Modernist designer and architect Arne Jacobsen is well known in the canon of 20th-century design, both for his massive building projects and his smaller creations. Jacobsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1902 and, much of his legacy resides in his Danish homeland. Considered a chief contributor to the Scandinavian design movement, Jacobsen took clean lines to the next level, creating definition and structure in unexpected places. From the humble desk lamp to a refined clock tower, no project was imagined with traditional sensibilities. In both cases, the designer elevated these designs with Danish Modernism, refined structure, and as ArchDaily defines it, “economic simplicity.” Read on to learn more about how Jacobsen imagined his creations, both large and small.
Many city halls are regarded for their elegance, but few can claim the title of modernist architectural masterpiece. Thanks to Jacobsen (along with his fellow designer Erik Møller) Aarhus City Hall in Denmark has become an archetypal example of Scandinavian Modernism. Impressively, Jacobsen and Møller completed this project in 1941, in the midst of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Denmark. The building’s design was defined by three rectangular spaces, each with a different purpose. In contrast to the regimented exterior, the design duo created interior spaces with unexpected curves and arches, like spiral staircases and curving hallways, which recalls the natural element so prized in Danish design. Jacobsen had a hand in every aspect of the building’s creation, from the initial design proposal to the custom doorknobs.
While the architects’ attention to detail certainly created an impact, one particular detail caught the interest and concern of the public: The initial design plans lacked a clock tower. Aarhus residents were very vocal about their concerns, essentially forcing the designers to add the now-iconic tower. Ever the unique thinker, Jacobsen did not sign off on a traditional design. Instead, he used a geometric grid to build a clean-lined structure around the clock, making a huge impact on the design. In his drafting and designing of this bureaucratic building, which could easily be dismissed as an uninteresting endeavor, Jacobsen outplays the ordinary, finding way to break up expected patterns—as shown in the unique, boxy floor plans—and subvert the expected, with a clock tower perfect for the Danish design capital that is Aarhus.
While Jacobsen’s work was frequently on a grand scale, as it was with the Aarhus City Hall, he was no stranger to the significance of small objects; in fact, his father worked in the trade and sale of safety pins and snap fasteners. Jacobsen’s attention to detail shines particularly brightly in his smaller designs, like his AJ Table Lamp. The piece was originally designed for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen as part of a commission, but it has become a fixture in modern design since its creation in the 1960s.
Though it was designed almost 20 years after Aarhus City Hall, there are clear similarities in the two pieces, especially once the viewer is familiar with Jacobsen’s signature style. The lightbulb is held in a slightly distorted cone, allowing the shade to create a quiet pool of light. The supporting stand pole juts out from beneath the shade, creating an unexpected counterbalance to the solid shape of the shade. Similar to the clock tower in Aarhus, Jacobsen creates structure in surprising places with this slim, straight line. The base consists of a teardrop shape with a keyhole cutout, another unexpected detail in this piece. In traditional Scandinavian style, the lamp walks the line between rigid clean lines and elegant sloping curves, thanks to Jacobsen’s willingness to create refined structure in even the smallest of places. Made of coated steel, this piece is perfect for any modernist reading room. While certainly not the most iconic piece in Jacobsen’s dossier (that spot would be reserved for the iconic No. 7 Chair), the AJ Table Lamp illuminates all of the tenets of Scandinavian design, with Jacobsen’s unique perspective.
Arne Jacobsen was, and is, considered a modernist master, but that didn’t prevent him from making a mark on seemingly humble locations and subjects. Both the Aarhus City Hall and the AJ Table Lamp illustrate Jacobsen’s attention to line and form on the macro and micro levels, creating pieces that are archetypes of Scandinavian design and brilliant even today.
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