in Denmark's dark Satanic mills ...

.... or then again perhaps not.

This is the water mill and the factory at Brede about 15 kilometres north of Copenhagen.

The river that powers the mill starts at Furesøen Lake, flows east through the lake at Lyngby and then north before curving eastwards again and running on to the Øresund at Strandmøllen. Over a distance of about 12 kilometres, between the lake and the sea, the river drops 20 metres in elevation and, with the construction of dams to hold back water to increase pressure, there is enough force to power a number of water wheels. 

Account books of the Bishop of Roskilde in 1370 are the earliest written records to have been found for mills along the river but some of these mill sites must be much older. 

There are still mills at Frederiksdal, two mills at Lyngby, a mill at Fuglevad, the large mill here at Brede, mills at Ørholm, Nymølle, Stampen, and Rådvad and, finally, the last mill before the sea, on the beach road itself, at Strandmøllen. 

That is a lot of water mills on a relatively short stretch of river.  Potentially, if owners of mills upstream held back water, using dams and sluices, either to create more pressure or to extend power over a longer day of working, mills further down stream could be effected to their disadvantage and as early as 1724 a Mill Stream Association was formed to resolve any disputes.

Presumably, the first mills here were agricultural - used for grinding corn or later used for producing animal feed - but by the 17th century the river was also driving water wheels for power for ironworks, that produced blades for knives and weapons and parts for agricultural machinery, and to power the hammers of copper works that produced household wares such as kettles and pails. Four of the mills were used at various periods for manufacturing paper and three of the mills, including the mill at Brede, produced gunpowder in the 17th and early 18th century. Then, from the 1830s, first Brede Mill and then Stampen were adapted for textile manufacture.

A drawing of the mill at Brede in 1820 with the main house built in 1795 and the forecourt with stables and carriage houses to the south. The chimney must be for the copper works here at that stage. The detail of a map shows the buildings in 1830 with the reservoir of water up-stream of the dam and mill buildings and gardens to the west of the house and forecourt.

Brede ....

The earliest mill at Brede was used to grind corn, but from 1628 through to 1668 it was a gunpowder mill and then from 1668 until 1855 there was a copper works here. 

From 1831, when Johan Carl Modeweg bought the property, through until 1956 it was principally a textile mill with the water from the river used not only for power for the looms but for the processes of washing, fulling and dyeing cloth. 

Housing to the west of the forecourt built by Modeweg in 1833 - just two years after he acquired the mill.

By 1880 the mill buildings to the east of the house had been rebuilt and looked much more like a factory.

Surviving buildings include the grand 18th-century house of the owner; stable buildings and carriage sheds on either side of a large forecourt and early mill buildings immediately beside the house, on the dam across the bottom of the lake. There are large factory buildings, dating from the late 19th and early 20th century, built on down the river bank along the side of the gardens of the big house including a dye works and a machine or engine house. Nearby, there are also a mill manager's house and purpose-built workers' housing and there was a mill school.

The house from the south with the stables and carriage houses flanking the forecourt

Looking east across the front of the house to the mill and factory beyond

The mill from the north looking back upstream to the wheel and the dye works rebuilt in 1936 ... an early example of concrete construction in Denmark

The mill from the north looking back upstream to the wheel and the dye works rebuilt in 1936 ... an early example of concrete construction in Denmark

From the back of the house with the garden and the engine house and factory buildings on the east side of the garden constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

After the mill and factory closed, the site was acquired by the National Museum of Denmark and it is now open to the public in the summer with working machinery, demonstrations and displays about textile mills and about early industry in Denmark with interactive films and information about working conditions.

What has all this to do with design in the late 20th and early 21st centuries ... ostensibly the focus of this blog? Well quite a lot actually because at Brede you can see evolving many of the factors that have made Denmark such a successful country for design and for manufacturing.

Mills here are not on the scale of cotton and wool mills of Northern England but never-the-less the river and the landscape of the Mølleåen are important because the industrial archaeology reveals much about the early history of and the development of manufacturing in Denmark … this area has been described as the cradle or crib of Danish industry.

From mill to factory ....

Corn mills were some of the first machine or industrial buildings but were generally small and essentially rural and usually served just the local area - they were often owned by farmers, though sometimes admittedly prosperous, well-established farmers but they would not have seen themselves as manufacturers.

But here, along this river, the mills, strategically close to Copenhagen, are different and from the 16th century onwards they developed to serve the growing population of the nearby city, providing not only flour for Copenhagen but also kitchenwares, cutlery, paper and even the gunpowder that was crucial for the city where the soldiers barracked there defended the port and controlled trade and traffic on the Øresund.

There have to be customers for products ....

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, more and more people moved from the countryside into towns where there was a rapidly expanding middle class who wanted household goods and furniture that were significantly better and significantly more sophisticated than what had, in the past, been available for ordinary country people … things produced in village forges or carpenter's work shops.

There was a growing demand for robust, better made items and the quality and the quantity of household goods demanded could only be produced in a factory system.

A sense of style ... 

As to style … Denmark is a protestant country and protestant beliefs tend to favour simpler and deliberately less ostentatious possessions. That may sound like a gross generalisation and a cliche but that doesn't make it less true. After nearly 500 years of carefully-cultivated protestant restraint, although only 5% of Danes attend church regularly, it is significant that even so 80% identify themselves as being members of the Danish Lutheran church.

Opportunity and education ….

Of course, other factors have contributed to the success of Danish design and manufacturing and although these appear to be even less tangible they can still be traced here in the organisation of the mills along the river.

Specifically I am thinking about social mobility and opportunities for education or training in design for anyone with sufficient skill - not just for a middle class elite. 

At Brede the mill owner lived in a very large and very grand house but even if he was not, to use the English phrase, living over the shop, he was pretty close, with his house immediately beside the factory. Clearly, his was not a politics of benign socialism in any recognisable sense but simply a practical - some would say realistic - approach to direct supervision of his investment and income but Johan Modeweg appears to have understood how important it was to provide his workers with not only good housing but also a school for their children and there was even a burial ground at Brede … so he cared for his workers and their families “far vugge tip grav.” Modeweg understood, for the success of his business, it was important to train his workers, nurture them and their families, and encourage them to stay at Brede.

Work and life in the factories and mills must have been harsh and tough so I am not romanticising this but there were clearly opportunities for skilled or ambitious craftsmen to improve their lot through training and education.

Even in the new, emerging factories in the 19th century, it was possible to progress from being a basic artisan, trained for a specific task or job - there were longer apprenticeships to gain specific skills within a craft and even the possibility to move on to a broader education in art or design with the opportunities that brings.

This is illustrated by the story of one specific craftsman from the mill and iron works at Rådvad, just down stream from Brede. There in 1866 a knife grinder, or more precisely I suppose the knife grinder’s wife, gave birth to a son. At the age of 14 the young boy, Georg Jensen, moved to Copenhagen to train as a goldsmith. He then studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts and after he graduated in 1892 he worked first as a modeller at the porcelain factory of Bing & Grøndahl before returning to silver and metalwork, first with Mogens Ballin and then establishing the now famous company that still trades under his name.

In modern terms that Jensen himself might not have articulated, he grew up as the son of a tradesman but had an opportunity for formal training and that, combined with obvious ambition and business skills and an appreciation of workmanship of quality and a sense of style, enabled him to produce household items and luxury goods for an increasingly prosperous urban middle class. 

Opportunity and education, manufacturing skills and ambition with an innate sense of style! The starting point and the strength of modern Danish design?

The Værk Museum, Modewegsvej, Brede is open from May through to the end of September. Information is available from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

There is more information in English about the mills available from Kultur Styrelsen (The Danish Agency for Culture) and they have a very good pamphlet, published as a PDF, with information about the mills if you plan to explore the valley.

This is pleasant countryside for walking, with pathways and cycle tracks following the river.

To get to the museum from Copenhagen by public transport take the S train to Jægersborg and there change to the local train that follows the wooded valley up to the railway station at Brede.