THE LIFE OF ARNE JACOBSEN

Visionary ideas and an uncompromising approach to architecture and design characterize the life and work of Arne Jacobsen.

BIOGRAPHY
For six decades, Arne Jacobsen was at the forefront of Danish architecture and design. Working as both architect, furniture designer, industrial designer and landscape architect, he made contributions to the world of design that remain as significant today as they were in his lifetime.

Few Danish architects are as widely known and admired, both in Denmark and around the world, as Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971). Over six decades, he left his mark on the world of architecture and design and earned his place as one of most significant figures in Danish design history.

In his work, Arne Jacobsen was often ahead of his time. With a talent for finding and adopting new solutions, he repeatedly showed a keen ability to anticipate future trends and developments. Over time, his name has come to epitomize simple, iconic forms and the marriage of aesthetics and function.

One consistent characteristic of Arne Jacobsen’s work is the combination of architecture and design. In projects such as the SAS Royal Hotel (1960) and St. Catherine’s College in Oxford (1964), he not only created the architecture but also designed every last detail of the interiors, making each project a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. From Arne Jacobsen’s studio flowed furniture, lamps, patterns, clocks, cutlery and glassware that were both independent designs and part of the holistic expressions that Arne Jacobsen aimed for.

Arne Jacobsen at his easel. Photo: Private.
Arne og Marie Jacobsen
Arne og Marie Jacobsen. Photo: Private.
The young Arne Jacobsen

As a young man, Arne Jacobsen dreamed of becoming an artist. However, when his father opposed that idea, Arne Jacobsen chose instead to enroll in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture in 1924. This was where he created his first furniture designs. Throughout his life, the paint brush, pen and camera would play an important role for Arne Jacobsen and remained important tools in his creative process.

In 1927, Arne Jacobsen married Marie Jelstrup Holm. Together, they had the sons Johan and Niels. During the 1930s, Arne and Marie went on several trips around Europe. In watercolours and experimental photographs, he gave his ideas visual form and captured impressions from the world around him. Details from new and old works of architecture and the abundance and diversity of nature were a rich source of fascination and inspiration to him. The inspiration from wild nature is most directly recognizable in the textile patterns he created during the 1940s, but many of his furniture designs too show the influence of nature in their free, organic shapes. 

Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen’s drawing of the House of the Future. On the patio, Arne Jacobsen’s wicker chair. Photo: Royal Danish Library - Danish National Art Library
The modernist

Arne Jacobsen’s curiosity about the world was an important driver of his creative process. Early in his career he was involved in bringing modernism to Denmark and shaping a particular Danish functionalist expression that combined new architectural and design ideas with the Danish craft tradition and grasp of material qualities. Around 1930, this was manifested in works of architecture such as House of the Future (with Flemming Lassen, 1929), the housing development Bellavista (1934), Bellevue Theatre (1936) corporate facilities for Novo Terapeutisk Laboratorium (1937) and the paint shop Stelling House (1937).

A few years later, in 1942, Arne Jacobsen completed no less than two city halls: Aarhus City Hall in collaboration with Erik Møller and Søllerød Town Hall (today: Rudersdal Town Hall) in collaboration with Flemming Lassen. In both buildings the architects created a comprehensive total design of the interior dominated by soft shapes with wood, brass and leather as the main materials. They designed all the furniture, lamps, bathroom fittings and other details, right down to the lift buttons and a special typeface for each house.

Aarhus City Hall. Photo: Yukio Yoshimura.

Early in his career he was involved in bringing modernism to Denmark and shaping a particular Danish functionalist expression that combined new architectural and design ideas with the Danish craft tradition and grasp of material qualities.

Arne and Jonna. Photo: Private.
Swedish exile

Arne Jacobsen met Jonna Møller during his work on Søllerød Town Hall (1942). As a trained textile printer, she was responsible for producing the textiles for the town hall. They married in 1943. Jonna Møller and Arne Jacobsen were not just husband and wife but also had a professional and creative partnership, as Jonna helped Arne turn his botanical studies and watercolours into textile pattern designs. Like many other Danes of Jewish descent, Arne Jacobsen had to flee Denmark in 1943 and go into exile in Sweden. Here, his textile patterns were put into production when the two initiated a collaboration with the Swedish department store Nordiska Kompaniet.

Kejserkrone (Crown Imperial), ca. 1948. Photo: Arne Jacobsen Design.

The inspiration from wild nature is most directly recognizable in the textile patterns he created during the 1940s, but many of his furniture designs too show the influence of nature in their free, organic shapes.

Arne Jacobsen photographing in his garden. Photo: Aage Strüwing © Jørgen Strüwing.
A passion for botany

Arne Jacobsen  had a lifelong passion for botany and his private garden functioned as both a refuge and a laboratory. At Strandvejen 413, where he lived and had his studio from 1951, he established a densely packed botanical garden with more than 300 different species of plants. Here, he spent countless hours tending to the plants and studying their appearance. His plant studies were an important source of inspiration and he often brought pen and paintbrush or his camera to document colors, textures, shapes and patterns.

Arne Jacobsen’s pronounced sensibility to the surrounding landscape was reflected in his works of architecture. For private clients he created detailed garden plans and several of his large, public projects also included artistic garden and landscape designs. Projects such as the Munkegaard School (1957) and St. Catherine’s College in Oxford clearly reflect Arne Jacobsen’s ambition of framing the rich diversity of nature in overarching lines, figures and patterns and creating a close interplay of architecture and nature.

Arne Jacobsen’s own photographs from the garden at Strandvejen 413 in the Søholm housing development. Photo: Arne Jacobsen. Original is found at the Royal Danish Library - Danish National Art Library.
The housing development Søholm at Strandvejen north of Copenhagen, where Arne Jacobsen himself lived from 1951. Photo: Anders Sune Berg / Realdania By & Byg.
International breakthrough

After the Second World War, Arne Jacobsen made a name for himself both in Denmark and around the world, thanks in great part to projects such as the housing development Søholm (1951) and the Munkegaard School, with their yellow brickwork, oblique lines and innovative ground plans. With Rødovre Town Hall (1955) and SAS Royal Hotel, Arne Jacobsen represented a more internationally oriented architecture characterized by materials such as steel, glass and aluminium. Combining a new rational aesthetic with classic, living materials, his architecture maintained a humane feel despite its stringent expression. In Rødovre Town Hall, he combined light glass facades with end-walls clad in natural Solvåg marble and the interiors of the SAS Royal Hotel welcomed its guests with a wealth of materials, shapes and colours that softened the architecture’s taut stringency.

In 1964, Arne Jacobsen completed his first major project abroad: St. Catherine’s College in Oxford. Arne Jacobsen’s successful incorporation of the historical traditions of the Oxford Colleges – English university environments combining lecture halls and student rooms, some of them with buildings dating back to the 13th century – in an architectural solution based on contemporary ideals and a painstakingly executed comprehensive design programme makes St. Catherine’s College one of Arne Jacobsen’s principal works.

SAS Royal Hotel, 1960. Photo: Aage Strüwing © Jørgen Strüwing.

Combining a new rational aesthetic with classic, living materials, his architecture maintained a humane feel despite its stringent expression.

A room at SAS Royal Hotel around the opening in 1960. Photo: Arne Jacobsen. Original is found at the Royal Danish Library - Danish National Art Library.
The canteen at Rødovre Town Hall approximately 1956. Photo: Arne Jacobsen. Original is found at the Royal Danish Library - Danish National Art Library.

The chair marked a technical and stylistic breakthrough. Arne Jacobsen used clay and plaster in his development of the unique form, and it took Fritz Hansen’s technical experts a year to overcome the technical challenges.

The furniture designer

During the 1950s, Arne Jacobsen had his major breakthrough as a furniture designer. Together with furniture manufacturer Fritz Hansen, in 1952 he developed the Ant, a stacking chair with a seat and back moulded from a single sheet of plywood. The chair marked a technical and stylistic breakthrough. Arne Jacobsen used clay and plaster in his development of the unique form, and it took Fritz Hansen’s technical experts a year to overcome the technical challenges. The Swan and Egg chairs were presented in 1958, two years before they became famous as part of the interior of the SAS Royal Hotel. Here too, Arne Jacobsen used modern technology to create a brand new type of chair, shaped in a free artistic process. 

Arne Jacobsen in the Egg. Photo: Erik Petersen / Ritzau Scanpix

Tapping into the potential of prefabrication and serial manufacturing he set out to create functional, beautiful and more affordable design.

The final years

Arne Jacobsen never stopped developing. Tapping into the potential of prefabrication and serial manufacturing he set out to create functional, beautiful and more affordable design. In creating his tableware series Cylinda Line (1967), Arne Jacobsen initially used standard steel tubes in an effort to design a series that could compete with the more traditional but very expensive silver hollowware. During the 1960s he created several designs based on the notion of identical, often geometric basic modules that could be combined in a variety of ways and thus adapted to the individual user. Examples include the standard house Kubeflex (1970) and the VOLA series of taps and accessories (1969). In the 1960s, this was a novel concept, which Arne Jacobsen, sadly, was not able to manifest fully before his death, at the age of 69, on 24 March 1971 in his home on Strandvejen 413. 

At the time of his death, Arne Jacobsen was working on a range of major projects, both in Denmark and abroad. Arne Jacobsen was able to see the first stage of the National Bank of Denmark completed in 1971 and during the 1970s, a range of planned projects were realized by his partners, Hans Dissing and Otto Weitling, who continued Arne Jacobsen’s firm under the name Dissing+Weitling.

The National Bank of Denmark. Photo: Dissing+Weitling.

The combination of function, craftsmanship and aesthetic quality that characterizes Arne Jacobsen’s work continues to influence our everyday life and is evident throughout society: in the urban space, in the workplace and in our homes.

Arne Jacobsen put Denmark on the global map. His contributions to architecture, design and art were deeply influential during his own time, and their impact on subsequent generations remains at least as significant. The combination of function, craftsmanship and aesthetic quality that characterizes Arne Jacobsen’s work continues to influence our everyday life and is evident throughout society: in the urban space, in the workplace and in our homes. Everywhere, we continue to encounter the architecture and designs that are Arne Jacobsen’s legacy for future generations.

 

Sources: Arne Jacobsen Design Archives. / Arne Jacobsen’s drawings. The collection of architectural drawings, The Royal Library – Danish Art Library. / Arne Jacobsen’s scrapbooks. The Royal Library – Danish Art Library. / Sheridan, M. (2003). Room 606: The SAS House and the Work of Arne Jacobsen. London: Phaidon Press / Stenum Poulsen, K., Skaarup Larsen, A., & Staunsager, S. (2020). Arne Jacobsen – Designing Denmark. Kolding: Trapholt.  / Thau, C., & Vindum, K. (1998). Arne Jacobsen. Copenhagen: Danish Architectural Press. / Tøjner, P. E., & Vindum, K. (1994). Arne Jacobsen: arkitekt & designer. Copenhagen: Dansk Design Center.

Arne Jacobsen photographing at Bellevue north of Copenhagen. Photo: Teit Weylandt.
TIMELINE

A TIMELINE OF
ARNE JACOBSEN’S CAREER