At Copenhagen airport I am immediately overwhelmed by 3 elements: design, light and coziness. Soon after, I come to think that these are the essence of Danish interiors. Yet they are so embedded in spaces and everyday life that they have become almost invisible, but are not so obvious to the foreign eye.
Danish Design is often associated with the stylish functionalism of the 1950s and 1960s called Danish Modern. It is a very sought after furniture style that sells at exorbitant rates at Philips in London where a Finn Juhl chair can fetch more than £400,000.
But as a matter of fact, at least one piece of design from that period is in every Danish home. It forms the visual landscape of a Dane from the early days. It is part of the cultural DNA and has been passed on for at least 3 generations.
…as soon as you can afford it you buy the original or even better, you inherit it!
All Danes know their design classics because they are surrounded by them. You would never even think to furnish your living room with the armchairs from the Linate airport lounge in Milano or enjoy the mall atmosphere at one of London Heathrow’s terminals. But at Kastrup International, with its large windows and warm dimmed lights, I could spend an entire afternoon sipping coffee on a beautiful Hans J. Wegner chair.
Design objects have become so embedded in everyday life that they are almost invisible, but why are some designs more popular than others?
Photo: Eleonora Fassina, Editing: Mathias Skafte Andersen
Light and coziness
The first Danish home I step into is a very good example of how design entered everyday life. This is where I meet Anette and Niels, a couple close to retirement age which means that they were just born when Danish design started to boom after World War II.
My hosts guide me into the living room where I immediately notice the 3 elements that welcomed me at the airport: from coffee table to window sill, every surface is proportionally furnished with design objects, the outdoor light still shines through the windows and a few candles are burning. And as soon as we sit together with a glass of wine we are creating a moment of hygge, the Scandinavian coziness.
Scandinavian people spend a lot of time at home. For some, their home is their identity and the objects they buy talk about who they are. This is not the case in Italy where home is a more private space and you often share time and meals with family and friends in a public piazza or eating out. It’s the same in London, where your apartment is so small that you have to meet your friends at the pub. But in Scandinavia you invite home and cook.
From where I am standing, I notice a famous lamp hanging in a corner. “This is actually the PH 4/3 here,” says Anette “but in the summerhouse we have the PH5!”
From the fancy villa on Strandvejen to the shed in the Kolonihave everyone has the PH5, the most iconic and democratic Poul Hennigsen lamp, hanging low above the table. This lamp made it through the night not only because of its soft warm light that illuminates the fitting itself, but because, for the first time, it allowed people to use any kind of light source. The lamp shade is designed to reproduce the light of a burning flame which in Scandinavia is synonym of warmth, gathering and protection. When I saw a burning candle on the window sill in Italy, apart from birthdays and romantic dinners, I knew my grandmother had been to the cemetery.
Photo: Eleonora Fassina, Editing: Mathias Skafte Andersen
As long as it lasts
I sit in a comfortable and soft sofa and can’t help noticing the very rich texture of the fabric. “It must be Hallingdal 65 from Kvadrat,” says Niels. “The designer is Nanna Ditzel and Hallingdal 65 is her fabric masterpiece chosen by all famous Danish architects.” The manufacturer introduced it in 1968 and has produced it ever since.
Like Kvadrat, several manufacturers kept supporting their best designers throughout the years. Not only because of the success of their products, but for a specific social-economic reason: the introduction of important reforms in the Danish Welfare System in the 60s pushed up labour prices. Manufacturers like Fritz Hansen preferred to concentrate on more established designers and pieces, rather than introducing new ones and fight the increasing competition from the international market.
We move into the kitchen, where Anette is preparing whipped cream for dessert in a large colourful bowl. I notice that she has several of these in different sizes and colours. They are called Margrethe-skålen and were designed by an ex-prince in honor of his niece, nothing more nothing less than the actual queen of Denmark. These bowls are so common in Scandinavian kitchens that it is unthinkable to buy anything else. And why would you when there is such an entertaining story behind it?
The J39 chair by Børge Mogensen is the perfect result and of course my hosts have it: they bought it in 1968 with a Brugsen discount card at FDB møbler
Some Danish designers were in fact architects, like Arne Jacobsen who designed the most common dining chair of all times, the Series 7, indifferently used in canteens and private homes. Six of these surround the dining table where we are about to sit. It is indeed a comfortable chair and its shape is iconic: as the result of a long and painstaking process of lamination, it celebrates the close collaboration between designers and craftsmen. And it definitely screams: I’m modern!
To get there, Kaare Klint, the father of Danish design, had to integrate the famous 20th century motto to be “form follows function and tradition” in fact mixing Design (the rigorous line of the Bauhaus movement) together with kunsthåndværk – the tradition of making simple, comfortable, wooden furniture. The J39 chair by Børge Mogensen is the perfect result and of course my hosts have it: they bought it in 1968 with a Brugsen discount card at FDB møbler. The manufacturer still makes products which the majority of the population can afford: “quality and beauty for the people and for the everyday”. This chair is also known as “People’s Chair”.
Craving for design
Danish design is also something to look forward to. You might settle with a cheaper alternative in your younger years, but as soon as you can afford it you buy the original or even better, you inherit it!
Danish people prefer to own few really good pieces rather than a home full of clutter like an English house or antiques like in Italy. Design is always a good gift for a birthday, wedding or a young person’s confirmation. Even Anette’s mother, now 86, gets very happy when she receives a Georg Jensen or a Royal Copenhagen for Christmas, even a small one. I’m not sure my grandma would appreciate it and a 12 year old Italian would definitely put it aside.
But if you did not inherit a classic you always dream of owning one, so it is obvious that Danish Modern still casts a long shadow over contemporary Danish culture: it is a tried and tested design and it works, so there is no need to change it.
But society has changed: couples like my hosts saved up a lot of money to buy their first sofa and it had to be that one and nothing else and bought in the best shop in town. And it proves to have been a great investment if their son has it now standing in his living room.
The first designs landed on the market after World War II, it was a good time for the economy. “For the first time we could choose, we had economic freedom, we had our jobs and we could buy what we wanted. And we wanted new things…” says Niels with pride.
I have decided to stay for a while in this peculiar part of Europe and when I enter the Borgercenter (civic centre) to register, I can’t help but smile: even here the room is filled with cozy furniture, dimmed lights and free coffee to share. You try to go to the Comune in Milano or to get your NiNo in London!
Patrick Kingsley, How to be Danish – Short Books, London 2012
Thomas Dickson, Dansk Design – Gyldendal, Copenhagen 2006
Tøjner & Vindum, Arne Jacobsen Arkitekt & Designer – Danish Design Centre, Copenhagen 1994
Svend Erik Møller, Brugskunst i stuen – Høst&Søns Forlag, Copenhagen 1956
Mogens Koch, Moderne Dansk Kunsthandværk – Thaning og Appels Billedserie, Copenhagen 1948
Kai Uldall, Gammel Dansk Folkekunst – Thaning og Appels Forlag, Copenhagen 1945