The phrase Danish design has come to mean many things – timeless minimalism, purity of form, natural materials and the absence of unnecessary decoration – but there is much more to explore and understand beyond the aesthetic.
Danish culture has always been rooted in a strong sense of collective community, with great value given to the power of alliance and collaboration. Not just with each other, but with the rest of the world too. The idea that we can achieve more together than separately is embedded into the culture of Danish design, especially in its public spaces.
This can be seen in some of the most everyday buildings in Denmark. Jane Sandberg, who we interviewed with Anne-Louise Sommer, director of Designmuseum Denmark, is CEO of ENIGMA (Museum of Post, Tele and Communication) in Copenhagen. Jane is reminded every day of this humanistic approach, as she overlooks Klampenborg Station, a busy commuter railway hub. It dates back more than a century and was built long before the term Danish design was even invented.
“It’s a perfect example of how, for centuries, the Danish state has insisted on using design and architecture as a way to educate the Danish population,” Jane says. “A small public push towards becoming aware of the qualities of good design. With a strong focus on sustainable materials and a sense of architectural quality, the state has used public spaces to emphasise the story of Denmark as a country where design and design thinking is embedded in the way we do democracy.”
Jane also recognises that the Danish culture of togetherness is born of an inherent sense of community and collaboration.
“In Danish we have a saying that if two Danes meet, they form an association - meaning that we rarely do things on our own. Danes have a strong trust in society and especially in what we Danes call ‘fællesskab’; community is the English term that expresses this word best. This philosophy can be seen in our artistic tradition. Danes build and design with human proportions in mind and with emphasis on community.”
“A century and a half have shown us that if we need to get things done, we have to take each other’s hands and focus on ‘fællesskab’, thus many of the world-renowned products labelled Danish design were designed for public spaces before they entered private homes. What was designed as a chair for a public school is now the chair that thousands of Danes sit on at their dinner tables.”
Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen
Photography by Sandie Lykke Nolsøe
Notabene by Norm architects
Newmags by Norm architects
As Jane acknowledges, there is often much more to Danish design than meets the eye, a characteristic shared with other cultures where design is part of everyday life.
“Products with the label Danish design are rarely flashy eyecatchers,” she comments. “They are modest in expression, simple in choice of materials and do not attract immediate attention. But they contain long-lasting qualities and often you will see these products being passed from generation to generation. Simply because they transcend time.”
Vedbæk House by Norm Architects and Åsa Johanna Olofsson
One country that most noticeably shares this approach is Japan, where there is an equally human-centric approach to design. This is largely because in both countries, natural resources have always been scarce. That has led to a profound respect for materials and the way they are used. Both cultures have deeply rooted traditions of craftsmanship, allowing natural textures and finishes to speak for themselves. Unsurprisingly, it has also led to a strong sense of responsibility towards the natural world, caring for it and preserving it for future generations. There is a long-standing natural kinship between the two cultures, brought to life in design.
With the commissioning of new museums, galleries, libraries and other public amenities, Denmark is continuing its long tradition of bringing a human aspect into its cultural and public buildings, creating spaces where people can share experiences that have meaning to them as individuals and as a wider community. It is a philosophy that is woven into the Danish psyche – and one which continues to influence and inspire the rest of the world.