancements – in creating the thinnest possible surfaces, in bending plywood, in using moulds made of new materials – with an increasingly minimalist vision of sculpted forms.[13] In Jacobsen’s specific approach, his synthesis becomes paradoxical: the more his designs reflect their time’s ‘spirit,’ particularly in the mid-twentieth century, the more they transcend their specific time. The Gesamtkunstwerk that was the SAS Royal Hotel in its original form offered the very avatar of this paradox: many of its place and time specific designs remain in production.

When Henningsen suggested in 1928 that the Danes should let go of their affection for brick, he could have not have foreseen that in 1956 that predilection would still hold sway. Discovering that year that Arne Jacobsen would be the architect behind the new SAS Hotel and terminal, Poul Erik Skriver, writing in Arkitekten, sighed with relief: ‘Just think if it had been an architect with no background in red brick.’[14] However, red brick was the farthest thing from Jacobsen’s mind for the SAS project. Inspired by the Lever House (1950–52) in New York, Jacobsen designed Copenhagen’s first high-rise consisting of two rectangular boxes, a horizontal one lying on its side and following the line of the streets on two of its sides, and a vertical box towering over the horizontal one (Fig. 6.2). The two forms have sometimes been derided as looking like two cigarette boxes placed perpendicular to each other. The ground floor of the hotel’s darker clad horizontal section is also recessed, further diminishing the immediate sense of intrusion and resulting in a cantilevered second storey. In an article that appeared on 28 February 1971, shortly before his death, Jacobsen told Politiken: ‘When the SAS building was inaugurated, a paper ran a competition to select the ugliest building in the city – I won first prize.’[15] Like the Lever House – designed by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – the SAS Hotel also features a recessed third floor, enhancing not only the vertical nature of the high rise but imparting a floating effect, particularly when seen from a distance. Built in the International Style established in North America by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson – heavily influenced by the geometric abstraction of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies, and the De Stijl architect, J.J.P. Oud – the Lever House was New York’s second curtain-wall high rise (after the UN Secretariat Building).

Another synthesis emerges in the way Jacobsen enhanced the reflective quality of the Lever House’s curtain wall on the SAS Hotel: he sheathed the hotel’s tower in a grey-green glass and thin aluminium mullions reflecting Copenhagen’s shifting sky and the immediate environment around the hotel. In this sense, the rectilinear hotel is always mirroring its surroundings and always a part of its cityscape, constantly defying those who feared its visual intrusion among Copenhagen’s historical towers and spires.[16] Like Wright’s Taliesin West, but using the images of its sky and surroundings as the locally ‘culled’ element, the boxy ‘un-Danish’ SAS Hotel draws viewers back to the city that already existed. This effect also reveals another Hegelian approach: the building mirrors the community surrounding it, helping to erase any sense of estrangement. In this reflective coming to awareness in material culture, culture has an autonomy similar to spirit but not as abstract. Jacobsen took a Bauhaus-inspired format – the International Style – and through Baukunst (the building’s art of construction, particularly its reflective sheath) brought community and place back into a modernist structure (one cannot deny the Miesian aesthetic in either the Lever House or the SAS Hotel). Tradition, which would be all but abandoned in a Left-Hegelian approach, has been brought back into the picture in what can best be described as a Right-Hegelian reading of modernist architecture (sans conservatism). In this endeavour, Jacobsen parallels Klint and Henningsen in their rejection of any superimposed modernist aesthetic for its own sake. The hotel offers yet another example of a Danish designer mitigating the impersonal effect of modernist design without yielding to historical or national forms.

Perhaps this was also Jacobsen’s way of appeasing architectural critics and the various members of the press who had feared the Americanization of the Danish capital and the appearance of ‘New York in Copenhagen.’ This fear may well stem from Henningsen’s admonishment of Le Corbusier for his admiration of the skyscraper, which PH viewed as an unhealthy solution to urban living. In his article ‘Fremtidsperspektiver’ (‘Perspectives on the Future’), which appeared in Politiken on 22 July 1930, he took issue with Le Corbusier’s affection for the American skyscraper. Henningsen, who favoured lower row houses because he felt they were more conducive environments for the working class, viewed the skyscraper as an unhealthy solution to condensed development in city centres: ‘Naturally, the result has been that hygienic conditions with respect to daylight and traffic have deteriorated extraordinarily.’[17] Nor was Henningsen particularly fond of Jacobsen’s hotel design: while he praised the architecture for exhibiting ‘the harmony, beauty and fatal balance the modern city wants to display,’ he viewed all of it ‘in the service of conformity . . . industrialism in bloom, a pillar in glass and steel and reinforced concrete, hovering over those who govern us all, including our politicians.’[18]

Figure 6.2. In his use of a reflective glass-and-aluminium sheath on the hotel’s exterior, Jacobsen was influenced by the design of the Lever House in New York. Photo: The Aage Strüwing Collection

Still, one senses a cultural resistance to luxury for its own sake in the response of the Danish press at the time of the SAS Hotel’s premiere. Although Skriver was relieved that the hotel was not too ‘ascetic,’ as in some of Jacobsen’s other minimal interiors, he was also glad to find ‘no abundant luxury, no intimidating symbols of exclusive high-life.’[19] Writing in Politiken, Svend Erik Møller also lauded Jacobsen for avoiding ‘luxury’s innumerable pitfalls.’[20] In addition to the minimalist nature of many of his designs, Jacobsen managed to impart this avoidance of parvenu excess mostly through his use of space. Pictures reveal, for example, that the lobby was surprisingly uncluttered by today’s standards. Groupings of Egg Chairs (and a pair of rare Egg sofas), their curves echoing the spiral staircase, are spaced out on rectangular rugs, leaving large sections of the light-grey marble floor exposed. There isn’t a chandelier in sight; instead, rows of smaller recessed spots in the dark green ceiling imparted a soft glow to the lobby’s space. Even in the restaurant on the second floor, chandeliers consisting of rings of smoked glass bells were recessed into circular skylights, adding to the soft diffusion of light. For comparison, one might consider Morris Lapidus’s Fontainebleau Hotel lobby in Miami (1954). ‘I wanted people to walk in and drop dead,’ Lapidus once deadpanned about the hotel’s lobby, an effusive 27-colour mix of Italian Renaissance and French Provincial design featuring illuminated ribbed columns, faux-attic statues and busts, and three-million-dollar chandeliers.[21] An elaborate staircase to ‘nowhere’ (actually a cloak room, allowing guests to then descend the stairs in grand entrance) wrapped around a photomural of a Piraniesi street scene. If one were to bring a purely stylistic barometer to the two lobbies, Jacobsen’s design depicts an exercise in restraint, emphasizing a resistance towards visual overstatement. Also, other than an affinity for excess, no philosophical concept drove the creation of the Fontainebleau’s lobby.

Photographs of Jacobsen’s original understated lobby disclose a quietude enhanced by the open spatial sense.[22] Over the reception area, a chain of backlit planes hangs on barely visible strings, creating the illusion of a line of suspended light. The lobby’s spiral staircase, a ‘floating’ design that Jacobsen had employed before in such projects as the A. Jespersen & Søn office building (1952–55), adds a sense of upward movement. In the Jespersen project, Jacobsen designed a large glass tube encasing a spiral staircase for the fire escape passing through the open ground floor and connecting the second storey with the basement. The space-age looking structure is a minimalist’s dream of ‘floating steps’ emancipated from bearing structures or bannisters, the wedges of steps emanating from a central column. In ‘The Dynamics of Shape’ (1966), Rudolf Arnheim, using the Jespersen building’s stairs as an illustration, describes the spiral staircase as ‘a forerunner of the visual reversal . . . The pressure from above has been reduced to a minor force.’[23] For the SAS Hotel, Jacobsen maintained the floating sense by suspending the steps with thin metal supports hanging down through the circular opening in the lobby’s ceiling but added a red-painted railing and a grey glass panel curving with the stairs, imparting a more refined visual element necessary in a hotel lobby than a fire escape. Still, the curve swings heavenward; no support rises from the floor to meet the stairs – they are first and foremost suspended, their vertical supports echoing the lobby’s columns. Once inside the lobby, the visitor has truly stepped into Jacobsen’s designed world; in this sense, the Gesamtkunstwerk removes those who experience it from the inconsistencies of everyday living by constructing a visually harmonious environment. To return to Nyberg’s Hegelian reading, in its consistency the Gesamtkunstwerk strives to erase any sense of estrangement. Subtle visual clues aid in that endeavour: the Egg and Swan Chairs’ sinuous curves, for example, recall that of the spiral staircase.

That rising sense was surely abetted by the verticality of the two-storey winter garden, consisting of two glass walls housing hanging orchids, translucent curtains, and white painted columns rising between the two walls (all separating that part of the lobby from the snack bar). Curiously, the motif of the staggered hanging orchids was repeated in the window and lobby displays of manufactured objets in the Art Royal boutique, on the corner of Hammerichsgade and Vesterbrogade, which faced both the streets and the inside of the lobby. High-end wares from Georg Jensen silversmiths and the Royal Copenhagen porcelain factory were displayed on hanging, staggered glass shelves; translucent curtains were also used in the shop window displays. In the repetition of these motifs, Jacobsen again attempted to unite nature and industry aesthetically. In the winter garden, the simplistic organic cupping shape of the Pot Chair (1959), rendered in a chartreuse fabric, emphasizes the botanical effect of the hanging orchids. Rosewood tabletops bring yet another natural element into the space, as do rectangles of thick brown rya rugs.

The winter garden’s carefully coordinated construction, along with its meld of glass, steel, contemporary forms, and natural textures, recalls the German Raumkunst (in Danish, rumkunst), which Nyberg employs as another aspect of a Right-Hegelian reading of Modernism, moving architectural expression away from a dependency on style.[24] With its hanging orchids and green and brown colour scheme, the winter garden proffers an organic expression giving form to the spirit of place. Its nature-driven aspects offer a contrast to the cold universal notions of space dependent on a more Cartesian sense of rationality; the winter garden’s entire spatial design, including soft translucent curtains, seems worlds removed from the works of Le Corbusier or Mies.[25] The botanical element also reinforces the Danish resistance to banishing nature in a geometric world of glass and chrome. Yet, even more than this, its effect must have surely been ethereal and restful, an effect abetted by designs emphasizing verticality, translucence, and floating. The orchid wall, for example, functioned as a three-dimensional incarnation of Jacobsen’s intricate botanical textile and wallpaper patterns, with names such as ‘Heather’ and ‘Forest Floor,’ many of them designed while he was in exile in Sweden during the Second World War. Destroyed in 1991, the winter garden presented myriad elements of Jacobsen’s specific vision of modern design.

The dominance of certain colours throughout the hotel’s original interior design was another way for Jacobsen to draw community into the totality of his project. Chromatically, he chose colours throughout the hotel’s spaces that would reinforce the green-grey-blue effects of the tower’s sheath. In Room 606 (2008), Michael Sheridan notes that ‘by the early 1950s, Jacobsen had evolved his own vocabulary of color, which was dominated by subtle shades of gray, green, and blue . . .’[26] He designed a line of upholstery fabric, Royal, specifically for the hotel in a subdued palette of blues and greens. While there has been a tendency to define the use of these colours as botanical, they are also aqueous in nature. In the lobby, the light grey marble floor served as a contrast to the ceiling, which was painted a deep green. In ‘On Color and Affect,’ Ernest G. Schachtel observes that the preference for green – and possibly also for blue – is closely related to the romantic and sentimental view of landscape.[27] Goethe referred to green as the most restful of colours, and that colour also dominates in the original design of the guest rooms. Soft green walls, rendered in a textured fabric and offset by rich wenge-wood panelling, serve as a muted backdrop for blue curtains and bed linens. Chromatically, there are no complements in fabrics, no bright orange or red furnishings to contrast with the soft greens and blues. Sheridan indicates that the Egg Chairs in the hotel rooms were originally covered in a wavy blue-green fabric called Turkis (1959), although one of Jacobsen’s own photos reveals the Egg and Drop Chairs in what appears to be a much paler fabric. Even the woven wool carpets Jacobsen designed for some of the hotel’s spaces reveal abstract patterns in blues and greens (a more neutral grey carpet with dots of pale colour was used in the guest rooms). The close relationship between green and blue on the spectrum served as another way for Jacobsen to achieve a sense of unity – but even more so a sense of peace and refuge. As he did in most elements of his designs, Jacobsen was, chromatically, humanizing Modernism in a palette far removed from the bold primary colours of the De Stijl designers.

On forms: a process of becoming

When discussing modernist designs, critics and scholars have often alluded to a Platonic sensibility among designers – the sense that they are driven by achieving an ultimate or final form, one that already exists within the material. Commenting on the sense of completeness in Jacobsen’s forms, Thau and Vindum, for example, claim: ‘In his work with the material, Jacobsen was undoubtedly driven by such a Platonic assumption: that the chair’s ideal form drove him to find its conclusive realization.’[28] Yet, Jacobsen’s endeavours are actually more of a process of becoming rather than a discovery of any pre-existing form, in the sense of a Platonic reading. His forms emerge from his working with materials: they do not already exist platonically, either somehow in the materials or, at even more of a stretch, somewhere a priori, outside of his efforts – ideal forms floating around and waiting to be discovered. Some of these Neo-Platonist concepts in modernist readings stem from the lingering effects of Purism after the First World War and the striving to establish a universal aesthetic. In 1934, when MoMA held its ‘ Machine Art’ exhibition, the catalogue opened with a quote from Plato, a paean to geometric abstraction: ‘By beauty of shapes . . . I mean straight lines and circles, and shapes, plane or solid, made for them by lathe, ruler, and square. These are not, like other things, beautiful relatively, but always and absolutely.’

Aalto’s edict that ‘objects are made to be completed by the human mind’ undercuts the conventional notion that all modernists were trying to design perfect or ultimate forms. The forms are never completed until they are perceived or, even more importantly with designed objects, until they are used and humans interact with them. Users may embrace, reject, or alter the concepts often inscribed in designs. Aalto, in his lecture ‘ Rationalism and Man,’ observed:

Nature, biology, is formally rich and luxuriant. It can with the same structure, the same intermeshing, and the same principles in its cells’ inner structure, achieve a billion combinations, each of which represents a high level of form. Man’s life belongs to the same family. The things surrounding him are hardly fetishes and allegories with a mystical eternal value.[29]

It seems much more productive to look at Jacobsen’s designs, especially some of his more inventive ones for the SAS Hotel, as part of his process, as his Baukunst. In this more Hegelian than Platonic reading, forms emerge not only out of the process of working with materials but also out of the desire to erase any sense of estrangement between form and user in this specific environment. The Gesamtkunswerk of the SAS Hotel was an attempt by Jacobsen to create a modernist synthesis of people, society, nature, and industrial crafts. Miller, commenting on Aalto’s specific reading of industrial technique, emphasizes the natural: ‘Industrial processes were to be subordinated to humanistic values in Aalto’s mind, and such values were defined through the individual’s harmonious interaction with the totality of nature . . . a conception of nature as a continuous organic system that included both society and the individual.’[30] Just as Aalto was heavily influenced by his appreciation of landscape painting, Jacobsen’s work was often infused with his deft skills with watercolour and his botanical interests. Also, whereas Aalto depended predominantly on wood to impart his natural synthesis, Jacobsen found a way so do so in moulded synthetic forms, plywood, and fabrics. By employing noticeably organic shapes, Jacobsen also helped the minds perceiving those forms to complete them; visual analogies are easier to make with recognizable shapes, whether they are eggs, petals, or animals. Jacobsen’s forms – from furniture to light fixtures to cutlery – aided the harmonious interaction necessary to bring the viewer/user into the Gesamtkunstwerk as another part, the essential part, of that totality.

A number of Jacobsen’s designs for the furnishings of the SAS Hotel have helped to establish his long-lasting international reputation – and none more so than his chairs, the Egg and the Swan (1958). Both chairs are referred to in Denmark as ‘shell chairs’ because of their moulded shell forms, each of which possesses an enveloping quality. The sculptor Gord Peteran has observed: ‘Furniture is our first sculptural encounter, after the body of the mother and slightly before the interior spatial volumes of architecture.’[31] In his highly organic shapes, Jacobsen designed links between those two forces, the nurturing and the rational. This approach was especially useful in the context of the SAS Hotel: the two chairs’ blatantly organic shapes, obviously manufactured design, and hand-stitched upholstery present yet another synthesis of industry and nature. The care given to their overall form also spoke well to the time of their inception; just as picture windows in many homes – especially suburban ones – were becoming increasingly larger, thus revealing more of home furnishings from all sides, so Jacobsen designed two chairs that would impress from every angle and even swivelled to do so.

In his Ant (1952) and Seven (1955) Chairs, Jacobsen had already pushed plywood to its limits by bending it in more than one direction. Chair designs for a hotel room or lobby would require providing more comfort than bent plywood, however curved, could supply. In 1957, the American designer George Nelson was still defining the standard chair as a more traditional structure: ‘The chair, for instance, is traditionally a four-legged structure of wood sticks held together with nails, glue, pegs, dowels, screws, or joints in the sticks themselves.’ Like the contemporary chair designs of Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames, the softly rounded, biomorphic Egg and Swan bear no resemblance to this description, due in great part to the specifically sculptural approach Jacobsen applied to creating the chair. Technological advancements in production aided his forms. For example, the increased use of foam in producing moulds – as in the aeroplane industry – enabled him to take his cue from the biomorphic shapes of sculptors such as Jean (Hans) Arp and Barbara Hepworth. He was not alone. In 1948, Charles and Ray Eames based the design of their La Chaise chair on Gaston Lachaise’s bronze sculpture Floating Figure (1927), partly because advancements in plastics enabled them to mould the chair’s undulating form in an unprecedented manner.[32] The sculptor Sandor Perjesi, who worked with Jacobsen on the plaster models for both the Egg and the Swan, has described how the two men ‘spent the whole weekend adding and removing plaster. Back and forth, like a classical sculptor.’[33] The resultant forms are playful and optimistic, soft and organic – all traits enabled by the technical possibilities in the original moulded form and then rendered in fibreglass shells and foam padding, enhanced by the addition of fabric or leather.

Like the rest of the hotel’s designs, the Egg and Swan chairs were at their time forward-looking, another part of the effort to create a total environment that would reflect the spirit of a society in a given place (Fig. 6.3). Placing them on an aluminium pedestal base (although the Swan was once also available with a cross-form wooden frame) added yet another sense of verticality to the hotel’s many designs: the chairs not only appear more weightless but the absence of intruding legs draws the eye up to the singular form of each chair. Jacobsen’s overall approach often appeared to be an effort at designing the fewest possible divisions to achieve the best possible form. The stainless steel cutlery (originally plated in silver) he designed for the hotel’s restaurant epitomizes this goal: the utensils have been stripped of every possible division between handle and blade, tongs, and bowl. Thau and Vindum note a blend of primitivism in the simplified form, combined with a radically ‘modern’ design for its time. This paradox certainly surfaced when director Stanley Kubrick chose the AJ cutlery for use by astronauts in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): the cutlery appears briefly – held by the actor Keir Dullea – while the Jupiter Mission crew eats dinner and watches the news. One cannot miss the irony of a movie made in 1968 using a design from 1959 to convey the appearance of an artefact some thirty years into the future. The AJ cutlery was not an immediate hit; in fact, when the hotel opened, the Danish news sent a reporter to try to eat peas with it in an attempt to prove that it was more design than function. In time, the hotel even replaced the AJ cutlery with more traditional utensils – but it remains in production.

Figure 6.3. The original interior of one of the hotel rooms includes a trio of Egg chairs, a Shaker-base table, the SAS floor lamp, and a Swan sofa. The original chroma was an array of blues and greens playing against the Wenge-wood panelling. Photo: The Aage Strüwing Collection

The Egg and Swan continue to appear frequently in designer magazines, films, television shows, and advertisements. Over the years, the two designs have appeared in steampunk reproductions, special editions for cancer awareness designed by Karim Rashid and Alexandra von Furstenberg, reupholstering by Jonathan Adler and Missoni, and rendered in cowhide, metal, and patchwork quilt. They are examples of Danish Modern long detached from the environment in which they were created, reinterpreted and rearticulated in ways Jacobsen could never have foreseen or desired. Like a number of Jacobsen’s designs for the SAS Hotel, the two chair designs are paradoxical: they reflect a space-age sensibility in their time and, simultaneously, are embraced as an example of nostalgia. In 2014, the simplistic Drop Chair (1959), originally designed for the hotel’s guest rooms and snack bar, was finally put into mass production by Fritz Hansen. It was one of the few chairs Jacobsen designed with four legs that intersected the base of the chair (in the stacking Ant and Seven Chairs, Jacobsen had used a chrome frame that curved back in beneath the seat to avoid the appearance of lines bisecting the seat).

Another of the hotel’s minimalist designs, the door handles, are also still in production (by Carl F. Pedersen, who first produced them in 1956). As in most of Jacobsen’s other designs for the hotel, the levered door handle consists of one organic form, combining both the axle and the grasp. The handle looks as if Jacobsen made a mould of the inside of one’s hand when grasping a door handle and then sculpted the resultant shape into a sleek, highly ergonomic form based on palm and thumb prints. In emphasizing the human element, Jacobsen once again erases any sense of estrangement between user and object. Visually, the handle’s minimalist shape recalls Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncusi’s Bird in Flight (1923), a sinuous bronze sculpture depicting flight in abstract form (so abstract that in 1926, US Customs officials refused to believe the sculpture was art and tried to charge a tariff on Brancusi’s work as a kitchen utensil). In What is Modern Design, his 1950 pamphlet for the Museum of Modern Art, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. included a photograph of Brancusi’s sculpture with a carving knife and propeller blade to illustrate his contention that design is ‘related to engineering and art.’[34] In many ways, Jacobsen’s door handle fulfils Kaufmann’s normative demands even better than Brancusi’s sculpture, because the engineering aspect is much more applicable to a utilitarian piece of hardware. Satisfying other modernist demands, the lever – while an elegant design – is so minimal that it is void of any ornament in even the slightest degree. Thau and Vindum (2001) point out that Gio Ponti designed a metal door handle in the same year but that it is less organic. This assessment stems from the fact that Ponti’s handle, designed for the Pirelli Tower, is straight, possessing none of the sculptural about it. The ‘calculated efficiency’ that Kaufmann lauds seems much more evident in Jacobsen’s lever.

In retrospect, it would be easy to dismiss the entire project as an exercise in mid-twentieth-century ‘style.’ As Fred Rush, commenting on Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal (1956–62) in New York, observes in On Architecture (2009): ‘No one would want to reduce Saarinen’s great terminal building . . . to a matter of style (architects are allergic to considering their work under fashion categories), but to deny that sleekness is part of the concept of the building as well as what the city sought to project by building the terminal is to beggar history.’[35] The sophistication that oozes from the interior photographs taken during the SAS Hotel’s first few years, especially some striking black-and-white photos by Aage Strüwing, are rife with messages after more than a half-century has passed. The fetishizing of many mid-twentieth–century designs, coupled with a nostalgia for the Populuxe[36] era in the United States and the international success of the television series Mad Men (2007–15), reinforces the sense of a lost, upper-middle-class Shangri-La of style and sophistication. In his final interview, Jacobsen addressed the issue of taste as a determining factor in evaluating design:

Now, I can’t stand the term good taste – as if we were talking about ladies’ hats. I would rather say: artistic approach, receptiveness, alertness. In one way, the sense of quality has got better; the status symbol in little things is gone. People will dare to have stainless steel, even though the neighbors have silver. I simply think that prefabrication and industrial design make people more neighborly. I think that’s a good thing.[37]

Yet, much more than this, the SAS Hotel represented the apex of a modernist vision of communal living in which designed spaces reflected values held in common and in which a building and the objects designed for it worked together to make people feel that they were part of that design at every turn. In Objects of Desire, Adrian Forty defines design as much more than an ‘inoffensive artistic activity’ and suggests that it can ‘cast ideas about who we are and how we should behave into permanent and tangible form.’[38] Many of the hotel’s shapes – and especially the colours – reinforced the sense that this society in this place was moving forward; however they were received, the designs for the hotel were Jacobsen’s attempt to give form to the future he perceived while insisting that nature and natural shapes remain a part of that manufactured vision.

In the hotel, all that remains of Jacobsen’s original interior designs is room 606, which retains the blue-green colour scheme he laid out, along with wenge-wood panelling and cantilevered drawers and dressing tables, his minimalist circular lamp designs, and the Egg, Drop, and the more architectonic series 3300 chairs covered in a blue-green fabric. The room reminds us that for a brief moment in time, an entire building and all of its contents depicted one person’s ideal of form, a spirited attempt at a totally harmonious Danish Modern design celebrating, at every turn, the art of construction.

[1] Herbert Read. Art and Industry: The Principles of Industrial Design (New York: Horizon Press, 1961), 45.

[2] Quoted in German Expressionism: Documents from the End of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism , ed. Rose-Carol Washton Long (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 251.

[3] Writing about Aalto’s broad design efforts, William C. Miller states: ‘These elements were more than mere accents with a spatial setting or decorative ensemble. The design and crafting of a chair, a light fixture, or a glass bowl was as much an architectural proposition as the making of a building.’ Miller, ‘Furniture, Painting, and Applied Designs: Alvar Aalto’s Search for Architectural Form,’ Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts , 6 (Autumn 1987), 6.

[4] George Nelson, ‘Wright’s Houses,’ in Problems of Design (New York: Whitney Publications, 1965), 113.

[5] Folke Nyberg, ‘From Baukunst to Bauhaus,’ Journal of Architectural Education 45(3) (1992): 131.

[7] Max Bill, ‘Function and Gestalt ,’ in Form, Function, Beauty = Gestalt (London: AA Publications, 2011), 105.

[8] Nyberg, ‘From Baukunst to Bauhaus,’ 131.

[10] John Whiteman, ‘On Hegel’s Definition of Architecture,’ Assemblage , 2 (February 1987), 16.

[11] Quoted in Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (London: MIT Press, 1980): 73.

[12] Hoffman and Moser, ‘The Work Program of the Wiener Werkstätte,’ in The Industrial Reader , ed. Carma Gorman (New York: Allworth, 2003), 63.

[13] Reviewing the hotel after its opening, Poul Erik Skriver wrote that ‘the choices in materials are, despite everything, controlled and harmonious, held together by one man’s ideal of form’: ‘Royal Hotel, København,’ Arkitektur , 4(6) (1960), 210.

[14] ‘Our Time’s City Builders,’ Arkitekten , 49/50 (1956), 377 . Quoted in Thau and Vindum, Arne Jacobsen (Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag, 1998).

[15] Quoted in Poul Erik Tøjner and Kjeld Vindum, Arne Jacobsen – Arkitekt & Designer (Copenhagen: Dansk Design Center, 1999), 128.

[16] Jacobsen would take this effect even further in his next project, the HEW (Hamburgische Elektrizitäts-Werke) Building (1962–69) in Hamburg, Germany, with its reflective curtain walls descending all the way to the ground.

[17] Henningsen, ‘Fremtidsperspektiver,’ in Neel Pørn, PHs Arkitekturkritik (Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag, 1994), 111.

[18] Quoted in Hans Hertel, PH-En biografi (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2012), 21–22.

[19] Skriver, ‘Royal Hotel, København,’ 210.

[20] Quoted in Thau and Vindum, Arne Jacobsen , 442.

[22] Thau and Vindum note that the lobby ‘was characterized by a particularly inviting and embracing, but in no way intrusive, intimacy . . . a refuge, a retreat’: Arne Jacobsen , 432.

[23] Arnheim, ‘The Dynamics of Shape,’ Design Quarterly , 64 (1966), 10.

[24] Nyberg explains: ‘Raumkunst maintains that all architectural and spatial qualities are place-specific and can be understood through a physiology of space’: ‘From Baukunst to Bauhaus,’ 131.

[25] Thau and Vindum, Arne Jacobsen , 436 refer to the entire ‘manifestation’ of the winter garden as an expression of modern spatial art.

[26] Michael Sheridan, Room 606. The SAS House and the Work of Arne Jacobsen (London: Phaidon, 2003), 71.

[27] Ernest G. Schachtel, ‘On Color and Affect,’ Psychiatry , 6 (1943), 402.

[28] Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum, Arne Jacobsen , in Store Danske Designere , ed. Tøjner and Frovin (Copenhagen: Lindhardt og Ringhof, 2008), 260.

[29] Quoted in Alvar Aalto Furniture , ed. Juhani Pallasmaa (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 117.

[31] Quoted in Ken Johnson, ‘Close Encounters with Tableness and Chairness,’ New York Times (11 June 2009).

[32] Although produced in 1948 and included in MoMA’s permanent collection, the Eames La Chaise was not produced commercially until 1990.

[33] Quoted in Tøjner and Vindum, 80.

[34] Kaufmann, Jr. What Is Modern Design? Introductory Series to the Modern Arts – 3 (New York: MoMA, 1950), 6.

[35] Rush, On Architecture (New York: Routledge 2009), 64–65.

[36] ‘Populuxe,’ an amalgam of populism, popularity, and luxury, was coined by Thomas Hine in his 1986 book of the same name. He defined it as ‘an expression of outright vulgar joy in being able to live so well.’

[37] Quoted in Tøjner & Vindum, Arne Jacobsen – Arkitekt & Designer , 131.

[38] Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire: Design & Society from Wedgwood to IBM (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 6.