Arne Jacobsen: a visionary architect of furniture

This 1958 Arne Jacobsen Egg chair and ottoman sold for $21,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2012 at Wright. It is the highest price for such a pair in the LiveAuctioneers auction results database. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – When you think about modernist furniture, beautiful styling and clean lines come to mind, and the Scandinavian designers were masters of this genre. Focusing on the basics like simplicity, minimalism and functionality, designers like Arne Jacobsen created furniture that was not only comfortable but was almost a piece of art in the home or office.

Jacobsen was first and foremost an architect. Although he reportedly disliked the term designer, Jacobsen is best remembered for his furniture designs that were well-proportioned and beautiful but eminently functional. His Egg chair for instance, has been in continuous production since 1958 and is an icon of modern design.

Designer Arne Jabobsen is seen in this period portrait. Photo courtesy of Jørgen Strüwing and Fritz Hansen

Arne Emil Jacobsen (1902-1971) was born in Copenhagen and has been described as a design visionary. He originally wanted to become a painter but his mother instead steered him to the more stable field of architecture. He began his studies at an architecture school but soon felt pulled in another direction that would go on to define his career. While still a student, he showed a chair design at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, in 1925 in Paris, where he was awarded a silver medal.

Exposed to other influential artists and designers such as Le Corbusier and the works of Mies van der Rohe, Jacobsen adopted some of their aesthetic in his early architecture. From early on, his architecture was well-regarded at for its ultramodern feel and forward-thinking. Like most visionaries, he had his share of critics too. Some of his avant-garde designs were seen as too modern and controversial in their day.

Jacobsen designed many homes and public buildings in his lifetime both before and after World War II, during which he fled his native Denmark because of his Jewish heritage. He reportedly crossed over to Sweden in a rowboat and stayed there two years until the war ended in 1945). By the 1950s, he continued with architecture but had expanded his interests into designing fabrics, wallpaper and furniture, where he would be highly acclaimed.

Outfitted in its original cognac-colored leather, this Egg chair stands the test of time. It brought 58,032 Danish krone ($9,191) + the buyer’s premium in December 2017 at Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

“For more than half of the 20th century, Arne Jacobsen’s ideas shaped the landscape of Danish design, rippling out from Scandinavia to influence architects and designers around the world,” according to the Fritz Hansen website, which he partnered with starting in 1934  to create furniture. Their collaboration would become exceptionally fruitful in the 1950s, starting with the Ant chair that would go on to sell millions.

Among his instantly recognizable and deceptively simple chair designs are several striking models such as the Ant, whose elegant form is similar to a musical instrument or an ant with its head raised (giving it its name) and the Swan, which was notable for its soft and organic look, devoid of straight lines. He is also well known for his Drop chair, whose name origin is obvious as it resembles a drop of water.

Making a striking statement is this vibrant pair of Arne Jacobsen/Fritz Hansen pair of Egg chairs from the 1960s that took $8,000 + the buyer’s premium in February 2016 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Perhaps the most iconic of his chair designs, however, is his Egg chair, which he created in 1959 for Copenhagen’s SAS Hotel, and which is still made today by Fritz Hansen. As a sculptor might coax a human form from a piece of marble, Jacobsen originally created his Egg chair by shaping the shell-like form of the chair, experimenting in his garage using wire and plaster. The chair, and its matching footstool, is today an icon of the Danish design aesthetic and collectors eagerly look for original examples.

“I would argue it is one of the most iconic chairs of the second half of the 20th century,” said Richard Wright, CEO Rago/Wright. “The shape of and the profile of the chair just continue to look fresh even today.”

Citing its dynamic profile, he said not only is the chair a hallmark of great design but its matching ottoman is also notable. “It’s got one of the best ottomans in modern design. There is not much attention paid to the ottoman – just a perfect little yolk that is sliced off and hovering out there. Really, the ottoman as an object by itself is fantastic.”

A brown leather example with matching ottman realized €7,800 ($8,686) + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Carlo Bonte Auctions. Photo courtesy of Carlo Bonte Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For the collector, looking to buy, and date, an example, some chairs retain the original maker’s stickers and labels with either a 4-digit code dating the piece or a particular color label representing a certain era. For the trained eye, though, there are other clues. “There are very subtle changes that have occurred that can help you date an example. Some of those include a seat cushion as the earliest editions did not have a seat cushion,” Wright said. “The padding under the upholstery on newer examples looks a little thicker to my eye where the line is a little tighter and slimmer in the very earliest productions.”

“The very best version of this chair is in leather and the patination of leather is just something that it just looks better after it has been carefully used over time,” he said. “The ultimate collector’s edition is in a natural tan-colored leather, not black but the more natural leather, really showing some beautiful age and patina and it becomes really a very sexy chair.”

The Egg chair entered popular culture almost immediately, Wright said, saying Jacobsen’s (or other designer’s interpretations) of this form have been widely used in movies and television from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Beatles film, Help! and Men in Black. “It’s just like a go-to for futuristic chairs even into the 21st century, which is saying something.”