The AJ Table Lamp is a beautiful piece of design that combines spun steel and die-cast zinc in an object of flawless quality. It was designed as part of a much larger ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ or ‘total work of art’ created by Arne Jacobsen in 1960: the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. It sits comfortably on our Designing the Definitive list, being an object specifically created with the future in mind by an architect whose mastery of form, space and material is really something to marvel at.
On a recent assignment in Copenhagen, I would spend the evenings riding slowly round the city, taking in the view. One is struck by the uniformity in scale of the buildings and the general feeling of openness in the city. Riding past the SAS Royal Hotel, which now has a different name but still bears the SAS ( Scandinavian Airlines System) logo on its facade, I though how modest it was, both visually and in size. When completed it was Copenhagen’s first skyscraper and like much of Jacobsen's work it received vehement criticism at the time. From those who didn’t want to see changes to the skyline and those resolutely opposed to modernism in all its forms. Now, it’s more widely regarded as Jacobsen's lost 'gesamtkunstwerk', with only room 606 being kept in original trim, the rest of the building having been extensively renovated over the years. When it first opened, every detail of the hotel had been planned and designed by Jacobsen. A number of design classics emerged from the project, including the Swan and Egg chairs made by Fritz Hansen, the AJ Table lamp from Louis Poulsen and the cutlery set for the restaurant, which is now manufactured by Georg Jenson.
Arne Jacobsen took an interest in designing every detail of a building on one of his very first commercial projects, when in 1930 he created the functionalist Rothenborg House just north of Copenhagen. The idea of creating a 'total work of art' was something that had been in the ether of European culture for at least a century, and the early giants of modernist architecture Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were all to work in this way to one extent or another. Jacobsen was certainly well acquainted with the ideas and of his slightly older contemporaries in architecture, as well as the work of leading furniture designers such as Charles and Ray Eames. In the SAS Royal Hotel, a project that came roughly mid-way through his career, he had the opportunity to create a significant contribution to lexicon of buildings where all elements are harmonised, from the fixtures and fittings, to the forks you eat from.
In the AJ Table lamp itself, we can see something of the Jacobsen's talent for both arresting forms and perfect proportion. It’s a delicate object, with a thin steel arm that joins the lampshade to the base. The base itself has a circular recess that corresponds to the edge of the lampshade and provides the design with a natural equilibrium. The base recess was originally intended to house an ashtray, but I suppose even the most prescient of modernists couldn't predict a world without smoking, perhaps it just looked too cool. I quite enjoy the fact that in a widely used portrait of Jacobsen he is smoking a pipe and wearing a dickie bow tie. It has been written that his contribution to the modern movement was to bring a more humane quality to it, if this is true, I think it’s most easily read in his design for interiors, where his curvaceous style and line are pleasing to both the eye and to the human body.
Arne Jacobsen supposedly disliked the word design, yet it's his design work that best expresses his human centric approach to the creation of form. Many of the objects he made have the quality of being at harmony with the space they are in and with the functions they serve. His work is very relevant to the kind of furniture and product design we are seeing today. The AJ Table Lamp could sit in any contemporary interior and look perfectly in place, reinforcing the idea that the good design is timeless and that the best objects are often created for a purpose within a broader project.