By Simon Willis
September 11, 2018
Chris Tonnesen

For many, the phrase Danish design conjures the elegant functionality and earthy minimalism of the country’s midcentury furniture. But the postwar aesthetic of bare-wood tables and boxy sideboards has become so ubiquitous that designers at the source are now striving to reinterpret it — often by reenergizing Copenhagen’s historic interiors.

Chris Tonnesen

One burgeoning trend in this space is a bold internationalism easily felt in some new hotels, including Sanders, a boutique property housed in a 19th-century structure that once served as the bohemian haunt Hotel Opera. In 2015, Alexander Kølpin, a former star at the Royal Danish Ballet and a onetime Opera regular, bought the space and tasked British architect Richy Almond and his Danish business partner, Pernille Lind, with creating an eclectic interior. For the bar, the duo chose tasseled velvet curtains evocative of operatic Parisian décor; in the lounge, floral-print fabrics for chairs and sofas that suggest an eccentric English style; and on the roof terrace, bamboo armchairs that bring in a touch of old Peking. Even the most Danish elements — the beds and sideboards in the guest rooms — reference an overlooked aspect of Midcentury Modernism: the influence of the East on such designers as Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen. Just as Wegner riffed on Ming-dynasty design in his Wishbone chair and Jacobsen channeled colonial bamboo furniture in his early Paris chair, so Lind and Almond have inlaid simple pale-wood furniture with rattan.

Nimb, a hotel in Tivoli Gardens that began as a Moorish-inspired bazaar, also weaves in Asian elements. Last fall, when the property debuted 21 new rooms, designers echoed the Chinese-style pavilions that guests can spy from their balconies. Guest rooms incorporate Chinese ceramics and black sliding doors reminiscent of old lacquerwork.

Chris Tonnesen

Hotel Herman K — built in a disused 1960s power station — typifies another current approach, in which the organic forms we associate with Danish design offset the Brutalism of industrial structures. A triple-height lobby of concrete walls and towering iron doors might feel forbidding without the sinuous Wegner chairs and vases of dried wildflowers on the wooden tables of the restaurant off to one side. In the guest quarters, white cotton curtains drape concrete walls and upholstered hooded headboards, imbuing the spaces with a calmness they’d otherwise lack. You leave the power station at the door.

But hoteliers aren’t the only Danes putting old industrial infrastructure to new uses. Following its heyday as an area for ship-building, the district of Refshaleoen fell on hard times, its warehouses derelict and dilapidated. But over the last few years new tenants have moved in, among them restaurateurs, street-food vendors, artists, and vintage-furniture enthusiasts. The latest and largest venture is Copenhagen Contemporary, a gallery that opened in June in what was once a welding hall. The building’s vast interior offers practical advantages: the first exhibit is “Swing 123” by a Danish collective called Trio Superflex. Made up of a series of three-person swings hanging from interconnected frames resembling multicolored Meccano, its scale is typical of the work the gallery will show. Just as impressive is the industrial drama of the building itself, where the cavernous spaces offer a jaw-dropping spectacle to rival the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern.

Galleries like Copenhagen Contemporary offer a more beguiling backdrop than the predictable minimalism of a white-cube gallery, and in this respect it takes its cue from Cisternerne, a subterranean art space in Sondermarken Park. Once an underground reservoir forming part of the city’s water system, it is now a post-industrial exhibition venue with dripping walls and echoing chambers. This summer it was showing “In is the only way out”, an installation by Jeppe Hein featuring a giant, faceted bronze disk hung from the ceiling with a flame thrower protruding from its center. As the fire flashed and roared, and the metal reflected its glow, the space felt like an apocalyptic backdrop for “Mad Max,” and a very long way from Denmark’s more tranquil design traditions.