Live streamed and recorded by Dezeen
To celebrate the centenary year of the Bauhaus movement and its legacy, VOLA hosted a panel discussion exploring the heritage and influence the German design school had on Danish design. Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum London, Harriet Harriss, reader in architectural education at the Royal College of Art and Nina Hertig, Danish design expert and co-founder of Sigmar discuss the connections and contrasts between the Bauhaus and Danish design.
This piece is an edited version of the live talk moderated by Marcus Fairs, editor-in-chief of Dezeen, recorded and live streamed from the Design Museum London.
Marcus Fairs: It’s the centenary of the Bauhaus this year but did you also know that last year was the 50th anniversary of the invention of the modern day tap? It was invented by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen in 1968 marking the start of a 50 year legacy.
Has Danish design done better than Bauhaus? Bauhaus famously swept away the old design of the past. But if you were to go into most of our houses they would possibly look more Danish than Bauhaus?
The Bauhaus came from a school where there was a place where this aesthetic and this idea was much more complex than people may think, but did Danish design have a similar crucible or was it just lots of people who happened to be doing similar work around a similar time. Was it really a movement?
Deyan Sudjic: I don’t think it had the same rhetorical flourishes that the Bauhaus did. The idea of using a manifesto for a school of design was Walter Gropius’ masterstroke. I think what made the Bauhaus was the strong sense of being able to communicate one powerful idea which might be over simplified which certainly worked in that sense.
The thing about the Bauhaus was that it was never actually one thing.
Nina Hertig: Yes, Bauhaus started out with a very clear aim to unify art and design or arts and craft again. They wanted to bring those two together and create something bigger.
Dr Harriet Harriss: I think, there are two main tropes within Danish design in relation to the Bauhaus. The first was before the Bauhaus was closed down, so what you have before the Bauhaus came along is a Danish tradition of designing exquisite products exclusively for the aristocracy and the wealthy. They were very much interested in the vernacular of craft, exquisite ceramics, often using natural materials for chairs. All that forest came in use and it continues in many ways to inform their design. It was this emphasis on making by hand, the beauty of the hand and the inherent uniqueness this provided.
Nina Hertig: Danish design in essence evolutionary opposed to revolutionary like the Bauhaus. It definitely took influence from the Bauhaus, the freedom and the experimentation that was going on in the school. The Bauhaus would explore possibilities and open new doors which Danish design was influenced by, but never necessarily went through.
Nina Hertig: When the Bauhaus moved to Weimar in 1924, the aesthetics became something different, something that was much more egalitarian, something that was much easier to share with the rest of the world.
The Bauhaus House am Horne represents that transition in so many ways. It’s the whiteness, the blocks, the purity, the empty space.
Nina Hertig: And just to compare what was going on in Denmark at the time a different version of open and empty space is Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint and Kaare Klint’s Grundtvig Church in Copenhagen. You can see clearly the two different interpretations of what modernity is, and what space, void and emptiness is. It’s very important to remember that this church is pure and simple, it’s only yellow brick, there is nothing else. The pulpit and everything is built out of yellow bricks, but it is poetic, it is warm and says so many things.
These interiors are entireties or works of art, Gesamtkunstwerk, which is incredibly important to understand Danish design in the 20th century.
The Radio House Copenhagen, which to many people is the closest connection with the Bauhaus in Danish architecture, has some clear references to some of the work that Gropius did, in the purity of shape and the window. But then you have the different types of material moving in. It’s very quiet. It’s a very comfortable aesthetic compared to the Bauhaus, which wanted to revolutionise and change the world. This is not the aim of the design coming out of Denmark.
Dr Harriet Harriss: I think there was this tension between doing things that are somewhat florid with too many organic flourishes and too much emphasis to details, and trying to make allusion to nature. And then something that is yearning for simplicity, more usable and easy to manufacture, This starts to disrupt the instinct towards over-embellishment. We’ve seen examples of this, such as the PH lamp which remains something incredibly popular and which has had no adaptations. I suppose that’s one of the things that is remarkable about Danish design, that in this wave of Bauhaus influence this is still a natural form and yet it has been completely boiled down into this simple object.
The National Bank of Denmark is in fact where the VOLA taps were first installed, designed by Arne Jacobsen. At the centre there is this utilitarian staircase which is almost sculptural and all the bank’s functions and identity are entirely concealed away. This philosophy, the idea of a continuous surface, is something you can see not only with the interior but the exterior as well and it was taken forward into the VOLA tap design. It comes back to this idea of user friendliness, not having cables or pipes on display but having all the technologies concealed and then having this entirely delightful user interface exposed externally. What that now translates into today is this sense of a tap that has been reproduced and appropriated and, in many ways, exploited through all kinds of knock-off versions. It is something that we now all identify with as entirely modern. I think that really speaks to the testimony of the Danish interpretation of Bauhaus, committing to an agenda and therefore making the Bauhaus ideals even more accessible to diverse users.
Nina Hertig: Danish design has always stayed with something that people could relate to. Everyone had their own approach, some were measuring to death, trying to figure out what was comfortable, what was important for the body, what was important to nature. Poul Henningsen once said that Marcel Breuer’s wassily chair design wasn't relevant simply because it wasn’t comfortable. As a human being, it’s the little things that connect you to the product. That has always been very important to Danish design. You can see that in Arne Jacobsen’s design for the VOLA tap. It is a sculptural piece that connects you to the environment. That is the secret of the success of Danish design, it is this that you as a human being can relate to.
Dr Harriet Harriss: Yes, Denmark’s proximity to substantial natural environment has maintained Danish design’s strong connection to nature and natural materials and processes in its design. So even now, for example, VOLA makes its taps with recycled steel with a big emphasis on repurposing. It is this human and natural factor that we have all mentioned that has made Danish design so poignant, successful and enduring.
Again, when something is so iconic, it doesn’t matter about the colour or context – we still entirely identify it as a celebrated design icon.
The talk was held at the Design Museum on 12 March 2019.