Things have got a bit too cosy in the state of Denmark. Now the country’s design establishment is facing up to some uncomfortable truths, writes Debika Ray
As I write, a backlash is underway against ‘hygge’, the quintessentially Danish art of ‘cosiness’. The popularisation of, and subsequent hostility towards, this uncompromising regimen of candles, blankets and goodwill is the culmination of a decade-long international love affair with Danish culture, starting in the UK with the arrival of ‘Nordic noir’ television series The Killing. It’s unfair to blame Denmark for the commodification of its wholesome lifestyle in an effort to flog Faroe Island knitwear and modernist chairs, but a harsh spotlight has a way of making one self-conscious, which may explain the soul-searching now underway among the country’s design establishment.
The Nordic Council has responded to the attention lavished on Scandinavia as a whole by appointing a consortium led by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels to draw up a rebranding strategy for the region. In Denmark itself, the government-funded Danish Design Centre and the independent Danish Design Council have teamed up to invite a group of international figures to ‘contribute vision, input and inspiration’ to their sector. ‘Danish design has sat on its laurels for too long – we need this injection of global perspective to reinvigorate and redirect our energies,’ says Danish Design Council chair Jens Martin Skibsted, who proposed the initiative. ‘When I started being invited to Danish design events, I was surprised how out of touch the industry was with the rest of the world. Danes tend to be too observant of Danish design and Anglo-Saxon thought – we need to broaden our horizons as global powers shift.’
This new ‘International Advisory Board’, which will gather for the first time in Copenhagen this summer, includes design leaders from the World Economic Forum, Siemens and Schneider Electric; academics from Politecnico di Milano, University of the Arts London, Oxford, Stanford and Sussex; the Amsterdam-based architect Kunlé Adeyemi; Petra Hölscher, curator of the German museum Die Neue Sammlung; and Manuel Toscano, founder of New York-based strategic design studio Zago. Through meetings and informal consultation, the intention is to help Denmark open up to outside influence and regain its leading role on the global design stage. ‘I hope the panel will bring an outsider view and enable the [Danish] design community to be less introspective, and more willing to interact with global stakeholders,’ says Toscano. ‘The next 20 years will bring such disruptive social and political changes that Denmark must push itself into that future and not adopt solutions that have worked in the past.’
Fritz Hansen’s Swan chair designed by Arne Jacobsen
So, could it be that Denmark’s impressive design sector, which produced Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner, Fritz Hansen and Louis Poulsen, is having an identity crisis? The short answer is no: it would be an overstatement to suggest Danish design is in decline. Indeed, classic fields such as furniture and architecture are doing as well as ever. But there’s a clear sense that past glories are no guarantee for future success in a changing world, where the term ‘design’ is increasingly loose, where boundaries between technology, products, services and manufacturing are blurring, and where countries such as China and South Korea are increasingly competitive. ‘Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota production system, once said, “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all”,’ says Roberto Verganti, professor at Politecnico di Milano and another member of the panel. ‘The history of innovation tells us that those who are more prone to fail are incumbent, successful organisations.’
This isn’t the first time that Danish design has had a crisis of confidence: in the period immediately after its golden era of the 1950s, there was what designer Cecilie Manz describes as ‘a lost generation’. ‘Designers had a tough time, because there was no work for them – old companies were reproducing retro design and the old masters,’ she told me last summer. This reliance on the eternal popularity of classics was broken at the turn of the century by a new generation of more inventive brands, such as Muuto and Hay, which championed new designers, but heritage remains a chilling factor. ‘This inheritance is both a burden and a gift,’ Manz said. ‘We have so much history to reflect on, but it’s tough to find your own way of doing things.’
This is one of the things Christian Bason, chief executive at the Danish Design Centre, hopes the panel will address: ‘One contribution could be to lighten the burden of our design legacy. Over the past 20 to 30 years we’ve seen the rise of new design thinking in the digital and technological space, but we in Denmark haven’t been so fast to embrace these as the UK or US. Perhaps because we have this [heritage of] classic design, the shift towards really being disrupted has not hit the Danish industry as hard.’
Muuto’s Grain light by Jens Fager, Oslo sofa by Anderssen & Voll, Stacked system by Julien De Smedt and Elevated vase by Thomas Bentzen
In their 2003 paper, On Why Even Danish Design Needs a Theory, Anders Munch and Uffe Lentz of the Aarhus School of Architecture argued that, despite being steeped in social-democratic values, the origins of Danish modernist design were never particularly radical – rather, in this relatively egalitarian society, the interests of political theorists and rural communities converged, and values such as modesty and small-scale production became synonymous with good taste, rather than being politically contested ideals. Could these relaxed origins, which made it difficult for Danish design to step up to the challenges of mass consumption, also explain its relatively slow embrace of technological disruption?
Perhaps. But, as Bason says, it’s not so much that innovation is not happening, but rather that Denmark is not playing to its advantages. ‘In some ways, we’ve simply adopted the language and approaches of Silicon Valley in these domains, and not asked ourselves, what’s the Danish design DNA in this? Denmark is not just a design society in terms of furniture and architecture, but also in values and the way we run public institutions and civic society. Designers tend not to reflect on what that means today. With our design legacy, we could have something to contribute to a space dominated by huge global players. What if Danish designers could add value in a particular way to the future of healthcare or public services?’ Skibsted agrees, pointing out that Denmark hasn’t invested as heavily in digital design as Sweden and Finland: ‘Although we helped bring these new understandings of design to life, we haven’t been good at capitalising on it. We are, weirdly, stuck in an old understanding of design.’
There has, of course, been a wider, global shift in design thinking. Kirsten Marie Raahauge, an anthropologist and associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, explains: ‘Design consciousness has broadened, universally, to more than just designing an object. Designers are interested in welfare, only now they deal with welfare in other ways than those attached to the modernist ideas of the welfare state. Form following function is not so much the topic of interest any more, in Denmark or globally – the focus in design now is much more to do with having, for example, a great experience. Designers are now being asked a different question.’
Hay’s New Order shelving and storage system by Stefan Diez Office
Then there’s the changing attitude across much of the western world towards public spending. In Denmark, a country traditionally supportive of state-funded education, a recent shift to the right at national level has resulted in more than a billion dollars of cuts planned for universities over the next four years. ‘At the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, we’re in the middle of huge reductions. In the start of the 2020s, the student body will be reduced by 30 per cent, which means staff will also be reduced – some say a fifth will have to go. There will be a lack of designers and architects in a few years because of these cuts,’ Raahauge says.
Creative subjects are invariably more vulnerable in times of austerity, but this is surely a false economy, as design has been an integral part of Denmark’s success. And, as Bason says, design thinking is proving to be lucrative in other areas: ‘Technology and IT universities have been faster in embracing new concepts of design, and their graduates are extremely attractive to the labour market.’ It’s hoped that the advisory panel can help the Danish design sector find ways to fully embrace this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking.
Ultimately, though, the objective is for Denmark to lead not follow. If that is to happen, it’s clear that it must unashamedly apply to newer forms of design the values that made its name in the first place. If it can force these social-democratic principles onto the global agenda, rather than capitulating to the economic logic that keeps entities such as Uber and Deliveroo spinning, Denmark might continue to be a design superpower.
Fritz Hansen’s Drop chair by Arne Jacobsen, Room 606, Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Copenhagen
Above: Hay’s About A Chair series designed by Hee Welling