How to be Danish

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Patrick Kingsley is a foreign correspondent working for the Guardian. He wrote How to be Danish after a stay in Copenhagen in the Spring in 2012 and it was published in paperback in 2013 by Short Books with line-work illustrations by Karoline Kirchhübel. 

I suppose it is slightly odd, or at least at one remove, for me, who is English, to review what another Englishman has to say about the Danes, and possibly even odder that the book was recommended to me by a Brazilian friend, but I found his comments and observations not only wide ranging and perceptive but generally very appreciative or even affectionate. 

The book is divided into eight main chapters covering education, in its broadest sense, the food revolution in Copenhagen, Danish design, the welfare state, Denmark and the approach to immigration, Copenhagen planning and architecture generally (seen primarily through the number of cyclists in the City), the significance of the success of Danish TV, through the massive popularity abroad of series like The Killing and Borgen, and a brief look at a couple of settlements away from Copenhagen to try and see why, in recent global surveys, Copenhagen in particular and Denmark in general, is seen as a place where people are content and even happy. That last chapter looks at the island of Somsø and discusses wind farms there and the laudable Danish approach to sustainable energy.

In August Copenhagen came first, for a second time in seven years, in the annual survey by Monocle magazine to find the top 25 cities in the World recognised for their quality of life. Maybe it is important to emphasise here that neither Patrick Kingsley nor Monocle imply that this is something that has just happened without effort or is something that Danes are complacent or smug about: the Monocle reporters, in an opening paragraph, talk about Copenhagen’s  “ability to see itself as a global city” whose “wonderful reinvention continues to impress” and in this book Kingsley looks at a well-established history of alliance politics (there has not been a single-party majority in Denmark since 1901) as something positive and he assesses influences like the importance of co-operation in communities as a well-established concept and the Co-op specifically as an important commercial movement in what was, apart from Copenhagen, a largely agrarian population.

Many of the chapters come around to discussing some aspect of design - perhaps not surprising given that the full title of the Book is How to be Danish - A journey to the cultural heart of Denmark - so, for instance, an assessment of the renaissance of Danish TV, starting with The Killing, ends with a fascinating (and that is not sarcasm) account of Susan Johansen knitting the jumpers worn by Sofie Gråbøl and the ongoing fashion success of Gudrun and Gudrun and the knitters from the Faroe Islands. Kingsley even finds a knitting circle where elderly women in a day centre find their skills and work now appreciated by young fashion-conscious Danes.

There is an interesting account of a visit to the Fritz Hansen furniture workshops where he observes the pride with which the work is completed by hand - there are 1200 stitches for the cover of the famous egg chair - and he interviews the director of the Danish Design Centre where they discuss the apparent fixation of Danish designers of the 20th century with the form of the chair.

Kingsley makes interesting observations about Danish architecture and the relatively new emergence of concept rather than context in design. Context, to over simplify, is a careful focus on conservation and human scale that, essentially, created the walking street in Copenhagen, still the longest pedestrian area in the World, and concept is where the innovation and style of the individual building is more important than its setting. In Copenhagen the new development to the south of the old city, towards the airport, has very large, striking and novel apartment buildings that have received international recognition for their design individually but these buildings are less recognisably Danish.

The book also illuminates one key point about design in Denmark that I had been aware of in a vague way but had never been able to put my finger on or articulate as an approach to design as such. Arne Jacobsen was probably the most important Danish architect of the 20th century but is often described as a furniture designer because of his work on the interiors of the buildings that he designed such as the SAS Hotel in Copenhagen. He designed not only chairs but door handles, cutlery and textiles for the hotel. This is in part explained by one statement in the book about Danes being “nuts about detailing” but that aim, to create a complete building and interior, is far from a bad thing particularly when you look at new buildings in Denmark like the National Library in Copenhagen (known as the Black Diamond) where stair handrails, flooring and even the moving staircase are seen as worthy of equal care and attention when it comes to their design.

Kingsley interviewed Kristian Bytge who runs Muuto, one of the newest furniture companies and one that promotes young designers but he pointed out that “a very high percentage of Danes know about Arne Jacobsen … we are proud of our design heritage … design is in our cultural DNA.”

The book ends with some simple statistics without comments but here you begin to understand why Danes, some of the most highly taxed people in the World, can never-the-less be seen as some of the happiest. The minimum wage is £11.40 an hour, 96% of children aged 3-5 are in state-subsidised daycare and university education is free, 74% of Danish mothers work, 36% of Copenhagers commute to work by bike, 20% of electricity is powered by wind and 98% of Copenhagen homes are connected to district heaters.

Good design is about so much more than aesthetics.