By Andrew Mellor
Louis Poulsen PH50 pendant lamp. Photograph Skandium
Danish design and the Scandi thriller
One of the many alluring side-effects of the recent vogue for Scandinavian thrillers on TV is that we get to see inside the homes of normal Nordic people. And yes, in effect they are the homes of normal Nordic people – dressed for the cameras with the same sort of nuts-and-bolts realism that sees senior politicians in Borgen and The Killing eating takeaway food from cardboard containers. This struck me way back in Series 1 of The Killing when detective Sarah Lund visits the father of murdered student Mette Hauge. The man has found himself on the edge of Danish society, but still he sits beneath an item which, in my mind, represents the absolute apex of the Nordic project to marry beauty, elegance and function: a Poul Henningsen pendant lampshade.
Something about that scene proved so very telling. There, subtly but knowingly backgrounded, was a vital truth about so much of the Danish design we in-the-know aesthetes love: it was created for everyone to own and enjoy. In the Nordic countries, a home full of beautiful objects isn’t a status symbol, it’s a basic instinct. Attractive and well-made objects aren’t for impressing visitors to your home, they’re for making the lives of those who live there richer, more fulfilling and fundamentally more sensible.
Danish design and the motivations of its creators
I was chewing these ideas over with an assembled group of Scandinavian and British commentators in Oslo shortly afterwards, keen to gauge their views on what makes Danish design so ever-present. ‘Our houses look good because we’re stuck in them the whole time… it’s freezing outside’ said one Swedish journalist. I wasn’t quite convinced. It was a relief to hear some others in the room point to more fundamental human motives linked to the Nordic region’s political and social models. After all, great design can’t be a product of boredom any more than great literature can.
What we seemed to be getting at, is that it’s about rather more than beauty – as that episode of The Killing suggests. Beauty is the starting point, and to some extent the end-point too. But its residue is what we’d optimistically call civilization. As I struggled to make my point to the assembled experts – just as I am right now – I cited a recent visit to what is probably the most significant example of expatriated Danish design in the world: St Catherine’s College in Oxford, the 1962 vision of furniture designer and architect Arne Jacobsen.
The Oxford Chair by Arne Jacobsen produced for Fritz Hansen. Photograph Republic of Fritz Hansen
Danish design and its influence on human behaviour
Here’s a building which re-creates a sort of micro-society once a year with the arrival of a new batch of students – often without their complicity or knowledge. It serves as a repeating example of how design can influence the way people behave. When I asked a random selection of students about the buildings they live in, they handed me the sort of moving and focused interview material journalists dream of. Whether they liked it or not, Jacobsen’s broad architectural concept and close design work (door handles, light fittings, chairs, tables, cutlery and so on) had got under their skin, lubricated their social intercourse, flattened out the normal Oxbridge hierarchies and fostered individual and collective creativity. None, I should add, were studying architecture. Which is why their reactions mattered even more.
For more musings on Danish design, go to Andrew Mellor’s blog