Arne Emil Jacobsen was a Danish designer who is mostly recognized today for his furniture and lamps. However, Jacobsen also designed a series of utensils, ashtrays, posters, and wallpapers throughout his career, as well as being involved in the creation of buildings. His vision was to transform and revolutionize the design of the everyday objects that surround us. His works are admired throughout the world even to this day, and considered to be a significant contribution to the functionalist movement.
Born on the 11th of February, 1902, in Copenhagen, Jacobsen hailed from a middle-class family. As a child, it is said that Arne repainted his Victorian style wallpapers in his room entirely white. From a young age, Jacobsen possessed a passion for art; however, he ended up studying architecture at the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, obeying his father’s advice. Some of his teachers were Kaare Klint and Kay Fisker, two of the most distinguished Danish designers of the time.
At the age of 23, Jacobsen was involved in the making of the Danish Pavillion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, along with Kay Fisker. The submitted piece, the rattan chair known as the “Paris Chair”, was his first furniture design, and won a silver medal. Upon attending the exhibition, Jacobsen became acquainted with the works of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, who, along with Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau pavilion, later became his biggest influences. As a graduation project, Jacobsen created an art gallery, which in turn won a gold medal.
In a brief collaboration with Poul Holsøe, Jacobsen won the “House of the Future” award from the Danish Architect’s Association. The project featured revolutionary flat roof design, and the structure itself was spiral-shaped, featuring a helicopter pad and a boathouse.
In 1929, Jacobsen started his own studio. Over the next years, he created several buildings, fully designing their interior, including carpeting, furniture, and lighting. One of the most notable works included the Bellavista housing estate in the Northern Copenhagen, built in 1934. The building featured concrete balconies, and reflected the spirit of early modernism. Another notable project was the Aarhus city hall, built in collaboration with Erik Møller. The façade was made of imported grey marble, and the structure included a 60-meter-tall clock tower. The interior featured exquisite fusion of parquet floors, ceramic tiles, wooden furniture, and glass and wooden walls. Jacobsen was notorious for his attention to minor details and his admiration for proportion. He once stated, “The proportion is exactly what makes the beautiful ancient Egyptian temples, and if we look at some of the most admired buildings of the Renaissance and Baroque, we notice that they were all well-proportioned.”
After Denmark’s invasion by Germany in 1940, Jacobsen, with his wife Jonna, fled to Sweden, where he dedicated his time to creating patterns for wallpapers and textiles. In 1945, he returned to Denmark and resumed his career as an architect. Between 1945 and 1954, Jacobsen designed the Søholm Row houses, the hallmark of which was the use of yellow bricks as the main material.
During this period, Arne also resumed his furniture design, creating the iconic Ant Chair in 1952. The piece was designed for the canteen of the Danish pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk, and resembled the figure of an ant with a raised head. The chair can be characterized as lightweight, sturdy, and stackable. The Ant Chair was inspired by the work of Eames’ plywood chairs, prominent in 1940s. Originally, it was made of laminated veneer, and featured only three tubular steel legs. Use of molded plywood in three dimensions eliminated the need for the use of upholstery, and simplified the manufacturing process. The chairs were produced by Fritz Hansen; and, according to Jacobsen, one piece could be made in less than 10 minutes.
The Ant Chair was also exhibited at the Fritz Hansen’s 80-year anniversary. In the later years, the steel was subsequently replaced by plastic, and the chair itself was redesigned as a four-legged piece, the idea of which Jacobsen had initially refused. Today, the chair is still extremely popular, and comes in several colors.
In 1955, Jacobsen created four new veneer chair designs. The models 3102 “Tongue” and 3105 “Mosquito” were designed for the Munkegaard school. The same year, Jacobsen also brought to life the Series 7 Chair, which to this day remains one of his most well-known designs. It was created in response to the consumers’ critique of the Ant Chair not having armrests, and was redesigned multiple times. In 1956, Jacobsen received a commission to design the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. The project involved the total design of the building, including details like cutlery, ashtrays, lighting, and door handles.
In the following years, an innovative material called Styropor was introduced to Fritz Hansen by a Norwegian company. Jacobsen decided to utilize Styropor in his furniture production; however, due to the consumer’s negative view of plastic furniture, he used leather and exclusive textiles to conceal the Styropor. One of the Styropor works included the Swan Chair, that was designed with a swivel foot made of casted aluminum. The chair possessed a distinguished organic flow and resembled a swan when looked at from the side. The piece was popular with the consumers, resulting in the production of several more versions, including an office chair.
For the same project, Jacobsen designed the Egg Chair, which was intended to be used at a hotel lobby, providing a sense of privacy and isolation. The Egg Chair was also used in many of hotel rooms. Some of the version of the Egg Chair included the model 3315 without cushion, 3316 with tilt function, and 3317 without tilt function. Jacobsen also designed a series of upholstered pieces, which included the Drop and the Pot.
In the late 1950s, Jacobsen was commissioned to design the St. Catharine’s College of Oxford University. The minimalist Oxford Chair was designed to be used around the teachers’ table in the canteen. It consisted of a long plywood rectangle, supported by a plywood foot. However, the unusually high back resulted in the chairs often falling over, resulting in Fritz Hansen replacing the plywood foot with a heavier metal one later on in the production.
In 1967, Jacobsen created 18-piece stainless steel tableware for the Danish brand Stelton. The collection consisted of ashtrays, coffee pots, cans, and jars. Since the 1960s, Jacobsen’s designs became more focused on proportion and simplicity, utilizing circular and triangular forms.
Jacobsen died from a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 69. To this day, his name is associated with organic modernist design. His pieces are to this day manufactured by brands like Georg Jensen, Louis Poulsen, &tradition, and Montana.
Remarkably, Jacobsen despised the word designer, and never self-identified as one. Today, many of his designs can be found in numerous collections, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Design Museum in London, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.