Design does not merely exist in itself – design reflects society. This applies to classic Danish design from the 1950s and 1960s as well as to Danish design in the new millennium. As society changes, so does its design. Today’s design concept has been expanded in a way inconceivable to the designers of earlier generations. The development has happened as the world changed, with new technologies, new economies, new demands and new opportunities. In the past, we exclusively regarded design as the shaping of products. That is no longer the case. Nonetheless, products are still a cornerstone in design and in the following sections Danish design will be presented on the basis of both products and the designers behind them. Danish graphic design and communication is a separate chapter, which will be presented at a later stage.
The “heroic” period
Today, Danish design is flourishing. The new generation has gained a perspective on the classic period. The young designers regard the pioneers with respect – but are able to stand on their own feet. A presentation of Danish design has to start with its breakthrough on the international scene after World War II. A fortunate combination of internal and external circumstances led to a Golden Age, in which Danish furniture achieved particular success, but silver, ceramics, glass and textiles also experienced a fertile period. A breakthrough such as the classic Danish one can only occur if the talent is available.
And it was! However, talent is not enough – special growth conditions are required for the talent to thrive and develop. Three circumstances were particularly crucial to the success of Danish design in the post-war period. The first was the late industrialisation of Denmark. A living craft tradition with high quality standards was allowed to develop slowly and gradually into industrial production, closely monitored by the architects and master cabinet makers of the time.
The second was the world’s desire to see and experience something new after a war which had left large parts of Europe in ruins. The Danish light wood furniture with references to Nordic nature and a look that was sometimes based on classic furniture types but without the style elements of former periods soon gained a foothold internationally. Thirdly, Danish design had room for the individualists. This trend began to emerge in the 1930s, when the architect and critic Poul Henningsen scrutinised society and agitated for freedom, respect for the individual and a democratic, humanist view of life, which was rather unusual in the Nordic countries at the time. These attitudes gradually became widely accepted in Denmark.
The soil had thus been fertilised when the major talents appeared. The talents were so to speak given a free rein and architects and furniture designers found enthusiastic collaborators among master cabinet makers and other small production companies. The establishment of the Furniture School at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts played a considerable part in the development of furniture design. Here Professor Kaare Klint represented Functionalism with studies of the proportions between people and objects. Klint has had greater influence on Danish furniture design than any other designer. His views of the form and function of furniture have influenced several generations of Danish designers and continue to do so today. Nonetheless, the Danes remained slightly sceptical about Functionalism, which therefore never had a complete breakthrough. Hans J. Wegner respected the Klint approach, but struck out a path for himself. Like several other furniture designers at the time, Wegner trained as a cabinet maker and combined extraordinary craftsmanship with a unique sense of form, resulting in a series of chairs which many regard as unsurpassable.
As the head of the cooperative FDB furniture design studio, Børge Mogensen designed a furniture series aimed at the average Danish family. It was simple and robust, and could be combined according to the family’s needs. In addition, Mogensen designed several characteristic chairs which are still in production, including the Spanish Chair.
Another individualist was Finn Juhl, who represented the artistic freedom with a personal idiom and chairs which were at once harmonious sculptures and traditional seating furniture. Concurrently, industrialised furniture manufacturing developed in the USA, where the best-known products were Charles Eames’s chairs of moulded wood and steel pipes. Eames’s chairs inspired Arne Jacobsen to design the now worldfamous Ant chair of bent, laminated wood from 1952 – Denmark’s first example of an industrially manufactured chair in the true sense of the word and fully in line with what the international furniture trend was producing. Arne Jacobsen was already recognised as an architect, especially abroad, but now he became equally famous as a furniture designer.