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words Beatrice Galilee

A lively Fashion Week and new work by international architects are helping the Danish contemporary design scene emerge from the legacy of Jacobsen and Wegner and begin to look outwards.

It’s Copenhagen Fashion Week and this happy, satisfied, insular city of spires, water and dragons has turned itself and its designers to face the rest of Europe. There seems to be a tidal change in the city, with – at last – a focus on young design talent instead of world-famous masters. Having said that, the ethos of understated, pared-down furniture remains strong.

“The generation before us were feeling like they were standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Thomas Bentzen, co-founder of design collective Remove. “It must have been hard to come out of design school following Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner. But we feel like we’re living with and learning from their work. I see it as a huge source of inspiration that some of the best designs are never far away.”

However, Rolf Hay, who set up manufacturing company HAY to improve design standards, has less conviction. “I’m not that impressed really,” says Hay, whose company sells work by Bentzen, Remove and Anglo-Danish designer Louise Campbell. “I’m actually not convinced the design scene is all that strong. There is some talent but there is still some way to go. Children in the street know who Jacobsen is and that’s important to this country. People buy the 1950s masters before anything else.”

The principle of simplicity in design penetrates the fashion world as much as any other. The prevailing trends at Fashion Week were the kind of clean lines and muted colours that are associated with Scandinavian aesthetics. However, the feeling is that change is in the air. Stylist and designer Stine Goya’s show was spectacular, with a walk-through mouth guarded by liquorice allsorts figures, while designer Henrik Vibskov – who has also shown in Paris and London – stole the final day with an all-singing, all-dancing display in which models on stationary bicycles made the music louder by cycling faster.

With only 500,000 residents, Copenhagen is a very small city. The creative scene benefits from inter-disciplinary collaborations, which happen, in many cases, just because everyone knows each other. In the five-minute walk to a cafe, my friend, a local designer, spotted two acquaintances – “That’s probably the best art curator in the city,” he said, pointing at a bright red head on a bike; and as someone else whizzed around the corner dangerously close to us, “That’s the coolest fashion designer in Scandinavia.”

One thing that the Danes can justifiably boast is an education system that takes design seriously. The state also funds students to study abroad – with London a main destination – which in turn favours exchange. However, Copenhagen isn’t known for being welcoming to foreigners – more cosmopolitan cities like Berlin, with its laid-back attitude and cheap rent, are more attractive to designers and artists in Europe. Denmark sells itself as a kind of social-democratic dream, and this extends to some degree to the designers themselves. Fashion designers here are concerned with making things wearable for everyone – the high street wins out over couture; product designers want to find a single material that will make an inexpensive chair that appeals and works.

The arrival, in 2006, of the first female mayor, Ritt Bjerregaard, and Klaus Bondam, her flamboyant chief of building and planning – apparently known as the “dynamic duo” – has done much to raise the profile of social housing and architecture in the city. Bjerregaard – a social democrat herself – declared that she wanted to build 5,000 affordable homes. She’s only managed to build ten so far but there is no shortage of admiration for her belief that everyone in the city has the right to live in a beautiful way.

Communication designer Anders Ojgaard founded free architecture magazine KBH in 2005 because every time he walked into a cafe he heard people talking about architecture. “The size of the city has an effect,” says Ojgaard. “People really discuss the medium-scale projects like housing and museums, in a way that’s not possible in other cities.” Two major museums demonstrate this interest in new architecture.
The first is the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a real Scandinavian design of Aalto-esque proportions with an impressive collection.

An ambitious but disparate show on Cecil Balmond, open until October, is the first instalment of its Frontiers of Architecture series. Around 40 minutes in the other direction is the Ordrupgaard collection, housed in a vernacular building that was recently extended by Zaha Hadid with a soft, airy, black-concrete design.

Commissioning Hadid was an important move for a country that usually hesitates before inviting international architects – the extension was built before her first UK building. This set the trend for the city not only to look outwards at the rest of the design and architecture world but also to become an international attraction itself.
Reflecting on the major architects that are now building in the city, from Jean Nouvel and Norman Foster to OMA and MVRDV, Bentzen admits that its impact on the design culture can only be a good thing. “Young Danish designers draw their inspiration from everywhere now. The internationalisation has become way more visible,” says Bentzen. “It’s not only the great Danes that rule in Denmark.”

images Laura Hino

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