While it is unusual for us to post a piece about a place where tours are few and far between, we thought you might like to hear about our latest trip to the Danish Embassy. As founding partners of Modern Shows® we put on four shows where dealers and designers gather to sell beautiful wares to an interiors-hungry public. Imagine seeing 65 dealers selling everything from Hans Wegner wishbones to Arabia’s bravely illustrated enamel bowls four times a year? Not to mention all the sourcing for dressings of houses in between. A job like ours would turn even the most abstemious person into a midcentury junkie. We certainly have habit enough to do a Gangnam style celebratory dance when we receive the call from the National Trust offering a tour of a particular embassy they have opened as part of the National Trust’s ‘Europe and Us’ last week.
Walking past the relief by Danish sculptor Ole Schwalbe that graces the outside of this building I have often wondered what treasures lay inside. The Danish Embassy and Residence at 55 Sloane Street, planted in between bling shops and stylish residences on the stretch of road between Sloane Square and Knightsbridge, is the last great work by the Danish architect and designer, Arne Jacobsen. The functionalist master of the Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art (as seen at the SAS Royal Hotel and St Catherine’s College where he designed everything from the architecture and panes of glass to the door handles and latrines) died way before it could be finished and handed over to a new ambassador in 1977. Leaving this mortal coil in 1971, Jacobsen was not around to stand firm when the paymasters wrangled over the bronze cladding he imagined casting a warm glow over Sloane street and flashing into the eyes of residents.
Originally the embassy was located in buildings in Pond St and Cadogan Square. But as the leases were about to expire, the Danes felt it best to design a new embassy. They ran out of funds after demolishing the existing buildings and for four years the land was leased to a car parking firm. The project was re-ignited in 1973 with architects from Copenhagen working with Ove Arup in London to keep as close to Jacobsen’s original plans as possible. A six floor building was constructed with four floors meeting the parapets of adjoining buildings and another two floors set back so as not to detract from the street’s natural height. Walls overlooking the garden at the back were given a rather strange desert coloured finish to the metal as a compromise, until more recently a dark green came into play. A keen gardener, Jacobsen used green as accents inside the original SAS interiors and on some of the walls of St Catherine’s college. I suspect he might have preferred this to the sand colour.
Entrance with furniture from the SAS airport departure lounge. 3300 Sofas and coffee table with marble top by Arne Jacobsen. Cadence 1979, relief by Inge-Lise Koefoed.
Riding on the tumultuous success of the trust’s opening of a flat in Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower and other brutalist must-sees including Park Hill and Denys Lasdun’s campus at the University of East Anglia, the National Trust has allowed us a rare view into the way a Danish diplomat entertains as part of Heritage Open Days. We are hoping to have a good snoop at the furniture, Arne Jacobsen’s famous shadow gaps and Vola door handles so we hand in our passports and are welcomed to Denmark by Thomas, a blue eyed blonde haired Danish man, who directs us as a group into the car park underneath the building which has been swept and perhaps even scrubbed a little. Wishing we could take pictures our hands are tied by diplomacy. So seamless is it in its design, with its shadow gaps and huge moon like wall lights, it could be a room in a modern concrete clad hotel. We are led up some steps and into a room for a brief talk from the National Trust’s dynamic new ambassador for Modernism Joseph Watson who claims to be the man who gets to stick two fingers up “at the cream tea heritage side of England”.
After heading up in the lift four by four or five by five, “room for a small one”, we are taken into the Ambassador’s office where we see a desk, sofa set and chairs from the King’s Furniture range by Johnny Sorensen. While I am thankful to be invited into his London home I feel rather relieved Claus Grube is not sitting at his desk. Thinking I would never meet a real ambassador, I once promised a friend of my parents, the copywriter who came up with that iconic purposely over-dubbed Ferrero Rocher advertisement from the 1980s, that I would say “Ambassador you are really spoiling us,” should I ever meet one in person.
Our eyes alight on a particular stand up secretaire with sublime craftsmanship and perfect proportions. The shelves in the office are attributed to Mogens Koch and this secretaire has the kind of workmanship you would expect from Koch or his teacher Klint who devised a masterplan for how storage should work universally. Mr National Trust can not find a designer in his notes. We are left searching for Vola handles and shadow gaps as we move to the next room none the wiser.
As much as the Ambassador’s office has a lovely warm feeling you can see how Jacobsen’s demise in 1971 has left the Gesamtkunstwerk falling short in other office spaces. It is great to see Eggs and Swans in action here and there but the Swan is hidden behind the door in the Ambassador’s office and Eggs look rather out of proportion in an antechamber. Workers rooms further down the hall are so small they would benefit from some lighter pieces of furniture. And there lies the rub. I feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland as I stand next to an overly large PH lamp sitting on a table next to some equally out of proportion Foersom & Hiort-Lorenzen fabric covered foam and metal Pipeline chairs from 1984. Pipeline set new standards when it was introduced in 1984. Pipeline works really well in hotels and larger, formal settings but in a tiny metal, concrete and glass office it looks incongruous. Petra and I imagine a refit by either designing all the soft furnishings to fit Jacobsen’s lines or by bringing back the warm woods and leather of midcentury to soften up the cool metallic window frames and cold office flooring in every office. Something more Don Draper than Roger Sterling we propose, whispering of course.
While Arne J would be turning in his grave at the embassy furniture attache’s lack of proportion in the offices we do agree with the National Trust volunteer that the addition of soft ceramics by Kasper Wurtz works well in an office environment. It is the little touches that make these spaces feel more comfortable, a painting by Danish artist Maibritt Ulvedal Bjelke here and a print by Richard Mortensen there, flashes of colour and texture are employed to brilliant effect in the grand sweep of adjoining suites upstairs where ambassador Claus Gruge and his talented artist wife Susanne Fournais Grube kick off their shoes and relax when they are not entertaining. The sweep of room after room feels light and airy. The mix of antique and contemporary works well in these rooms and islands of low seating areas on Persian carpets are perfectly placed to take in the billion dollar view.
London series sofa and lounge chairs, Jeki Mobler, 1961
The Danes love their ‘Hygge’ and it certainly feels comfortable and unpretentious, warm and inviting. Dotted around the place are traditional marine paintings and a more contemporary take on marine art in a selection of work by Susanne Fournais Kruge. The silver gelatin photographs by Per Bak Jensen that use light in such a clever way they look like oil paintings immediately catch your eye. Outside on a balcony sits one of Arne Jacobsen’s experiments in wicker, the Charlottenburg chair, originally created with Robert Wengler, Denmark’s wicker maker par-excellence who worked with many of the Danish design greats and is famed for helping Nanna Ditzel perfect her Hanging Egg.
Kato sofa sets and lounge chairs by Kaspar Salto, produced by Engelbrechts furniture. Snedkerhuset coffee table. All accessories belong to the Danish ambassador.
There is an escritoire in the first reception room with historic wartime correspondence from Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery on display and another desk in the dining room which could possibly be by Ole Wanscher judging by its beautiful tambour section. It sits next to Wanscher’s dining set in the dining room which may also be a clue. Sadly we do not have pictures of the work on show by the master craftsman. You will just have to imagine a rosewood table with the finest of markings surrounded by Ole Wanscher’s criss-cross spindle backed rosewood chairs by J Iverson in a beautiful light room with oak floors and a stunning view of London.
Kato sofa sets and lounge chairs by Kaspar Salto, produced by Engelbrechts furniture. Photograph on wall by Per Bak Jensen, The Door 2007 (on long term loan from Ny Carlsberg Foundation
Dotted on windowsills are little touches of Denmark. A Lego® Big Ben (Lego® began in the workshop of a Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen) sits next to Kaj Bojeson’s iconic wooden monkey and a wooden soldier holding a Danish flag. Henning Koppel’s metal jugs line up like penguins ready to dive. Scandinavian ‘Dala’ folk horse sculptures get a great view while Herbert Krenchel’s Krenit bowls are everywhere to be seen.
It is a fabulous homage to Denmark and after a very generous tour around some of the many rooms in the six storey building we are sad to say farewell to the Danish Embassy. Left wondering whether Jacobsen would have got his bronze cladding past the paymasters had he been alive in 1977 we are also left with the question of what kind of furniture he could have designed to keep in perfect proportion with this extraordinary concrete palace to functionalism? Would Fritz Hansen have got the go ahead for a “London Embassy” chair. It is a debate that could rage on and on?
Herbert Krenchel Krenit bowls with Peter Svarrer Holmegaard glass vase.
Expect more Modernist signings now the National Trust has Joseph on board. They will alert you to their special tours of Balfron, Trellick and rare visits to the embassies.
Sign up to The National Trust here as a member or volunteer.
Iconic Houses post about rare open houses around the world here.
Open House London is free and happens in early September. Check for other Open House websites around the world.