Paris, Denmark

Paris, Denmark

Paris, Denmark
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 18 2003 4:15 PM


Today's slide show: Images from Copenhagen. Today's video: Focus on Danish design.

COPENHAGEN—Copenhagen is sometimes called the Paris of the North, but in many ways that description underplays its virtues. As a first-time visitor, I can say with some objectivity that the city is one of the most pleasant in the world. Open and clean, festive and decorous, encircled by palaces and crisscrossed by canals that bring in the sea and by ancient streets that debouch onto spacious Rococo squares; it's a sort of urban planner's dream. Its citizens are an attractive people reigned over by an equally attractive royal family; they are more civilized than the Norwegians and more ironical than the Swedes; they dress well and have rather good haircuts. Coming as I do from New York, it is also agreeable to be in a city where everyone speaks excellent English. From the moment you arrive, all is a model of efficiency and innovation. Most travelers come to Copenhagen in the months of July and August. May and September are also pleasant times to be here, the guidebooks tell us.

Then what am I doing here in the drear month of February?

No, I have not come for the all-female fertility festivals of late winter that have excited so much attention from outside the Nordic region (and so much of it grossly prurient). I have come to see design and architecture.

Hardwood floors at Copenhagen’s airport herald a designed world
Hardwood floors at Copenhagen's airport herald a designed world

Copenhagen—and the rest of Denmark—is a playground of architectural pleasure, a place where exquisite design touches greet the eye at every turn (a good thing, for without that and the vodka to get them through the winter months, the natives would kill themselves). Even the airport has handsome hardwood floors.

My "Well-Traveled" colleagues and I are nicely situated to take advantage of all this. We are staying in the Royal SAS Hotel, a masterpiece by Arne Jacobsen (1902-71), the father of modern Danish design. When it was finished in 1960, the Royal Hotel was the tallest building in Scandinavia, and it still towers over this city of spires, a Jet Age landmark. Every aspect of the hotel from its elegant modernist-slab profile to the curve of the door handles and the contours of the forks in its restaurant to the marble-sized sphere at the end of the window-blind string was dictated by Jacobsen, an aesthetic genius with a totalitarian streak. (No wonder he is called the Frank Lloyd Wright of Denmark.) At some point the rooms were redone, but one of them—Room 606—has been preserved with its original details as a sort of shrine to Jacobsen. We were taken there by a young Danish architect named Frank Jensen.

"Of all the illustrious guests who have stayed at the Royal—the Beatles, Liv Ullmann, the Dalai Lama—only your President Johnson disliked the furniture and demanded something more traditional," Jensen told us. Well, LBJ was a fool (glad I voted for Goldwater). Room 606 looked great to me, cool and serene with its aquarium color scheme, beautifully crafted cabinets, and its Egg chairs (one of Jacobsen's most famous designs). Be sure to request it if you ever chance to stay here—it's still a working hotel room. Oh, by the way, the Royal Hotel is now a Radisson, so it's pretty good.

The next day we went to the Danish Design Center a few blocks away to meet one of its directors, Birgitta Capetillo, and two hot young Danish designers. One of them, Louise Campbell, was way out there. Asked to do a conceptual design for a waiting room—the most boring and anxiety-suffused of all places—she jokingly created a table with knives stuck in it, so that those made to wait could leave their mark on the furnishings (perfect for a shrink's office), and an upholstered see-saw, so they could interact. (A Danish company is actually producing the see-saw piece.) The other hot designer, Kasper Salto, had just come up with the Ice Chair, a utilitarian indoor/outdoor chair that will probably become a design classic. "I wanted to call it the Ant Killer," Salto said—a joke on Arne Jacobsen's celebrated Ant Chair. The current generation of designers here is evidently not oppressed by the legacy of Jacobsen and company, the way French fashion designers are by Saint Laurent and Chanel. They want to get in the ring with past masters and go a few rounds. That's why 95 percent of the really interesting design will continue to come out of Denmark and its Nordic neighbors, with 4 percent coming out of Italy, and 1 percent from the rest of the world.

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, and Costa Rica.

Jim Holt writes for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and other publications. A former visiting journalist at U.C. Berkeley and an American correspondent for BBC Wales, he now divides his time between New York and Paris.