It was my first time in Copenhagen. I was looking forward to the trip but must admit, I was unsure of what to expect. Would it be similar to Stockholm or Oslo? Would the city of design live up to its reputation? The latter is easy to answer (“yes!”, and I hope to share with you just how it does this…), the former though, is somewhat trickier. While I certainly saw parallels between Copenhagen and its fascinating Scandinavian sisters, that city spun me a love-song that enraptured me from the moment I stepped off the plane and tried to find my way to the baggage claim. The arrival area was packed with shops selling everything from coffee (Starbucks was duly represented) to authentic reindeer rugs. I was unable to resist either, and so found myself searching for a taxi bound towards the city centre accompanied by a furry friend (and a cappuccino!).
The ride from the airport took about half an hour, but it wouldn’t have bothered me had it been three times as long. There were too many interesting things going on to get bored of. The fascinating architecture adorning every corner alternated thrillingly with world-renowned landmarks such as Arne Jacobson‘s SAS hotel; romantic streets lined with colourful house facades seemed to extend greetings to passerbys; beautifully designed fences surprised you, and artfully suspended streetlights dangled from above wherever you looked. In that city, literally, everything seemed a shrine to design! I was in heaven.
As the weather was good, and my meeting still a few hours away, I dropped my luggage (and reindeer rug companion) at the hotel to stroll through the city centre.
My first stop was the Blue Radisson (the former SAS hotel). It was hard to miss, towering majestically over the sweeping low roofs of the city. Whether one can consider it ‘beautiful’ from an architectural standpoint is subject to debate… (Personally, it reminded me of two oversized cigarette boxes.) Still, I was determined to take a look at Arne Jacobsen’s famous Room 606, the only unaltered room in the hotel. To this day it features Jacobsen’s original “blue” design. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the very friendly hotel staff, my request was denied due to ongoing renovations. A tad disappointed, I limited my visit to a quick walk through the hotel lobby, snapped some pictures (can you spot the Swan chairs? :), and moved on.
I then wandered around for a time, revelling in the artful design of Copenhagen’s newly renovated central train station, Hoved-banegarden…
… the care taken in designing bespoke construction fences that matched the aesthetic of the building under renovation…
… and the ingenious, highly functional way Copenhageners let people know which companies operate in which commercial buildings!
Functionalism deserves some attention here, given that I saw so much of it over the course of my trip. Rather than a specific style, it is an approach to architecture and design primarily concerned with addressing practical problems as logically and efficiently as possible. The Danish have undoubtedly mastered it, with delightful results. So, without of having to ask one of the above buildings’ receptionists, the architecture itself reveals whether you have arrived at your destination — and all this before you try to find parking for your car (or bicycle!) Best of all, the sleek integration of utility into design looks natural and pleasing, whereas a billboard more often ruins the architecture’s appeal than enhances it.
By the end of my first foray into the city, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Schoech’s (2012) impression. Of Denmark, she wrote:
“good design is woven into the DNA of the culture!”
… but then I hesitated. Because what exactly is Danish design?
Danish design in a nutshell
Renowned Danish designers (e.g. Kaare Klint of Safari chair fame, Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, Poul Henningsen, Verner Panton, Hans Wegner, etc.) share a passion for good design, believing that it improves lives and should, therefore, be affordable to all (if this sounds familiar, take a look at our Bauhaus presentation!)
Danish style is structured, and quite architectural. The ceilings are high; the walls are white; the floors are wooden (again, white, whether stained or painted). The combination forms a strong basis for what is typically a monochrome palette. The furniture is practical and minimalist, featuring clean lines, a high level of craftsmanship, a lack of superfluous decoration, and proportions on a human scale. Clutter is virtually non-existent, as are window treatments. The emphasis is on bringing as much light into the room as possible, thereby opening it up. If there are curtains or blinds, they, too, will be white. It sounds a little washed out, but Danish interiors tastefully use their clean settings to their advantage, allowing accent colours to pop. Accessories, pillows, wall decor and smaller items of furniture such as chairs frequently come in the squeaky-brightest hues imaginable. Quite suddenly, depending on the room, the empty space is filled with a fun, calming, even welcoming atmosphere. Indeed, the (hype) Danish term hygge means exactly that: relaxing, slowing down and enjoying time spent together with family.
“It is about bringing light and warmth to a dark night, sipping hot drinks around the fire and creating a cheerful, peaceful, welcoming mood at home. And the beautiful thing about a hygge home is that it depends much more on the care you take than the cash you put into it.”
The concept of hygge has found international acclaim, interestingly enough driven by the availability of related ceramics, silverware and other small household products, the incompatibility of Danish style with clutter notwithstanding. Today “Danish modern” is globally recognised as a design icon.
Where to buy Danish design in Copenhagen?
Since I did not have much time for shopping (a friend of mine gave me a wonderful private tour through the city), I only had the opportunity to explore one design store in detail: Illums Bolighus.
Four floors covered in designer products, from furniture, accessories, ceramics, lighting, soft furnishings, household goods, enough to bury oneself for days. Really — you name it, they had it. It was simply unbelievable!
Creations by the most famous designers (Danish and international ones), brands, iconic pieces… they were all on display, waiting to be marvelled at, touched and, perhaps, bought and found a new home. It was hard not to be overwhelmed. Had I not been running late on time, I could easily have immersed myself in the store for hours (perhaps taking short coffee breaks in the myriad beautiful Copenhagen cafés), but, to my husband’s palpable relief, soon emerged, having purchased only a single vase. It was a tall Alvar Aalto (Savoy) by iittala, one of my all-time favourite designs. The shop attendant was incredibly knowledgeable and helped me choose a gorgeous specimen in a suitable size. The magical thing is, the Alvar Aalto glass vases are handcrafted, and therefore each differs slightly in thickness, number and distribution of enclosed bubbles, and clarity. Moreover, they come in several sizes and all colours of the rainbow. One could say each vase has its own personality! Better yet, though Illums Bolighus does not exactly offer bargain prices, I was able to chip 30% off the Hong Kong price 😉
Should your travels bring you to Copenhagen anytime soon, I can only advise you take your time and enjoy. It’s a city full of modern beauty, with a rich history, vibrant culture, and a design aesthetic that takes all this in stride every step you walk down the street.
Last but not least I recommend taking at least one extra bag. Particularly if you are a fan of reindeer-skin throws…