Arne Jacobsen: Mid-Century Scandinavian Master

Retrospect

Two of the most iconic chairs of the twentieth century, the Egg chair (image 1) and the Seven chair (image 5), were designed by Arne Jacobsen — a reclusive Dane known as "The Fat Man" (image 2). His creations, which ranged from flatware to skyscrapers, helped define Danish Modernism while keeping the "fun" in "functionalism."

Arne Jacobsen (pronounced, in American accents, Arnie YAH-cobsen) was born in Copenhagen in 1902, just when Swedish designers and theorists like Carl and Karin Larsson and Ellen Key were starting to formulate the characteristics of modern Scandinavian design, such as functionalism, informality, airiness, cleanliness and cleanness.

As a young architect (image 3), Jacobsen was inspired by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, whose modern buildings and comprehensive approach to design informed his developing style. When World War II hit Europe, Jacobsen, a Jew, fled to Sweden for a couple years. His post-war work is clearly influenced both by contemporary Scandinavian design and by the innovative furniture of Charles and Ray Eames, who often used new materials developed during wartime, like molded plywood and polyurethane.

Jacobsen's first 'hit' was his Ant chair from 1952 (image 4), designed for the cafeteria of a Danish pharmaceutical company. Inspired in part by the Eames' work, like the LCM chair, the Ant chair is composed of one piece of molded plywood cut into a organic shape reminiscent of — you guessed it — an ant's body. Its three-legged design was intended to make it easier for people to sit at table together without legs (human and chair) bumping into each other. It was later also produced with four legs.

Jacobsen further developed this plywood chair type with the 3107 chair, often just called the Seven (image 5). Today, its manufacturer, Fritz Hansen, has sold nearly 7 million Sevens, while the number of knockoffs is unfathomably large. There are a couple reasons for the Seven's particular success. It is firmly within the Scandinavian modern tradition: simple, stackable, easy to clean, and comfortable. It manages to be at once functionalist and curvaceously organic. Its clean lines are downright sexy. And when Christine Keeler, the mistress of both the British Secretary of State for War and a Soviet naval attaché, was photographed at the height of her scandal astride an imitation Seven (notice the handle cutout on the chair back that tells us it's a fake), the chair got even sexier by association, and sales went through the roof (image 6).

In 1956, the Danish airline SAS commissioned Jacobsen to build their Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. He constructed what was then the country's tallest building, a 20-storey homage to New York City's Lever House, designed by Gordon Bunshaft in 1951. Jacobsen not only designed the architecture of the building, but also the interiors, from the furniture to the flatware and the door hardware (images 7 & 8). It was for this project that he created the famous Egg and Swan sofas and chairs (1958). Made of a polyurethane foam shell on a star-shaped aluminum base, this suite of furniture was in part inspired by the aesthetics and materials of Eero Saarinen's 1948 Womb Chair. The organic, voluptuous curves of the Egg and Swan chairs (images 9 & 10 - can you see a swan's silhouette in the chair's curves?) relieved the geometric modernism of the building, and became instant design icons. Despite the success of the furniture, the building was not an unequivocal success. Jacobsen himself said drily, "At least it came in first when they held a competition for the ugliest building in Copenhagen."

One characteristic of Jacobsen's work is his desire for control over the entire project, whether it was designing every detail of the building and its contents, as he did at the SAS Royal Hotel, or carefully dictating the landscape design, as he did at St. Catherine's College at Oxford. ("I am a bit obsessive about my work," he once said.) Despite this control, you can see from his quotes that he had a healthy sense of fun. In fact, you can see that in his furniture as well, colorful, comfortable, and often a little cheeky.

Jacobsen died in 1971, and enjoyed a prolific and busy career until his death.


Images: 1 An egg chair in Rob & Nini's living room, from a recent AT Roomark; 2 Design Museum, London; 3 The Skovshoved Petrol Station on the outskirts of Copenhagen (1963); 4 The Ant Chair (1952), molded plywood on aluminum legs, from Republic Fritz Hansen; 5 Seven Chairs in a recent AT house tour, photos by Jill Slater; 6 Christine Keeler astride a fake Seven chair, photographed by Lewis Morley. Keeler was at the center of a scandal in 1960s Britain for having affairs with both the British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and a Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeniy Ivanov. Via Milesago; 7 The lobby of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, with Egg chairs and sofas. Jacobsen had creative control over the building's architecture and interior decoration. Image via the Design Museum, London; 8 The SAS Royal Hotel lobby, with a view of the sweeping staircase and the recessed lighting, via Channel4.com; 9 The Swan chair and sofa (1958), first designed for the SAS Royal Hotel, Copenhagen. Image from the manufacturer, Republic Fritz Hansen; 10 A living room designed by Jonathan Adler with a blue Swan chair, featured in the May 2009 House Beautiful, photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

Sources: Here is the Jacobsen page from manufacturer Republic of Fritz Hansen, and here is a fabulous article from Dwell magazine about how Hansen makes the Seven chairs. Here is a nice summary from the V & A on the Morley photo of Catherine Keeler in the fake Seven chair, and a post that Maxwell once did on the same subject.

(Re-edited from a post originally published 01/14/10 - AH)