ARNE JACOBSEN - THE MAN
Like a locomotive Arne Jacobsen pushed through the landscape of Danish design and architecture for more than half the past century. The traces are still present, everywhere around us today, more than 30 years after his death: From the architecture that we admire as we rush by, to the objects we use and enjoy every day. Or consider at a distance as stars on the international design stage.
When Jacobsen was not working, he worked nevertheless - only with something else. To him, relaxation meant a shift to another project in the creative realm. This is what enabled such an enormous output with no compromises on quality.
More than ever, Arne Jacobsen’s design is a distinct part of the image that our surroundings and, gradually, we too, have of the core of the Danish design identity.
The best designs have long since passed on to ’The Hall of Famous Objects’, where the reasons and causes behind the design need not be questioned, and where the success story is a case of world-class branding; 20th century icons and timeless, classic elegance. Everything has been said, and everything analysed - or is there still more to be said?
The idea as the point of departure: From the complex to the very simple. With a relatively small studio staff, Jacobsen mastered the range from large, complex building projects (like Danmarks Nationalbank) to the teaspoon in his cutlery. Throughout this range lay a consideration of every detail in the total design of the building, which was the invisible force that drove him to his goals. The goal required a huge work effort: The idea may have been strong from the outset, but nevertheless appeared vague to Jacobsen, until he had worked them out and defined the design thoroughly - not without the assistance of close associates.
The distinct accuracy and striking likeness of his drawings with the end-result, especially of many of his watercolours of buildings, reflects his ability to bring ideas to life. Jacobsen originally wanted to be a painter, and this is especially evident in the level of ambition in his presentation drawings.
THE KEY INSTRUMENT: THE INTUITIVE DESIGN IDIOM
In design, however, Jacobsen rarely knew what he wanted ahead of time - despite the seemingly effortless line. Here, Jacobsen was far from the confident person he was seen to be with builders.
Apart from the basic idea, conceived with a keen sense of proportion and an unusual talent for design and form, nothing was determined ahead of time. Hence, Jacobsen was often perceived as an insecure designer, when in fact he was rather on an intuitive search for the outer limits of the design idea, the technology and the material.
THE INSISTENT CREATIVE PROCESS
These aspects of the design process, therefore, were never the basis of his designs, although there are strong indications that the limitations presented by the properties of materials gave Jacobsen a productive framework and brought a certain calm to the creative restlessness. The absence of these limitations, for example when working in plastics instead of wood, fuelled this restlessness. Jacobsen worked endlessly with the design and, thus, found it difficult to let go and finish things. Frequent delays of the production stage are typical of the perfectionist.
Jacobsen is not considered intellectual or analytical in a traditional sense. His verbal communication concerning the design universe has become legendary through expressions like ’As thin as possible, and never in the middle’. ’Today, we have to make a truly low/round project’ is another of Jacobsen’s precise, almost understated phrases, often heard by his staff or his students at the Academy, where Jacobsen was a professor. Arne Jacobsen might also ask how things had been ’behaving’ that day, as if they actually had a life of their own.
He also compared his own buildings with identical matchboxes, simply placed in different positions.
BACKGROUND AND FAMILY RELATIONS
Arne Jacobsen was born on February 11, 1902 in Copenhagen. His father, Johan Jacobsen, was a wholesale trader in safety pins and snap fasteners. His mother, Pouline Jacobsen, was trained as a bank clerk and often painted floral motifs in her spare time. The family lived in Claessensgade in a typical Victorian style home. Maybe that is why Arne, as a child, painted the coloured wallpaper in his room white, as a contrast to his parents’ overly decorated taste.
BACKGROUND AND SCHOOL RELATIONS
At Nærum Boarding School, he met the Lassen brothers; later, Flemming Lassen was to become his partner in a series of architectural projects. Arne Jacobsen was described as a restless pupil, always up to pranks, and often with a self-deprecating humour. Already as a child, he showed an extraordinary talent for drawing and depicting nature through scrupulous studies. Originally, Jacobsen wanted to be painter, but his father felt that architect was a more sensible choice, and that is how it was. Nevertheless, Jacobsen later had ample opportunity to paint and to express his ideas through highly accurate drawings.
THE PLEASANT AND THE NECESSARY TRIPS ABROAD
Jacobsen’s travelling began already in his twenties, when he went to sea. The voyage, the only one in his career as a sailor, went to New York. Then followed an apprenticeship as a bricklayer in Germany and a series of study and drawing excursions to Italy. During this period, Jacobsen produced some of his finest watercolours with classic motifs, where he captures atmospheres and renders materials and shapes accurately and carefully. From the beginning of his career, Jacobsen turned his gaze abroad, without ever abandoning Denmark or the Danish traditions in his field.
ARNE JACOBSEN BEHIND THE DESIGN
In summarising Jacobsen as a person, one arrives at a picture that reflects to a high degree the nuances in his purely professional production: On the one hand the insistent, perfectionist modernist, to whom no detail was trivial, although the main picture was basically black/white and unambiguous. On the other hand, the nature-loving botanist and jovial family man. Overall, the professionalism and almost nerdy passion for his work are indispensable aspects in descriptions of Jacobsen - including his own descriptions.
THE PREFECTIONT MODERNIST
He could be difficult, sarcastic and uncompromising towards working partners and manufacturers and required his staff to work more or less around the clock rather than tend to their families - or leave. His family was asked to select the proper white paint among several whites when the home was being redecorated, and then had to hold up picture frames for hours to get the composition right. The coffee cups were lined up in neat, geometrical rows, and the children’s toys put away when Jacobsen finally returned from the studio.
THE NATURE-LOVING BOTANIST
The other side of his personality shows a very different, rounder Jacobsen, who in Rousseau style was absorbed in watercolours, nature studies and tending to saplings. Jacobsen sometimes sought to escape the limitations and restrictions that he himself had helped create: ’I am choking on aesthetics,’ he might say in private, and he sometimes expressed great joy in seeking refuge in places where anti-design and anti-aesthetics ruled. ’This is great, here you can’t change a thing!’ He enjoyed devouring a delicious pastry. But the pastry still had to look nice to taste good, a sign of the difficult dilemma of flouting the aesthetics, if only for a moment.
A WARM SENSE OF HUMOUR
Arne Jacobsen’s humour and self-deprecation is evident, among other places, in his drafts and hand-drawn Christmas cards to close friends or in the way he worded his statements on subjects close to his heart (mostly professional in nature). Ever since he was a child, he liked to play the clown, and throughout his adult years, he continued the buffoonery and sometimes took on zany bets, like wearing a hollowed-out melon for a hat.
QUOTE BY ARNE JACOBSEN
"A pastry usually tastes better if it looks nice. A cream pastry, now that looks nice - in fact, there is nothing I mind as long as it looks nice."