There’s a reason we all love going to IKEA, the Danes know design. Okay, so it’s a Swedish thing, same difference, right? (Never say that to a Dane). The fact of the matter is that Scandinavians have a pretty good idea what they’re doing when it comes to designing stuff. Be it architecture, public space, furniture – whatever – Danish design has afforded itself a reputation for being stylish, simple and sophisticated. Now, I don’t just say this on a whim, either. Having spent a solid 18 months living in Copenhagen, I certainly learnt a thing or two about how the Danes do design and interestingly, it’s not as complicated as you think.
If you have absolutely no idea what Danish design is about, then great! Because in the coming weeks you will become somewhat of an amateur on the topic, with the ability to chime into conversations with your newfound knowledge of the Danish world. (Everybody will love that, of course). So, whilst you’re lining up for that $1 IKEA hotdog, what you might not realise is that the trendy interiors we see today stem way back to the humble gas station.
I discovered this on a trip to the Danish Architecture Centre in June last year. At this time, there was an exhibition on Bjarke Ingels and some of the many projects that have shot him up to starchitect status. Also exhibited was a room where you sit on a couch, put on some headphones and feign interest at what’s happening on screen. Plot-twist: it was interesting! What started as a ploy to rest my legs ended up as a lesson in Danish design history. And it all started with a gas station. Does the word Klampenborg mean anything to you? Well, it’s where Danish architect Arne Jacobsen’s 1937 Skovshoved gas station sits to this day.
With its seaside location, the project is quite literally a breath of fresh air – an exemplar in simplicity built on reinforced concrete and Meissner tiles in pure white¹. It hits home to the heart of Danish design – less is more. I can imagine the more time passed the more this has been considered one of Jacobsen’s finest works. Upon seeing for the first time, the word ‘timeless‘ hit my brain as I was a little surprised to discover when it was actually built.
What it comes down to is that the Danes know just because you can keep adding things, it doesn’t mean you should. Rather, Jacobsen’s focus was on functionality and executing this in a simple means. The canopy that sits on top – known as “the mushroom” – has a dual-purpose of shielding the customer by day and illuminating the space by night2. Smart and sexy.
In a broader context, the Skovshoved was a product of architectural functionalism – an ideology that building design should focus on function, rather than form3. The Danish twist was that design aesthetic doesn’t have to lose out either, something that Jacobsen mastered in his works spanning not only architecture but interiors and furniture to name a few. Even today, his iconic Egg Chair is being manufactured (and imitated), a testament to the successful style that has helped to evolve Danish modern.
Often, we may not consider more than the face value of an object, building or artwork, but the roots behind it may reach further than you think without being unnecessarily complicated. As for Skovshoved, I call it ‘modern-retro’ because the simple design doesn’t date and the gas station aesthetic feels a little nostalgic of a 60’s American diner to me (in a good way).
Hopefully that’s made the world of Danish design a little less foreign to you, or, reminded you partly where it all began.
Tak for det! (Thanks for that).
1,2 “Arne Jacobsen’s Petrol Station.” Visit Copenhagen, 2020, accessed March 12, 2020, https://www.visitcopenhagen.com/copenhagen/planning/arne-jacobsens-petrol-station-gdk412687.
3Lang, Jon, and Walter Moleski. “Part I Introduction: Architectural Theory and Functional Theory.” In Functionalism Revisited: Architectural Theory and Practice and the Behavioral Sciences. Routledge, 2016.
Feature: Gompers, Rosan. “Arne Jacobsen’s Petrol station”. The Style Office, June 2016. https://www.thestyleoffice.today/2015/06/petrol-station-arne-jacobsen/
1, 2: Koenning, Nils. “Arne Jacobsen’s Skovshed.” Design Boom, August 9 2019. https://www.designboom.com/architecture/arne-jacobsen-skovshoved-petrol-station-copenhagen-nils-koenning-08-09-2019/
3: Lylloff, Christian. “Arne Jacobsen, Tankstation, Belysning.” Wikipedia, February 3 2008. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skovshoved_Petrol_Station#/media/File:Arne_Jacobsen_benzintank_Moerke.jpg.