Looking at the apartment of the Sørensen family, reconstructed in the Worker’s Museum in Copenhagen, is a fascinating view back to see of how an ordinary family lived in Copenhagen a century ago and it shows how much day to day life and household possessions have changed over a hundred years … or how little.
When the family moved there in 1915 the apartment had a practical arrangement of rooms, apart that is from not having a bathroom. There was an entrance lobby from the common staircase of the building, a square living room overlooking the street and a narrow kitchen and a bedroom both to the rear looking into the long narrow courtyard. Generally it is a similar plan of apartment that many families in Copenhagen still occupy … simply because so many apartment buildings from this period survive … including of course this one because although the contents were moved to the museum, the apartment itself is still there in Gammel Kalkbrænderi Vej.
Perhaps the main thing that was different in 1915 was the size of the family that occupied that space with five adults and, at the start, maybe even seven members of the family.
The way it was furnished is not radically different from an apartment now … although it is interesting that in the relatively small living room a fairly large dining table was very much at the centre. There was a large side board with family photographs, ornaments and candles, two corner cupboards flanking the window, a bed/day bed and a small table and two stools in the window.
In the kitchen was a sort of dresser - a double cupboard with shelves above holding crockery - and there was a small range with an additional single gas hob and cupboards across the window wall including a small sink.
The bedroom seems to have had two beds, a chest of drawers, a table and a wash stand.
This home was certainly not about conspicuous spending and some would say, as we are beginning to be concerned about the consequences of unfettered consumption, perhaps the better for that. Some of the furniture was second hand and nothing was replaced or thrown out unless there really was no choice.
How the Sørensens lived then provides a context for our way of life today and for the design of furniture and household goods in our own homes.
If someone re furnished that apartment with things from Muuto or Gubi or Normann it would look brighter and probably less cluttered but that is mainly to do with the current aversion to pattern and the fashion to leave walls plain and painted white rather than having wallpaper. Electric lighting is now relatively cheap and, relatively, so much better and that in itself would make a huge difference. But what would a Muuto or Gubi or Normann apartment, furnished now, look like by 2115? Is the furniture from those stores designed and made to last a hundred years? Almost certainly not. Or is that an unfair question? Is it consumers themselves who do not want to pay for something that will last? I doubt that an IKEA kitchen fitted now would last a century although of course the company would argue that it is not meant to - at their prices a kitchen serves a purpose now for a family that needs a kitchen now and is only able or prepared to spend a certain amount. Simply an IKEA kitchen is not designed to last a century and no one expects it to. But the kitchen at Gammel Kalkbrænderi Vej was hardly a top-of-the-range Poggenpohl or Bulthaup of its day but after a lick of paint and with some new pots and pans it would still be pretty serviceable now.
One obvious difference in the old kitchen at Gammel Kalkbrænderi Vej is that there were few places to store food. Refrigeration was not available for small apartments like this until the 1960s so, at best, there would have been a vent to the outside in a cupboard in the kitchen to bring in fresh and hopefully cool air to make a larder or pantry but otherwise fresh food would have been bought daily. And actually I’m not sure that in itself is bad. Moving to Copenhagen, one of the things I like most about the city is the number of corner shops and local bakeries and small city-centre supermarkets and of course the food halls. Many families here still seem to shop on their way home from work rather than going to big out-of-town supermarkets.
Furniture in Gammel Kalkbrænderi Vej was wood, heavy and was dark through layers of polish and varnish … and that raises an interesting question about how we got from that to the almost ubiquitous Scandinavian taste of the scrubbed clean pale-wood Nordic look.
But what strikes me as having changed most in 100 years is not the style or the type and the form of furniture but the quality and perfect finish of new materials. We take for granted easy-to-apply paint in strong even colours; strong clear perfectly made steel or Corian or even glass for kitchen worktops and light but strong and perfectly coloured plastic for most things in the kitchen. So maybe it is the development of modern materials and not design as such that has brought the biggest changes. I can remember as a child staying in my grandparent’s house and, on waking up, being amazed by all the cracks and layers in the distemper across the ceiling of the bedroom and in the kitchen everything was glass or china or aluminium - so not a single thing in plastic and I can actually remember my grandmother buying her first Tupperware and her coming to the conclusion, fairly quickly, that for mixing cakes the hassle of washing all the parts of a new food mixer she had been given was too much like hard work and she was actually going back to a large bowl and a single wooden spoon … oh that irony of the labour generated by labour-saving kitchen equipment.
The Sørensens had just a simple radio so that is one big change … the massive proliferation of personal electronic gadgets of all kinds in the last 15 or 20 years … but apart from that there seem to be no really earth-shattering changes over a hundred years from life in Gammel Kalkbrænderi Vej in the years after 1915. So is all that design over all those intervening years just about fashion and aspirations?
Looking at the rooms in the museum they strike me as dark, almost gloomy, and initially the pictures and ornaments seem shoddy and cheap but at least they are honest and straightforward … the things the family liked and cherished … so much better than decorating a house with the ‘right’ things or fashionable things. The pictures are of coy and saccharine children and copies of old paintings of young girls in elaborate costumes in perfect landscapes and there are puppies but then I despair now when I see what is pasted to Facebook so the taste and the sentimentality have hardly changed.
Go to a flea market today in Copenhagen and you see what families like the Sørensens - and more affluent families - have discarded and OK there are PH lamps and the odd classic glass or ceramic bowl from the 1960s but there are also masses of badly made and badly designed things. I’m not condemning or criticising … because you would find much the same in any European country … but curious and interested.
If designers looked carefully at the Sørensen's apartment perhaps the real lesson should be that then as now very few people live the design dream that is shown in the photographs in magazines and design books. Designers have to be realistic that their designs, in the majority of homes, will be seen next to last nights dirty dishes, the chair that is ugly but comfortable, the awful cups that are the wrong colour but no one can bring themselves to chuck out. Perhaps most of our homes are much more like the Sørensen’s apartment than we might realise. Surely most designers hope that their work will be used in the perfect home but the reality is that nearly every home is a compromise. It’s just that many Scandinavian homes are a more attractive compromise than many homes elsewhere in the World.