concrete and steel in the 1930s


The Deutscher Werkbund - the German Association of Craftsmen - held an exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927 that included houses and apartment buildings - the Weissenhof Estate - designed by German architects but also by architects from Belgium, France and the Netherlands. New construction techniques for domestic buildings were shown … here an open steel frame infilled with concrete blocks for an apartment building designed by Mies van der Rohe

Until the 20th century, the main materials for building construction in Europe were natural … so stone as a strong but usually expensive walling; timber for wall framing, roofs and architectural fittings including windows and doors. Natural materials were not of course always used in their found state but were modified or transformed by builders so sand for glass; plaster for covering internal and external surfaces; clay fired for bricks and roof tiles and, of course, lime for mortar and for cement. Perhaps the biggest change to the structural form and then, as a direct consequence, to the appearance of buildings in modern Denmark came with the more and more frequent use of concrete and steel … not just for industrial buildings but for housing and apartment buildings and for new large building types and particularly where high or wide and open enclosed spaces were wanted that were unencumbered by walls or internal supports.

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SAS Royal Hotel Copenhagen by Arne Jacobsen


The SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen - designed by Arne Jacobsen and completed in 1961 - is perhaps the best known and the most widely published building from the Classic period of Danish design.

So, it is not really necessary to go back over the history and the design of the building here but I took a few photographs for a recent post about high buildings in the city for the web site and one thing struck me that, rather stupidly, I had not appreciated before and that is that it is built out over the top of the main railway tracks running into the central station from the north … or at least the lower north part of the hotel and the car park to the west is built across the tracks.

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return of the Drop Chair from Fritz Hansen

There is a growing interest in furniture designed in the 1950s and 1960s - generally described as the classic period for Scandinavian design - and prices achieved at auction for major pieces from the period have risen dramatically over the last couple of years.

Some classic designs have been in continuous production since the 1950s - including the Swan Chair from Fritz Hansen that was designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1957 or the Kartio glass tumblers from Iittala designed by Kaj Franck in the following year - but manufacturers are also reassessing their back catalogues and reintroducing some major designs. Some of these pieces are careful reproductions of the originals but other designs have been given new colour ways to appeal to new customers or the precise form or technical details have been modified to use more modern production methods … last week I posted a review of the CH88 from Carl Hansen and Republic Fritz Hansen have reintroduced the Grand Prix Chair designed by Arne Jacobsen but now produced with wooden legs rather than the chrome legs of the original,

In the Spring, Republic Fritz Hansen announced the relaunch of the Drop Chair that was designed by Arne Jacobsen and first produced in 1958 for the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. The Swan and the Egg, the other chairs designed for the hotel, are much better known but the Drop was made exclusively for the hotel and was never in general production. 

It will be available from the Autumn.

The chair is not an exact reproduction of the original design. In fact, Fritz Hansen have produced an interesting short film about the design that explains that unusually there were no drawings for the chair in the company archive so an original chair was taken apart carefully to assess the construction and so that the shape and profile could be copied for new production drawings.

For the new chair, the shell is in ABS plastic, forming the inner and the outer shell, with reinforcement in nylon. The choice of finish will include the plain primary plastic, in a choice of colours (including black, white, storm-blue, fire-red, stone-grey, sand-yellow) with or without a separate cushion or the chair can be upholstered in fabric or leather over foam. Legs will either be chrome or powder-coated steel.

Because I was curious about the chair I visited the showroom of Fritz Hansen in London where they have prototypes of the chair on show for pre-release orders. Without doubt, the Drop is extremely beautiful, a simple and almost pure sculptural shape and it is certainly evocative of its period … is it just me that sees echoes of the shape and form of the Russian Sputnik satellite that was launched the year before the chair was first produced?

With it’s elegant shape, relatively small size and with the delicate splayed legs - like the antennae of the Sputnik? - this is one of Jacobsen’s most feminine designs. I know that I will be criticised for trying to suggest that furniture could possibly be gender specific but I have fairly clear reasons for making the assertion. Not only is the chair elegant and light but, because I am 1.9 metres (6ft 2”) tall, the chair is simply too small for me to sit in comfortably. Literally I feel as if I am perched precariously on it but the back is also too narrow and too low for me so the top sticks uncomfortably in the small of my back.

Obviously this does not make the chair a bad design …. simply the wrong design for me … but it does raise neatly an important point about design: good design relies on a sort of Venn diagram with the designer and his design, however good it is, as just one of the overlapping circles.  Another circle is the manufacturer and the technical expertise they bring to production while the circle for the customer brings in factors of retail price and the requirements of usability … the whole business of function and utility to at least some extent. Some would argue that the fourth though possibly smallest circle of the diagram is the one labelled style or fashion. However good a design, it depends on its marketability for ongoing success so no designer, in commercial terms, can afford to produce a piece that is at odds or out of kilter with the taste and fashions of the period. Nostaglia or pushing the bounds are possible but as a general commercial rule it can not be pushing too far too fast.

Can and do classic pieces manage to sit bang in the middle of the overlapping circles? Is that one definition of classic design?