Arne Jacobsen: Modern Designer and Architect

black and white image of Arne Jacobsen holding a pipe in front of pictures of his buildings Arne Jacobsen in Finland, September 1968.

Arne Jacobsen was a modern furniture designer and architect whose work captivated Denmark throughout the first half of the 20th century. Mostly known for his furniture designs including the iconic Egg, Swan, and Ant Chairs, Jacobsen set out to produce eye-catching, avant-garde pieces that were also functional. Here, our editors explore Jacobsen’s rise to international acclaim, his most important buildings and structures, and his greatest contributions to the history of design.

Who Was Arne Jacobsen?

Arne Jacobsen was born on February 11, 1902, in Copenhagen, Denmark and was raised by two working parents. Drawn to the arts from a young age, Jacobsen studied architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts from 1924 to 1927 where, as a student, he won an award for his modern chair design at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Cementing himself as a noteworthy contemporary architect at an early age, Jacobsen graduated and went on to work under Poul Holsøe, a well-known neoclassical architect, before starting his own firm in 1930.

Photo of Stelling House with people walking in front of it

Stelling House, October 4th 2007.

The work Jacobsen completed under his proprietary firm had wide-reaching influence in Denmark. His modern style was met by both protest and acclaim, as his progressive works were commissioned in a variety of culturally-significant locations. In some instances, like the Stelling House, he went to great lengths to integrate the design of his structure with the aesthetic of the surrounding buildings, while still adding his own modern flair. But after much criticism following the unveiling of the Stelling House (mostly due to its Nordic and contemporary embellishments), he no longer aimed to please the general public. This pivot from mass-appeal can be seen in his design of Århus City Hall, which was generally disliked by the Danish audience but praised by industry experts.

The Influence of World War II

Because of his Jewish heritage, Jacobsen was forced to flee Denmark and settle in Sweden from 1943 to 1945. There was a lack of architectural projects in the area, which pushed Jacobsen to take a step back from structural design. Instead, he spent this time working with various mediums to design furniture and wallpaper. This exploration of new media contributed to the unparalleled, thought-provoking work he would produce later in his career.

Final Work

After returning to Denmark after World War II, Jacobsen began to work on furniture and buildings alike, producing groundbreaking work that is still celebrated today. One example of his work during this period is the Munkegaard School in Copenhagen. With a unique display of mediums including an innovative use of glass and lighting, Jacobsen designed everything from the curtains to the chairs, creating an intimate experience that received international praise. He continued to work on many accredited commissions until his unexpected death in 1971, when his unfinished projects were completed by former apprentices.

Arne Jacobsen Furniture

While Jacobsen mainly considered himself an architect, his most wide-reaching work include his chair designs. Having dabbled in chair design in the early 1920s, he came into his own as a modern functional furniture designer in the 1950s. His most successful pieces, including the Ant, Egg, and Swan Chairs, were created for local hotels and businesses during this decade.

Ant Chair

black ant shaped chair with three legs

Ant Chair, designed 1952.

Originally dubbed the Model 3100, this chair became known as the “Ant Chair” because of its resemblance to an ant with its head lifted. Jacobsen’s Ant Chair was initially created for use in a pharmaceutical firm’s office. Although it was rejected at first for its unusual design, the chair was eventually approved because of its unique look, stacking capability, and lightweight design. A long-standing testament to the marriage of function and aesthetic, the Ant Chair set the tone for mass furniture design in the decades that followed.

Egg Chair

Egg chair, brown. In front of a concrete wall with a light and door.

Egg Chair, manufactured by Fritz Hansen, August 27th 2015. Image via Designmilk.

Commissioned for the SAS Royal Hotel in 1958, the Egg Chair was the epitome of modern Danish design and was celebrated worldwide for its unique structure and feel. Constructed to mimic the shape of an egg, this chair focused on aesthetic appeal rather than utility. While it was successful in balancing function and form, its couch counterpart was quickly scraped from the production line due to complications in manufacturing.

Drop Chair

two drop chairs in a lightly colored room. The left chair is orange and the right chair is navy.

Drop Chair, manufactured by Fritz Hansen, September 15th 2014. Image via Designmilk.

The Drop Chair was created alongside the Egg Chair for the Royal Hotel, but unlike its counterpart, the Drop Chair did not receive international recognition until years later. Fashioned to follow the natural curves of the human body, the Drop Chair stood out for its simple but innovative design that had a natural element unusual for pieces from this movement.

Oxford Chair

two black oxford chairs with tall backs

Arne Jacobsen six Oxford Chairs for Fritz Hansen. Sold for AUD 3,200 via Leonard Joel. (August 2017).

During this same time, Jacobsen had been commissioned to design St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England. Following the success of the Royal Hotel furniture, the school also asked that he design desk chairs for professors to use in the new building. In keeping with a similar silhouette as his previous works, the Oxford Chair incorporated armrests and a rolling base for comfort and accessibility. It has been a mass-produced icon of modern office style in the United Kingdom and beyond, with only slight modifications in the past few decades.

Arne Jacobsen Structures

Jacobsen’s career included a variety of structures throughout Denmark and the United Kingdom, as cities looked to him to create state-of-the-art pieces that would help draw attention to their businesses or schools and establish them as thought-leaders in the creative world. Some of his most famous works include the House of the Future and the Rødovre Town Hall.

House of the Future (1927)

Drawing of the house of the future, a round house with three exits and entry points for a car, helicopter and boat.

The House of the Future by Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen, 1929. Image via Tiexano.

As the winner of the Federation of Danish Architects competition for the single-family house of the future, this blueprint helped to launch the careers of Jacobsen and his partner, Flemming Lassen in 1927. Designed for the mobile homeowner of the future, this circular house had the latest technology integrated directly into its structure and offered landing points for various transportation methods including land, sea, and air.

Bellevue Teatret (1936)

photograph of the Bellevue Teatret building.

The Bellevue Theatre by Arne Jacobsen, 1936.

In the early 1930s, Jacobsen won a competition hosted by Gentofte Municipality to design a resort complex in Klampenborg, Denmark. While the complex included a variety of structures including sea baths and towers, the most notable was the Bellevue Teatret. Celebrated as the epitome of the modern lifestyle, Jacobsen’s design became a prime example of how modern and functional design can live in harmony. The theater included a retractable roof and used a variety of textiles including canvas and bamboo to create a unique performance hall that Danish residents flocked to.

Rødovre Town Hall (1956)

metal, glass and steel staircase.

Rødovre Town Hall staircase by Arne Jacobsen, 1952-1956.

Completed in 1956, the Rødovre Town Hall showcases Jacobsen’s interest in minimalism as well as his work with mixed media while in Sweden during World War II. Inspired by General Motors Technical Center in the United States, the town hall is comprised of two separate buildings connected by a glass corridor. The building is also lauded for its unique staircase, where the rubber and metal stairs are surrounded by glass and suspended from the ceiling using steel rods.

St. Catherine’s College (1962)

photograph of St Catherine's College building.

St. Catherine’s College by Arne Jacobsen. Image via Steve Cadman.

Because of the acclaim Jacobsen received from his previous works, he was commissioned to design St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England. Jacobsen put great care into every aspect of the school, designing the lightning, chairs, and cutlery for each building, even selecting the species of fish used in the nearby pond. The unique use of glass, concrete, and slate solidified this institution as a hallmark of modernism, and it was even inducted into historic listings by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Through his structural and furniture design, Jacobsen excelled in bringing together function and form in a unique and harmonious way. While most of his chair designs are over 60 years old, market demand endures, with many recent examples at auction selling for several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the set. In fact, the designs for the Ant and Series 7 Chairs are considered to be some of the most successful commercial chairs ever manufactured. From international acclaim and influence to today’s market demand it’s clear that Jacobsen’s work — both in furniture and architecture — has been integral to Denmark’s enduring legacy in modern design.

Sources: The Spruce | ArchiTravel | Louis Poulsen | The Culture Trip