I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Of Art Spoons and Egg Chairs: The Functional Future of Architect Arne Jacobsen

by Anthony Galli
May 15, 2013


You with the face!

Put down that spoon!

Now, stop to consider your spoon.

Really…think about it for a second.

It’s a pretty standard piece of modern machinery.

How could somebody ever consider this a work of functional art?

Famed Danish modernist architect Arne Jacobsen did. During his time as a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in the 1920’s until his sudden death in 1971, Jacobsen considered the utility of his design as important as its aesthetic qualities. Hence, Jacobsen’s 1957 futuristic flatware was deemed so efficient and enigmatic that director Stanley Kubrick featured it as the preferred cutlery of space exploration in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Jacobsen himself spoke of being a big fan of soup-a huge fan-providing him with impetus to empirically assess his non-standard soup spoon for reasons of practicality or for potential flaws. Time has looked kindly upon his creation.

In addition to being on continuous display in galleries and museums around the world as exemplary of modern, ergonomic design principles, Arne Jacobsen’s flatware has continually been manufactured for purchase since its inception.

The flatware was originally conceived for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. Arne Jacobsen was commissioned to create an entire complex for the Scandinavian Airline Services (SAS) that would encompass a hotel, an airline terminal, and an elaborate outdoor garden. Jacobsen had artistic control over every design element of the hotel, including color schemes, furnishings, and fixtures, all the way down to ashtrays and doorknobs.

Some of Jacobsen’s most well-known creations, including his, soon to be famous, Egg chair and Swan chair; were initially imagined for the Copenhagen hotel. The Egg chair has subsequently shown up in the Men in Black films, as well as in The Beatles’ 1965 Help! Although considered radical and impractical at the time, Jacobsen’s timeless curved furniture has found its way into locations as varied as corporate boardrooms and McDonald’s restaurants in the United Kingdom.

In 2006, the McDonald’s corporation contracted Fritz Hanson, Arne Jacobsen’s furniture manufacturer since 1934, to produce a quantity of the Egg chairs for their restaurants throughout Europe. Hanson delivered the furniture, which was duly placed in various locations, including one store in Copenhagen. Hanson soon discovered that McDonald’s was also using Egg chair replicas, unauthorized by Fritz Hanson, in its restaurants. Hanson immediately cancelled the contract and insisted that McDonald’s remove the pirated chairs.

McDonald’s was convinced that it had done nothing wrong and refused the company’s request.

Arne Jacobsen’s equally iconic Ant chair, originally designed in 1952 for the cafeteria of Danish Diabetes research pioneer Novo Nordisk, can be found today in the dining room of cutting edge New York City vegetarian bistro Dirt Candy. As Jacobsen’s Ant chair design relays a sense of whimsy that infuses much of his work, it also alludes to another love of his that largely goes unremarked upon amidst all of the consideration of his modernist sensibilities, and that is his love of nature, and gardening in particular.

Each large-scale Jacobsen architectural design, including St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, invariably incorporates bounteous garden space to showcase and take full aesthetic advantage of the property’s predetermined landscape. Jacobsen’s designs for the National Bank of Denmark and even his own house are testaments to his respect for landscape.

Perhaps his Ant chair is a sly nod to the little worker insect who toils tirelessly beneath the surface of things in one’s garden, while Dirt Candy takes the salute a step further by integrating actual Jacobsen Ant chairs into a restaurant serving food from underground.

When the SAS Royal Hotel project was completed in 1961, it was the tallest building in Scandinavia, but also criticized as being the ugliest as well. Although it is now revered as exemplary of functional modernism, the hotel was very controversial and much derided at the time.

Nevertheless, critical contempt and artistic misunderstanding did not obscure Jacobsen’s vanguard vision. “Almost every time I design a building somebody will condemn it straight to Hell,” Arne Jacobsen told an interviewer in 1971. “In 1934,” Jacobsen continued, “a newspaper wrote that I ought to be banned from architecture for life.”

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is renowned for his “organic” style of incorporating home construction and buildings he has designed into the natural landscape of the site he is working within. As such, Wright’s work has a prescience to it, suggesting that it belongs to its environment in a way that has always been there and was always meant to be there.

Much of Arne Jacobsen’s best work looks like it came from another time and place altogether, much like Kubrick’s monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey; a gift from the future that only shares its secrets as time unfolds. Jacobsen’s design for the National Bank of Denmark is a prime example of something that appears entirely out of place upon first register. The Bank is an enormous, almost foreboding, rectangular structure nestled into a traditional Danish neighborhood on a Canal.

The façade directly facing the water is made of stone, with an oddly placed, almost secret entrance, while the two sides, with views up and down the Canal, are enormous walls of windows. Not only do the banks of windows allow the inhabitants of the building to gaze up and down the Canal in either direction, but the glass of the tinted windows reflects the old Danish neighborhood back upon itself. As Jacobsen’s final construction project before his death, it seems fitting that his modernism gets the last laugh, holding a mirror up to the past right there in its own home.

The inside of the National Bank of Denmark is, perhaps, one of Jacobsen’s crowning achievements, where the natural setting of wood and stone complements the space age suspended staircases and orbicular corporate meeting rooms. The future rubbing up against the past.

Arne Jacobsen once noted “It has been said for many years that when a thing is practical and functional, it is beautiful as well.” Although he had always denied having any particular philosophy of design, his works, such as his 1937 Texaco gas station on the outskirts of Copenhagen, prove that utility and function do not have to be divorced from artistic expression. Had he lived a few years longer, one could almost imagine Jacobsen listening to Brian Eno’s Discreet Music at a low volume while designing his next creation.

“The act of creation is equally exhilarating,” Arne Jacobsen maintained, “whether one is working on a teaspoon or a national bank.”

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.