a chance to compare and contrast

Looking around the showrooms and studios that were open for 3daysofdesign - the event held in Copenhagen at the end of last month - it was easy see why the Danish furniture and design industry is so strong. 

For a start, Denmark has a well-established and well-deserved reputation for designing and making some of the best furniture in the World. Presumably that means that companies here have loyal customers and a head start in attracting new customers.  

And because there are so many manufacturers and designers in Copenhagen there does appear to be strength in numbers: attending various events last month it was obvious that although there is healthy rivalry there is also a very strong and a very positive feeling that there really is a design community in the city.

If young designers can say that they were trained in Denmark and work here then they have credibility … even if, actually, they themselves feel that the downside is having to compete in a crowded market place.

Looking at this concentration of design talent - going to the showrooms of top manufacturers and visiting high-end design stores and looking at so many companies over just a few days - you realise just how broad and how diverse the design industry in Denmark is … from small companies that were started recently by one or two enthusiastic and talented people through to large companies with a long-established reputation for the style and quality of their furniture. In some cases that reputation stretches back more than a century.

For companies to have a distinct style is, or at least should be, a major asset - that is having a defined brand image and a core market to aim at - to use the jargon - but this is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the design industry to get across to people outside the design industry so to the buying customer who is, after all, the ultimate target for all these amazing things. 

Generally, customers will see new designs in a large design store where the style of the piece may well be difficult to appreciate in the melee, however well laid out the furniture in a store is, so there will be either oddly juxtaposed pieces from different companies or there may be some distance and possibly a gap of some time between searches in different stores. That is why catalogues or at least some sort of image in publicity material is still important despite this being the age of on-line images and mobile phones for taking your own pictures.

Anyway, compare and contrast exercises are not easy so I thought it might be interesting to look at three different design companies in Copenhagen - companies that were chosen because they are not small - not the one designer and a lot of drive and energy type company - but nor are they the large long-established design names.

I was able to spend a fair bit of time at the Gubi showroom at Nordhavn and at the Muuto studio and headquarters in the centre of the city and also at the showrooms and headquarters of &Tradition on Paper Island on the south side of the main harbour. *

What the three companies have in common is that the core work of all three is that they produce and sell both furniture and lighting. Design work is either in house, in the case of Muuto, or a mixture of in house and designs commissioned from independent designers and both Gubi and &Tradition also produce a number of older pieces - mid 20th-century classic designs under licence. 

In terms of the style of their products and, I suspect, in their business plans and long-term aims, the three companies could not be more different. 

Looking at their products in design stores or in adverts or magazines, the differences are more difficult to isolate - but visiting the showrooms, the differences are much more obvious.




Of the three companies, Gubi has been established the longest - founded in 1967 by Gubi and Lisbeth Olsen. And of the three it is probably the least obviously Scandinavian in style. Softer and rounded, less solid shapes for chairs and sofas and the use of richer and stronger colours and the use of pattern might suggest, on first glance, that the designs are French or Italian. In fact some of the designers used by the company are French or Italian, including Jacques Adnet, Paul Leroy, Mathieu Matégot and GamFratesi - although the partnership of Stine Gam and Enrico Fratesi are actually based in Cologne. However, Gubi do also produce works from many Scandinavian designers including the Swedish designer Greta Grossman, designs from Jens Quistgaard, the Y tables by Henning Larsen and the Semi Collection of lighting from Claus Bonderup and Tursten Thorup.

A GUBI store was opened in Godthåbsvej in Frederiksberg in the early 1990s and a large new store was opened at Møntergade 19 in the centre of Copenhagen in December 2014. The main showroom, head office and studio are at Pakhus in Nordhavn in Copenhagen.

Lighting is a very important part of the Gubi Collection. From 1988 Gubi became a distributor for the Bestlite, first produced in England in the 1930s, and they now hold the licence to produce that lighting world-wide and are adding new designs to the range. They also produce the distinct Gräshoppa and Cobra lights by Greta Grossman.

Gubi have their own design of shell chair - The Gubi Collection - designed by Komplot Design in 2003. The shell appears to be flatter and wider than comparable designs, so somewhat shallower, but probably has the most complex 3D shape. Like the chairs from other companies the shell can be combined with a number of different base units including thin, splayed metal legs with, unusually, diagonally crossed stretchers; a so-called sledge frame; a swivel base and a wood base with curved and tapering legs that look almost like an inverted hand, elegant finger tips pointing down.

Metal as a surface rather than as simply a construction material has a more prominent role than with other Scandinavian design companies where wood predominates and metal is used for tables, trolleys and shelving including the Matégot Trolley and the Dedal and Demon book shelves also by Mathieau Matégot and his Kangorou tables with their pierced metal tops.

The eclectic collection, with works by current and classic designers, and with the less-common sense of central and southern European taste is acknowledged in the catalogues of Gubi that have the tag line “icons, memories and stories”.



In contrast, Muuto was started about 2006 by Peter Bonnén and Kristian Byrge with the clearly-stated aim to ‘cultivate’ new Nordic design talent. The name of the company comes from the word muutos … Finnish for new perspective.

The large design studio and main showroom is in light and open attic spaces above the walking street in Copenhagen. It has a very good feeling - welcoming and open - light and friendly - with an open plan running round through offices to an entertainment space where food can be provided for staff and commercial clients and extends up on to a large open roof terrace looking across the roof tops of the city. Unlike Hay or Normann, Danish design companies of comparable size, Muuto does not have it’s own store but sells through distributors.

One key to the style of the company can be seen in the upholstered sofas and low chairs they produce that are rounded, full, covered with bold strong plain colours. Neither the Connect Sofa by Anderssen and Voll nor the Soft Block range designed by Petter Skogstad have either exposed frames or legs or feet and are deliberately sculptural - be it soft sculpture. Even the Rest Sofa - also by Anderssen and Voll - which has a low oak sub frame - has generous rounded cushions and solid well-stuffed upholstered arms. The interesting detail with the fabric covering of this range is the folded under or tucked in covers that give the sofas the suggestion of being formed with bedding. And no, that is not a snide criticism.

The Oslo Series, also by Anderssen and Voll, is slightly different with thin metal legs supporting what look almost like old-fashioned car seats that gives the range a 1950s or 60s feel.

As with Gubi, shell chairs for dining and for use as desk or side chairs are an important section of the current catalogue. The two main ranges are the Visu Chair by Mika Tolvanen in formpressed veneer giving a simple profile with generous rounded corners and the new deeper and enclosing shell shape of the Fiber Chair by Iskos-Berlin with a high wood fibre content that gives the shell a softer slightly textured look and a softer feel. As with the Gubi chairs, and as of course with the new Normann range, the chairs come with a number of options for the bases. The colours are muted and fairly dark with a grey toned red, a grey toned green and so on. These are again close to what must be considered to be the current fashionable colours because they are similar to the colour options for Normann, &Tradition and Gubi. Of all the chairs currently offered by all the Danish companies, only the new colour range for the Series 7 Chair from Fritz Hansen stands out as distinctly different with the colours selected by the artist Tal R being sharper and darker but somehow cleaner.

Muuto has a number of tables in their collection. The Adaptable Table by TAF combines wood with plastic joining knuckles, rather like the new Form range from Normann. The 70/70 Table, also by TAF, has an elegant frame in cast aluminium that forms a floor-level runner linking the legs across the short end to give the table stability without having to add cross rails or long supports down the length. The Split Table designed by Staffan Holm is even more distinct with oak legs forming what appears to be an inverted V shape angled outwards at each end but actually also splits out to support the table so, if this makes sense, like an inverted Y with the stem split and flattened out under the table top.

The Stacked range of boxes designed by Julien de Smedt can be combined to form very flexible and easily extended wall and free-standing storage. Made from MDF and with veneer or coloured finish this is a good alternative to the Montana range or the classic wood system of bookcases and shelving from Rud. Rasmussen.

As with Gubi, lighting is important, with a wide range of slightly quirky or at least different lamps from the large, industrial-looking, Unfold Pendant, which is actually in soft silicon rubber, and the Wood Lamp by TAF that looks like something produced with a child’s construction set to the minimalist and sophisticated shape of the UP Table Lamp by Mattias Ståhlbom or the blown-glass Cosy Lamps by the Finnish designer Harri Koskinen.

Muuto, more than Gubi or &Tradition have a wide range of accessories and tablewares including the relatively new Push coffee pot by Mette Duedahl, glassware, wood kitchenware and the Restore range of felt containers by Mika Tolvanen. In the extent of it’s range Muuto is probably the closest of the three to what is now often called a life-style store. I hate the phrase but, with no new alternative term, it is certainly not used disparagingly here. Far from it. Looking at the clean, bright interior of the showroom it is obvious that if furnishing from scratch a new home owner could do much worse than doing a one-stop, buy-all purchase from Muuto.



&Tradition was founded in 2010 and is very different again from Gubi and Muuto. To some extent the company has grown out of the design brand Menu and, like Menu, they have employed the Danish design and architecture partnership Norm to design products but the architects have also been responsible for the interior of the new showroom on Paper Island on the south side of the main harbour in Copenhagen. The huge, high industrial warehouse space has been divided up with simple, bold white walls to form what is described as a village … a series of simple and flexible but interlinked spaces that can be used for different displays and room settings.

As with Gubi, the collection includes a number of classic mid 20th-century designs, including pieces by Verner Panton, Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen, and a growing range of newly-commissioned designs. Unlike Muuto but as with Gubi. &Tradition have looked beyond Scandinavia with designs by Lex Pott from Eindhoven, the Italian designer Luca Nichetto and Jaime Hayon with his studio in Barcelona.

The catch phrase here is “Craft meets Art. Function meets Form. Material Meets Potential” and of the three companies discussed here this is possibly the most cerebral … if Gubi is experimenting and pushing the boundaries of style and Muuto are exploring and playing with the possibilities of Scandinavian design then &Tradition are trying to be experiment more with shape and with the dramatic combination of dark and shadow. They are probably furthest from having a distinct identifiable style but that might simply be that they are the youngest company of the three. 

The Fly Sofa by Space has spindles forming the back of the seat that makes this the Danish equivalent of contemporary designs from Sweden from GAD or Norrgavel; the Catch Chair from 2014 by Jaime Hayon with its enclosing arms plays with silhouette and weight … a distinct profile balanced on thin spidery legs … and the chairs In Between by Sami Kallio have cut-out and bent shapes for the seat back that, again, play with silhouette and shadow and profile. It is not surprising that the chairs and tables from the range in the increasingly fashionable dark stains are the best selling.

Cloud, upholstered seating with a choice of one, two or three seats, by Luca Nichetto is again a clever and again a successful and distinctive design with metal legs but a sophisticated and elegant design with the legs set out at a slight angle and with the back legs continuing just half way up the back … almost like giving a gentle helping hand to support the wrap around and upholstered panel … there is a short thin fin running inwards under the seat from the legs that again give just an impression of support but no clues to the underlying structure. The cushions, without boxed sides or pimore like over-filled pillows, are again distinctly different to current Scandinavian upholstery that is either sharply tailored and buttoned and piped or is rounded but solidly and almost over filled. 

Table NA2 and Stool NA3 from Norm are again clever and ostensibly stripped down to a minimal form but are very very sophisticated and clever in the details of their construction. The tables actually have three legs at each end … the corner legs angled outwards and a leg in the centre of the end angled in to form a trestle … and the stools with a rounded broom-stick like leg that is again angled for stability but is not housed directly into the seat but has a narrow stem … making it like an inverted bullrush … and the cross rails are actually a T-bar so curiously the circular stools have a front - with space for both feet raised off the ground - and that puts the single leg at the centre under the back pushing the sitter to use the stool in the most stable orientation. As I say … clever playing with what initially seems to be a stripped down minimal design.

There is a surprisingly broad range of lighting design from the simple exposed bulb and marble block of Marble Light by Studio Vit; a slightly salvaged-from-a-factory look of Light Forest from Ontwerpduo and the elegant metal shade and elegant metal grab and knurled fixing bolts of the Copenhagen Pendant from 2014 by Space of Copenhagen. &Tradition are also producing the Flowerpot lights by Verner Panton from 1968 in new colours and their equivalent of the wood lamp from Muuto is a table lamp by Victor Vetterlein in paper pulp called Trash Me that looks like a lamp from the Pixar movie that has lost a fight with a porridge/paint mix.



Well all three companies focus on the major furniture items - chairs, tables and sofas - along with a broad range of lighting and some additional furniture such as trolleys and shelving.  As to style … well, as always, it is invidious to talk about style without sounding as if you are either condemning or praising. Perhaps the opt out is to say that after visiting the three show rooms over just a couple of days, I can see that Gubi are focusing on a slightly less conventional style for Scandinavia along with carefully controlled quality aiming at the upper end of the market. Muuto are pushing and playing with more conventional Scandinavian style to produce something light and open and friendly … perhaps a style that is aimed more at young couples or young families. &Tradition look as if they are moving towards drama and pieces that will stimulate comments. If you put a chair from each company side by side then you would be hard pressed to separate them in terms of quality or style or functionality. You would have to go into a careful description of technical details to distinguish them. On the other hand, be dropped from space into any of the three showrooms and it would be impossible to mix them up.


* I am very grateful to the staff at all three companies, to Michael, Jesper and Elizabeth, who gave me so much of their time to answer questions and to discuss wider design issues as well as allowing me to take photographs. 




3daysofdesign - the importance of contract catalogues

SP34 in Copenhagen - the bar and reception area of the hotel with a set of chairs, the CH88 designed by Hans Wegner in 1955 for Carl Hansen, around a table by Nanna Ditzel and the Heritage Chair designed by Frits Henningsen in 1930 and still in production by Carl Hansen


3daysofdesign was, primarily, a trade fair in and around Copenhagen to show the products of some forty designers and manufacturers: lecturers and receptions were clearly aimed at people working within the industry or buying for independent stores or on a contract basis for commercial interior design or furnishing projects although these open days were an opportunity for the public to look around showrooms that are usually open by appointment or normally only visited by trade buyers. 

Presumably, few customers, walking into a furniture store to buy a chair or a table or a sofa, ever give a second thought to the contract catalogue of the manufacturer although, either directly or subliminally, that may well be what has influenced their choice.

Of course a contract to supply furniture to a hotel or a new restaurant is important income for the turnover of a company but it can also mean high public exposure for designs that are a long-term and ongoing advert that can consolidate the reputation of both the designer and the manufacturer.

One example of a Danish company that produces clearly commercial furniture alongside high-quality furniture for the home is Getama who make seating for theatres and auditoriums, including the Royal Danish Playhouse and the Nørrebro Theatre in Copenhagen, and beds for Danish Embassies, the Danish Army and numerous hotels. Although, presumably, few in the audience leaving the theatre will think that what they really need for their apartment is a theatre seat, a reputation for making such heavily used and robust but stylish furniture contributes enormously to the reputation of the company and their furniture.

OneCollection have produced furniture from designs by Finn Juhl for the Danish House in Paris and furniture for the Danish embassy in Washington and, of course, new seating for the recent refurbishment of the Trusteeship Council Chamber at the UN building in New York that was designed by Juhl in 1951 - all high profile and prestigious projects that have contributed to the rapidly-growing international reputation of the company.

Furniture for fashionable hotels and restaurants give designers and furniture manufacturers important and ongoing exposure … NOMA in Copenhagen was refurbished in 2012 with dining chairs from J L Møller that were designed in 1962 but are combined with new tables designed specifically for the restaurant and with new, low, armed chairs, the Ren Chair, designed by Space of Copenhagen for Stellarworks

Furniture, including Beetle Chairs and bar stools from Gubi have been used for the Standard on the harbour front in Copenhagen and their Masculo Chairs, designed by GamFratesi, are used at the prestigious restaurant Amass.

For many people their first chance to actually sit in or use a design piece may well be in a restaurant or in a hotel room and this can mean that some are tempted to buy the designs for their own homes. Certainly, new ideas tried in hotels do transfer across to the domestic market ... so, for instance, the demand for en-suite bathrooms and the increasing fashion for wet rooms in homes in England must surely be driven by a wish to imitate something enjoyed in a stay at a hotel. And, of course, advertisements for the hotel or restaurant and reviews in newspapers will also show off well the furniture. Many hotels and restaurants are also used as sets for photo shoots for ads for glossy fashion magazines, again making readers of those fashion magazines familiar with good recent furniture designs or with possible new trends in interior design.

But well-designed furniture does not just have an influence when used in expensive places to stay or eat. Muuto have ensured that their chairs comply with high standards required for contract use in hospitals and schools which should reassure customers that they are robust and easy to maintain.

Even good, well-designed furniture used in schools can have a long-term influence - at the very least teaching children to appreciate good design. At the beginning of the year at Northmodern, the design fair at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, I was talking to a manager from the Paustian furniture store in Copenhagen. As a child he had been to a school in Copenhagen that was designed by Arne Jacobsen - presumably Munkegårdsskolen - and it was only after leaving school that he found out, much to his surprise, that not all children had Jacobsen furniture in the classroom. I wonder how much his choice of career was influenced by the furniture he sat on in school for all those years?

3daysofdesign: graphics and publications

use of detailed graphics in the show room of Arper in Nordhavn


3daysofdesign was a major event that included many of the most well-established design companies in Denmark so, perhaps, it might seem odd to talk about the graphic design of publications and posters seen at the various venues … of course everyone expects well-designed graphics and beautiful catalogues from furniture companies … surely it goes without saying? … surely it would only be worth a comment if catalogues or lettering in the showroom or information leaflets were badly designed or badly printed?

Well no. Just because everyone assumes it will be good and just because the graphics were actually good throughout, it is even more important to make a few points about this aspect of the work of the furniture industry. 

In general, people outside the professional design world … so obviously the majority of customers … assume that graphics with high-quality photographs, eye-catching layout and high quality paper are all simply what should be expected. They take it for granted. After all, computers with a huge number of fonts and any template you could wish for for a layout, high definition images, even from a mobile phone, and high quality printing are all available from personal systems in most homes … what can possibly be so hard in producing a nice (free) catalogue? And of course we are all greedy - voracious - for images, gloss, entertainment, facts, information and commentary with little time spent on thinking about how much it has actually cost to produce in terms of professional skill, mental stress, time and money. And last years catalogue or last years campaign are not good enough. We want, need and expect something new.

What was clear across the board at 3daysofdesign is that companies do and do have to invest a huge amount of time, thought and money in the right style of advertising and the best possible publications with information about and for their products.

Catalogues, advertisements, information booklets, online sites and so on have to tell the story of the company; explain the development of the design; introduce the designer, if they are young or new to the company; explain the way the design evolved - everyone loves a good story - give information about the manufacturing process, promote green credentials, of course, and, often, give after-sales care advice as well. And good graphics, as everyone knows, can create a brand image and customer awareness of, recognition of and loyalty to a company or even to a specific design. Chair 7 by Arne Jacobsen, Stool 60 from Artek and the PH5 light are all the obvious examples of the ongoing commercial value of recognition and loyalty.

The Series 7 chair is actually a very good example. It will be the subject of a separate post but it is of relevance in this post just because it is still the best-selling piece in the Fritz Hansen catalogue but it has just reached a milestone anniversary - the chair was designed in 1955 - and Fritz Hansen are in the middle of a major campaign to ‘relaunch’ the chair in new colours to ensure that it remains a design that has a place in the homes of young and future generations of buyers. So publicity material, and advertising and the way the chair is shown in displays now, are crucial to its future success. The strap line of the present campaign is Colours in Perfect Shape.

With a completely new range or a novel design it may even be necessary to give advice about how the piece might best be set in the context of it’s new home. It is actually quite difficult to explain to a customer, who is dissatisfied because, maybe, their new purchase doesn’t look quite as good in their home as it did in the show room or in the catalogue, that in fact they have bought the wrong thing for their existing house and existing life style. The new piece itself is amazing … it’s just that really their room/your room should possibly/could maybe/definitely ought to be a different colour and much of the rest of the furniture should be replaced. But the shop can’t say that. Better to start a bit of gentle advice - sow the seeds of a few ideas and suggestions in the catalogue or in the display in the shop.

The good small catalogue for the event itself and the graphic material for Re-Framing Danish Design were well designed and distinct … presumably they were aware of the added problem of having to avoid any resemblance to the brand styles of any of the companies taking part. 

Arper and Muuto had elaborate graphics on the walls of their show rooms to explain or identify their designs and several companies including Fritz Hansen, OneCollection and Gubi include in their catalogues extensive articles on major designers from the classic period of Danish design to put designs, that might be 50 or more years old, into their wider historic context. The Gubi catalogue is called a design booklet and is, significantly, titled ‘Icons, Memories and Stories.’ It is necessary to explain to a new generation of buyers when and why the pieces were designed; state why they were important designs or why they were admired when they were first manufactured, and why they have relevance now and and why they should still be in production. Basically why a design was amazing then and why it is amazing now.

It is also necessary to explain to a new buyer why an old design might not be exactly like the earliest examples of a design that they have seen in a museum. Designs can evolve in terms of the materials used, for instance in upholstery, and manufacturing techniques change or some aspects of machine manufacturing have improved since the original pieces were made. Again managing expectations and nurturing customers who might have admired a design long ago but are, only now, getting around to buying it.

Innovations for new designs, particularly new materials or new methods of production, have to be explained to potential customers and can become what are called unique selling points to distinguish the designs from one company from the works from their rivals. Muuto have launched a new shell chair that is moulded from a recyclable material that includes wood fibre … deliberately described as ‘pinewood fibers.’ This material has a softer and matt look and a slight texture which has to be explained to the customer and work with the material has also led to interesting developments in producing an optional upholstered interior to the shell. New material often require changes to fixings and supports or an appropriate rethink and here, with Muuto, this means that the shell of this chair can have four different supports: thin, elegant, metal legs; a ’sled’ like metal frame; a wooden base with a frame below the seat and a metal swivel base. These distinguish the chair from rivals but the developments and the differences have to be pointed out to the customer and this has to be done through advertising and through catalogues and brochures … not least because this choice of base and choice of upholstery along with choices of colour, in the case of the new Muuto chair, gives 41 different permutations … a potential problem for the customer in making that choice and potential problems with manufacture and the supply system that can be made easier by appropriate publications for information. I believe this is called managing expectations.

Frama and Please Wait to be Seated both produced information that unfolded to poster size and several companies, including Frama, used reproductions of hand-drawn line work, rather than digital computer-generated drawings, to show something of the various early stages of the design process as designers play with a number of ideas and take a particular form forward.


Personally, I really like the small, folded and stapled A4, cloth-bound catalogue from Flos for their String Lights and IC Lights by Michael Anastassiades with quotes from the designer, talking about inspiration for the design, but with studio photographs combined with hand-drawn sketches to explain how that arrangement of the lights were set up along with a surprising amount of technical information. 

The small catalogue for Parentesit from Arper has an interesting look that somehow hints at the 1930s and Bauhaus style. Good graphic design can hint at sources of inspiration.

For its ‘case study’ series, Frama uses thick board that is coated on one side but unbleached on the back and with a single brass screw link at one corner - so playing a very clever game with period and style - hard-tech mechanics contrasted with soft-tech almost retro style that you see in their furniture as well with incredibly sharp, clean industrial-character designs presented in the elaborate and dramatic interior of their show room - formerly a chemist shop with amazing fittings that date back to about 1900.

Graphics from MA/U Studio were as thin and as elegant and as distinctive as their furniture with the clever use of simple outline human figures to give drawings of shelving easily-understood scale.


trends at northmodern

Airy table from MUUTO


Another trend at northmodern was the number of designs with thin metal legs and furniture with metal, basket-shaped supports - furniture that is looking back to the style of the late 1950s and early 1960s but obviously given a distinct upgrade so not retro - or at least not retro in the sense of pastiche or direct copy. Ferm had bucket-shaped wire baskets with simple wood lids so they doubled as side tables and Menu had thin wire waste baskets designed by Norm. 

There were a number of coat hanging racks with brightly coloured plastic knobs on the ends and even the plants are going back to the type of ‘pot plant’ popular back then … I remember well the love/hate relationship my mother had with a rubber plant. She loved it by carefully nurturing it and washing its leaves with milk (recommended apparently) and it hated her or at least was indifferent - for every new leaf that slowly unfurled at the top, one dropped off the bottom so it never seemed to get bigger - just taller in a thin begrudging way.


Coupé shelves from WOUD