By Andrew Mellor
Portrait of Arne Jacobsen, photo by Strüwing and courtesy of Republic of Fritz Hansen
Compromise is bunk. As an unmarried man, I’m allowed to say that. Human interaction might depend on it, but the best artists and designers view compromise as a dirty word. And so they should. The pursuit of aesthetic beauty is one in which the avoidance of compromise is an asset. You hear about it across the arts: of those single-minded directors, writers and architects who demonstrate a total unwillingness to budge; a determination to see their singular vision through right to the end.
Arne Jacobsen: a non-compromiser
Danish designer Arne Jacobsen is celebrated mostly for his wedding of careful ergonomic thought to effortless visual beauty. But Jacobsen was one of the ‘uncompromising brigade’ too. He was, in fact, one of history’s great non-compromisers. When you look at his biggest UK project – his creation of the first from-scratch college to be built at Oxford University for 400 years – you see a shining example of what can be achieved when compromise isn’t an option. St Catherine’s College in Oxford is a cathedral to non-compromisation (if that’s not a word, then it should be).
Oxford™ chair by Arne Jacobsen, photo by Egon Gade and courtesy of Republic of Fritz Hansen
Arne Jacobsen: His work in Oxford
Visit the college, talk to its bursar and estates staff, and you encounter a design-savvy team who are determined to ensure Jacobsen isn’t compromised posthumously. The Dane dreamt-up the lot: the buildings, the gardens, the light-fittings and the cutlery. He is responsible for pretty much everything you see on St Catherine’s ‘original’ ground-plan minus the weather. When the decision was taken a while back to replace the dining hall benches, the result was the very opposite of a compromise: a sharpening, an upgrade. Now the college dining hall is enhanced by regimented lines of white Jacobsen ‘Seven’ chairs.
The college is a working building, one that acts as a sort of living experiment which consistently throws up the same verdict: that great design is good for human development (a point I made in my last Midcentury column). Part of Jacobsen’s determination to get everything here just right resulted in the creation of some new fittings to add to existing ones he’d already designed elsewhere.
Oxford™ chair designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1965, photo by Egon Gade and courtesy of Republic of Fritz Hansen
Arne Jacobsen: Oxford™ Chair
Most significant was the development of two types of chair: high, wood laminate models with elegant throne-like backs which sit around the dining hall’s High Table; and low-backed swivel chairs that grace the teaching staff’s offices. The latter, with their shallow, curved seat and gently tapering armrests, were soon recognized as classics and cited by some commentators as Jacobsen’s most delicate and ergonomically attuned creation. There had been no compromise in creation, and there should be none in availability, either: with the cooperation of Fritz Hansen, the Oxford™ Chair went into general manufacture and is still available today.
For more musings on Danish design, go to Andrew Mellor’s blog
To purchase a new licensed Oxford™ Chair, visit Republic of Fritz Hansen
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