Charlotte Abrahams on Danish Design October 10 2016

Charlotte AbrahamsYou can tell a lot about a country from its airports. I flew into Beijing at the height of the bird flu scare and was marched through an electronic body thermometer before I had even presented my passport. On a July night in Chania, Crete on the other hand, my fellow passengers and I waited at baggage reclaim for almost an hour as cases emerged sporadically through the plastic strips, the pauses in their appearance on the conveyor belt suspiciously consistent with the length of a handler’s fag break.

Copenhagen airport has parquet floors.

Wheeling my suitcase across this smooth, quiet and soul-warming floor as I made my way to the exit, I was reminded of an article I’d read in DANISH™, an online magazine published by the Danish Design and Architecture Initiative. ‘In Denmark, good design and great architecture are not just for the select few,’ it stated. ‘They are everywhere you go, surrounding our children in kindergarten, hospital patients, as well as tourists who are exploring our cities. Everybody benefits from well-executed solutions, objects and systems that are functional and beautiful.’* I was indeed benefiting, I thought. The modest chicness and surprising comfort of this airport was soothing spirits ruffled by the too-cramped, too-orange interior of an easyJet Airbus.

I am a design journalist, and I was aware that my physical environment influenced my state of mind long before I ever set foot in Copenhagen. I would spend hours as a child rearranging my bedroom to reflect the mood of that particular moment – heaps of ethnic cushions and joss sticks alternated with accessory-free austerity as I moved from sociable hippy chic to intense misunderstood loner. These days my home remains fairly constant, but buildings erected with no imagination, sensitivity or thought make me rather depressed, and I am irritated by objects that neither work nor please the eye, or are simply too full of their own importance. I also adjust hotel rooms to suit my personal aesthetic.

Once, accommodated in a bed and breakfast on a riding weekend in the Black Mountains, I was forced to hide the riotously floral quilt on top of the wardrobe and turn its matching duvet cover inside out in an attempt to fade colours and diminish an offbeat pattern that jangled my nerves. My elderly Polish host was not pleased by this disruption to what she considered a tastefully co-ordinated and cheerful scheme. She asked me what I did. When I told her, her tight lips cast doubt on my suitability for my chosen profession.

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, but we all fare better in surroundings that we think beautiful. I am aware that I am probably at the extreme end of the spectrum, but I do believe that we are all affected to some extent by the quality of our physical environment and the objects we interact with every day. As the philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his book The Architecture of Happiness, ‘Taking architecture seriously . . . requires that we open ourselves to the idea that we are affected by our surroundings . . . It means conceding that we are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper.’**

It is a view echoed by Anthony Seldon, biographer and Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University, who is perhaps best known as the headmaster who introduced well-being classes to Wellington College. In his book Beyond Happiness, Seldon writes: ‘The environments we inhabit – our living rooms, bedrooms and offices, our back yards and gardens – are outer manifestations of our inner minds . . . Make a commitment to ensure that your environment remains in line with your ideals. Doing so will bring you happiness, because you will be in harmony with your environment, because that environment is in harmony with you.’***

You don’t have to go to Denmark to realise that this is something the Danes understand. You can see the value they place on aesthetics and functionality in the quietly beautiful furniture they export to design stores all over the world. It is evident in the pieces produced by companies such as Carl Hansen & Søn, Fritz Hansen, Louis Poulsen and Fredericia, which were founded in the first half of the twentieth century (the period that gave birth to the Danish Modern movement and which is widely regarded as the golden age of Danish design), and who now combine re-editions of mid-century classics with new collections. It is there in work being made by young brands, too. HAY, DK3 and Design by Dane, to name just three, are all proudly bringing together the best of the past with the best of the present.

But if you do go, it is immediately obvious that the author of that piece in DANISH™ was not exaggerating: the Danes really do believe that design can be used to improve the quality of people’s lives, and the effect of that belief permeates far beyond the rarefied walls of the design establishment. As David Obel Rosenkvist, Brand Manager for lighting company Louis Poulsen explained to me, ‘Design is a national sport in Denmark. We have all been surrounded by good design since childhood, so we understand that design impacts on human life.’ It came as no surprise to me to discover that Denmark was the first country in the world to implement a defined design policy and, while it is true that political support for design has ebbed and flowed since that historic decision in 1997, in 2010 design was included in a government platform that set out the country’s political vision and strategy for the coming decade.

DANISHTM, online magazine promoting Danish architecture and design
2 Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness (2007), Penguin Books: London 
3 Anthony Seldon, Beyond Happiness: How to find lasting meaning and joy in all that you have (2015), Yellow Kite: London

Hygge by Charlotte AbrahamsThis extract is taken from pp 13-16 from Hygge by Charlotte Abrahams, published by Trapeze on 13th October 2016, £20