The Ancient Origins of Danish Modern
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 20 2003 2:03 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Copenhagen. Today's  video: Jim Holt on the legacy of King Christian IV. Today's surround video: In the plaza of Frederiksborg Castle.

Jim Holt listens dutifully to the history of Rosenborg Palace
Jim Holt listens dutifully to the history of Rosenborg Palace

COPENHAGEN—Another gloriously sunny day in Copenhagen. My vitamin D level is surging to a dangerous high; my skin is taking on a luminous, almost Danish tone; soon my hair will be flaxen. This is not a dour place in the winter, as I had heard. It is Happiland. I'm in a Nordic frame of mine.

Now that I've got those effusions out of my system, back to my great theme: design. Why do the Danes do it so well? Decade after decade they go on refining and enriching a basic aesthetic, while we Americans lurch from shabby chic to Ralph Lauren to midcentury revival. When did they get the knack? I decided to start at the beginning, with the monarch who put Copenhagen on the map, architecturally speaking: Christian IV. During his reign in the first half of the 17th century, King Christian built most of Denmark's capital. He took a personal interest in the design of his great edifices, as many here have told me with obvious pride. So, I went to see a couple of them, hoping that, with a great deal of perspicacity, I might be able to discern the primal roots of Danish modern.

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The first stop was Rosenborg castle, which stands near the center of Copenhagen. We were escorted around the castle by a droll Dane named Peter Christiansen, who sounded like a Shakespearean actor when he spoke English. He showed us many interesting things: the king's privy; the royal stereo system, consisting of closeable holes in the wall connected by pipes to a basement where the king's musicians played (this was apparently thought up by two courtiers named Bang and Olufsen); and the crown jewels. He also told us amusing anecdotes about the lovable king's many mistresses, his wine-bibbing, and his habit of getting Denmark into wars that were not always happily concluded. The castle's chambers, pictures, porcelains, and other objets d'art were exquisite but rather ornate and French in appearance: no "clean lines." Outside we watched the changing of the guard, which included an impressive military band since the queen is currently in residence. Then we were off.

It was to be a day of castles, for next we headed to Frederiksborg Castle, an almost Versailles-like pile about 25 miles outside Copenhagen. The bare trees around the castle were delicately encased in ice, which glistened in the sun, lending the whole spectacle a fairy-tale appearance. This castle, too, was built by Christian IV, but later in his reign, when he and his country were much richer. Most of it was destroyed by fire in the 19th century and then rebuilt, although the chapel, in Dutch renaissance style, is original.

It was at this castle, oddly enough, that I had my epiphany about the origins of modern Danish design. King Christian believed in grand opulent display, but he was also a spendthrift in the pursuit of it. At one point, embarrassingly, he had to mortgage his own crown. Denmark, in its subsequent history, has likewise gone through periods of wealth and poverty. The wealthy periods engendered a tradition of fine craftsmanship, as in France and Italy. The poorer ones necessitated a certain austerity of means and materials (which happened to sit well with the kingdom's rock-ribbed Lutheranism). The beginning of the 20th century was one of Denmark's poor phases. The country's motor of wealth, its maritime fleet, had been destroyed by the British some decades earlier. It was a straitened time. Yet there were all those craftsmen around: Once you've got the tradition, it keeps transmitting itself through the generations. As a result, opulent encrustation was stripped away, but a superb level of craft was maintained, now to be lavished on subtle simplicity. And that, in a nutshell, is modern Danish design.

Designers can move fluidly around the world, but craftsmen tend to stay put. That's why the best shoes continue to come out of a small region of Italy, the best clothes out of Paris, and the best design out of Scandinavia. If you don't believe me, talk to the young designers here yourself; they will tell you quite passionately how important their dialogue with the craftsmen is to what they do. And go see those castles—you may have a better epiphany than mine.

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.