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Modernism, Nordic Modernism

Birth date / place

February 11th 1902, Copenhagen, Denmark

Selected Architecture


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Copenhagen, Denmark

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"Architecture tends to consume everything else, it has become one's entire life."
Arne Jacobsen

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Article last edited by AleeshaCallahan on
March 15th, 2013

Arne Jacobsen Change this

Change thisCopenhagen, Denmark
born 1902, Copenhagen
1 of 2

About Change this

Arne Emil Jacobsen (11 February 1902 – 24 March 1971) was a Danish architect and designer, exemplar of the 'Danish Modern' style.

In addition to his architectural work he created a number of highly original chairs and other furniture. Jacobsen was a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He was granted his professional qualification in 1927. From the early 1930s until his death in 1971, Arne Jacobsen designed and built more than 100 buildings and family houses in Denmark and abroad.

Early life and education

Arne Jacobsen was born in Copenhagen to upper-middle-class Jewish parents. He first hoped to become a painter but was dissuaded by his father who encouraged him to opt instead for the more secure domain of architecture. After a spell as an apprentice mason, Jacobsen was admitted to the Architecture School at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts where from 1924 to 1927 he studied under Kay Fisker and Kaj Gottlob, both leading architects and designers.

Still a student, in 1925 Jacobsen participated in the Paris Art Deco fair, Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, where he won a silver medal for a chair design. On that trip, he was struck by the pioneering aesthetic of Le Corbusier's L'Esprit Nouveau pavilion. Before leaving the Academy, Jacobsen also travelled to Germany, where he became acquainted with the rationalist architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Their work influenced his early designs including his graduation project, an art gallery, which won him a gold medal. After completing architecture school, he first worked at city architect Poul Holsøe's architectural practice.

In 1929, in collaboration with Flemming Lassen, he won a Danish Architect's Association competition for designing the "House of the Future" which was built full scale at the subsequent exhibition in Copenhagen's Forum. It was a spiral-shaped, flat-roofed house in glass and concrete, incorporating a private garage, a boathouse and a helicopter pad. Other striking features were windows that rolled down like car windows, a conveyor tube for the mail and a kitchen stocked with ready-made meals. A Dodge Cabriolet Coupé was parked in the garage, there was a Chris Craft in the boathouse and an Autogyro on the roof. The name Jacobsen immediately became recognised as an ultra-modern architect.

Pre-World War II career

The year after winning the "House of the Future" award, Arne Jacobsen set up his own office. He designed the functionalist Rothenborg House, which he planned in every detail, a characteristic of many of his later works.

Soon afterwards, he won a competition from Gentofte Municipality for the design of a seaside resort complex in Klampenborg on the Øresund coast just north of Copenhagen. The various components of the resort became his major public breakthrough in Denmark, further establishing him as a leading national proponent of the International Modern Style. In 1932, the first item, the Bellevue Sea Bath, was completed. Jacobsen designed everything from the characteristic blue-striped lifeguard towers, kiosks and changing cabins to the tickets, season cards and even the uniforms of the employees. The focal point of the area was supposed to have been a lookout tower, more than a hundred metres high with a revolving restaurant at the top but it was abandoned after huge local protests. Still, it is reflected in the overall arrangement of buildings in the area which all follow lines that extend from their missing centre.

In 1934, came the Bellavista Housing, built in concrete, steel and glass, with smooth surfaces and open floor planning, free of any excesses or ornaments. Completing the white trilogy in 1937, the Bellevue Theatre featured a retractable roof allowing open-air performances. These early works clearly show the influence of the White Cubist architecture Jacobsen had encountered in Germany, particularly at the Weissenhof Estate Stuttgart in Stuttgart. The cluster of white buildings at Bellevue also includes the Skovshoved Gas Station. In their day, these projects were described as "The dream of the a modern lifestyle".

Despite considerable public opposition to his avant-garde style, Jacobsen went on to build Stelling House on Gammeltorv, one of Copenhagen's most historic squares. Although the modernistic style is rather restrained and was later seen as a model example of building in a historic setting, it caused virulent protests in its day. One newspaper wrote that Jacobsen ought to be "banned from architecture for life".

When, together with Erik Møller, he won a competition for the design of Århus City Hall it was with yet another controversial design. It was deemed too modern and too anti-monumental. In the end Jacobsen had to add a tower as well as marble cladding. Still, it is considered one of his most important buildings. It consists of three offset volumes.

World War II exile and return

During World War II, scarcity of building materials made assignments difficult to obtain and in 1943, due to his Jewish background, Arne Jacobsen had to abandon his office and go into exile to escape planned deportation. He fled Denmark, rowing a small boat across Øresund to neighbouring Sweden where he would stay for the next two years. His architectural work was limited to a summer house for two doctors. Instead he spent his time designing fabrics and wallpaper.

When the war ended in 1945, Jacobsen returned to Denmark and resumed his architectural career. The country was in urgent need of both housing and new public buildings but the primary need was for spartan buildings which could be built without delay.

After some years Jacobsen got his career back on track and with projects such as the Allehusene complex from 1952 and his Søholm terraced houses from 1955 he embarked on a more experimental phase. He moved into one of the Søholm houses himself and lived there until his death.

Rødovre Town Hall, built from 1952 to 1956, shows how well Jacobsen combined the use of different materials: sandstone, two types of glass, painted metalwork and stainless steel. It is also noted for its central staircase, suspended from the roof on orange-red steel rods. The sides are cut from 5 cm steel plate, painted a dark grey; the steps, only a few millimeters thick, are stainless steel with a rubber coating on the upper side for better grip.

The Munkegaard School consists of pavilions connected by glass corridors, arranged in a grid system around small courtyards. It received considerable attention in international school circles and contributed to his growing international reputation.

Large commissions

With the SAS Royal Hotel, built from 1956 to 1960, Jacobsen was given the opportunity to design what has been called "the world's first designer hotel". He designed everything from the building and its furniture and fittings to the ashtrays sold in the souvenir shop and the airport buses.

These larger assignments started to attract attention and commissions from abroad. Rødovre Town Hall secured him an invitation for his first competition in Germany which was followed by a number of other German projects.

A delegation of Oxford dons visited the SAS Hotel and the Munkegård School in their search for an architect for St. Catherine's College. They were soon convinced he was the right choice for their important commission. Again Jacobsen designed everything, including the garden, down to the choice of fish species for the pond. The dining hall is notable for its Cumberland slate floor. The original college buildings received a Grade I listing on 30 March 1993.

Departure and uncompleted works

When Arne Jacobsen died unexpectedly in 1971, he had a number of large projects under way. These included a new town hall in Mainz, Germany, the Danish National Bank and the Royal Danish Embassy in London. These projects were completed by Dissing+Weitling, a firm set up by his former key employees Hans Dissing and Otto Weitling.

Furniture and product design

Today, Arne Jacobsen is remembered primarily for his furniture designs. However, he believed he was first and foremost an architect. According to Scott Poole, a professor at Virginia Tech, Arne Jacobsen never used the word 'designer', notoriously disliking it.

His way into product design came through his interest in Gesamtkunst and most of his designs which later became famous in their own right were created for architectural projects. Most of his furniture designs were the result of a cooperation with the furniture manufacturer with which he initiated a collaboration in 1934 while his lamps and light fixtures were developed with Louis Poulsen. In spite of his success with his chair at the Paris Exhibition in 1925, it was during the 1950s that his interest in furniture design peaked.

A major source of inspiration stemmed from the bent plywood designs of Charles and Ray Eames. He was also influenced by the Italian design historian Ernesto Rogers, who had proclaimed that the design of every element was equally important "from the spoon to the city" which harmonized well with his own ideals.

In 1951, he created the Ant chair for an extension of the Novo pharmaceutical factory and, in 1955, came the Seven Series. Both matched modern needs perfectly, being light, compact and easily stackable. Two other successful chair designs, the Egg and the Swan, were created for the SAS Royal Hotel in 1957.

Other designs were made for Stelton, a company founded by his foster son Peter Holmbl. These include the now classic Cylinda Line stainless steel cocktail kit and tableware.

Other interior design is a line of faucets and accessories for bathroom and kitchen,created after he won a competition in 1961 for his design of the National Bank of Denmark. This classic design is still in production today by Danish company Vola.

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