Copenhagen regularly features on lists of cities that offer the best quality of life. It is also hailed as one of the most environmentally friendly places to live; its harbour is safe for swimming and 55 per cent of its citizens commute to work by bicycle. In this year’s OECD global happiness survey, the Danes were ranked as the happiest people on the planet.
Although the reasons for this national contentment are a matter of debate, many say it has to do with the Danish belief that good interior design improves people’s lives. And Danish homes, from traditional townhouses to sleek studio apartments, reflect this philosophy.
Interiors are typically clean and minimalist: white walls and floorboards provide a structural, almost architectural backdrop to simple, utilitarian furniture. The colour palette is monochrome and muted, with perhaps a single splash of colour from a lamp, cushion or chair. The curtains, if indeed there are any, are white and open. And every house is full of candles – a Danish obsession, which helps provide hygge (loosely translated as atmosphere or comfort), the state to which every Danish home aspires.
This distinct approach to interiors dates back to the years following the second world war, when architects and designers promoted the idea that affordable, high-quality furniture would enable the average Dane to live better. That view still holds true today, more than 60 years on, and their simple and uncluttered homes are admired around the world.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Index: Design to Improve Life, a non-profit organisation that promotes the idea that interior design is a decisive factor in creating a better world. Established in Denmark, it is now internationally recognised and offers the world’s largest monetary prize for design at €500,000.
Today there are 400 furniture companies in Denmark producing about €1.75bn worth of goods, of which 80 per cent are sold abroad, making homewares the country’s fifth most important export industry. Much of this furniture is still influenced by those original designers such as Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Verner Panton and Poul Henningsen.
Their work, also known as Danish Modern, is based on the minimalist principles of the German Bauhaus movement. The lines are simple and every element of every piece is there for a reason. The old adage that “form follows function” is rewritten in Danish design, where the two are of equal importance. As a result of this attention to detail, many original designs, such as Jacobsen’s Egg and Swan chairs, Wegner’s Wishbone chair and Henningsen’s Artichoke light, remain in production today and continue to be in high demand.
Mads Johansen and Antonio Scaffidi were both trained at the Danish Design School in Copenhagen. Their latest product, the Njord chair for Kusch+Co, was shown in the UK for the first time at Clerkenwell Design Week last month. Both acknowledge a debt to what Scaffidi calls the “old masters and their attention to detail”.
“It is a nice challenge that we have to live up to,” says Johansen. “In that sense we are blessed that we have been given this insight. I think it must be harder for designers in other countries because they do not have the benefit of being around this culture of design.”
Marianne Brandi, creative director of the leading Danish design house, DAY Home, believes the Danes are so used to good furniture that they take it for granted. In primary schools, for example, children sit on Fritz Hansen chairs and Poul Henningsen lamps illuminate hospital foyers.
“My father’s office had Poul Henningsen lamps over every desk,” says Brandi. “They were even in the toilets. When I met my husband, he had four Arne Jacobsen chairs, but they were the same as those in my dentist’s waiting room, so I didn’t want them in my house,” she says.
Christian Rasmussen, head of design at Fritz Hansen, which has been manufacturing furniture since 1872, believes that to understand Danish style you have to first look at the structure of the country.
“Our society is based on a very traditional democracy,” he says. “We have free education, free hospitals and health care. We don’t have extremes of class like you find elsewhere in Europe, and that is reflected in our approach to design. Furniture was built to last because we couldn’t afford to go and buy another piece next year, and that idea is firmly planted in the heads of our designers. Materials are treated with respect, and there is always a good reason for why a piece looks the way it does.”
But, he adds, the climate also plays an important role in their style.
“Our winters are long and dark and we keep the walls white because we need to bring in as much light as possible,” says Rasmussen. “People spend a lot of time and energy on their homes because it is our way of showing who we are, how we live and what we believe in – and we believe absolutely that beautiful interiors make people happy.”