Great Dane

AT THE OUTBREAK of World War II the Nordic economies of Finland, Sweden and Denmark were amongst Europe's most backward. Neither cars nor furnishings were manufactured for export in great numbers. There was no world-leading cinema, technology, architecture or fashion. And as for cuisine, it barely existed beyond the confine of cold cuts, bread and potatoes. Today, almost seventy years after war's end, those same countries are at the forefront of European innovation and design. Scandi cool might be the minimalist aesthetic badging the world's most creative economic cluster, but it is smarts that drives Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

Anyone curious about the engines of contemporary creativity should ideally undertake a pilgrimage to all three, but as each is anchored to a high-taxing welfare state strong on income redistribution and liberal values, the student of the creative economy can go a long way with generalisations from one Nordic case study. It was a sentimental attachment to that pile of artfully arranged limpets adorning Bennelong Point that drew me in 2009 to the Danish capital of Copenhagen in an effort to find the keys to Nordic creativity. And then last year, in the months before the fortieth anniversary of Jørn Utzon's Sydney Opera House, I was lured back again to visit Denmark's – and perhaps the world's – coolest architecture firm. It goes by the name of Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG. Also on my list was the country's young fashion scene, the designer eyewear firm Lindberg, the maker of the distinctive Faroese knitwear worn by actress Sofie Gråbøl in The Killing, and the contemporary art museum ARoS. Perhaps the most memorable visit of a crowded itinerary was to the Utzon family home at Holbæak in the woods outside Copenhagen, where I spoke to Jan, Jørn's son and himself an architect, about the genesis of the opera house. 'The first designs took shape in the garage,' Jan confessed as he sat in the study holding an early wooden model – little more than a cluster of raised spherical segments – used by his father to explain his out-of-the-box design concept to a skeptical Sydney in the early '60s.

While the insights gained from these research trips radiate across the Nordic region, I'm issued with an important caveat in my first few hours on Danish soil. Looking out of my hotel window on the third floor I see a knot of young men with Bon Jovi locks gathered in the car park below. It's a crisp midsummer's afternoon but the Baltic chill sharpening the air doesn't dissuade them from stripping. They stand around naked, hopping up and down and shuffling a little to keep warm, until they're each able to wriggle into full-length sheepskin tubes, which give them the appearance of woolly Daleks. One by one they light torches of flame, gather into a tight circle, then trot off as a group into the bright afternoon light. The next morning I catch one of them, completely divested of his DIY sheepskin suit, in handcuffs outside an all-night bar with a policeman forcing him to the cobblestones. Late that day I ask someone at the hotel for clues about the ritual I'd witnessed. 'Oh them,' the concierge says. 'They would be Swedes.'

At first I take this as a slur on the House of Sweden just over the Øresund Bridge, but it turns out to be little more than a reflection on Swedish social conservatism, particularly in relation to alcohol consumption: the young go abroad to party. And they party hard.

The Nordic clan, like all unruly families, is rent by enough rivalries, jealousies and prejudices to keep these close kin in a state of wary vigilance about one another's achievements. In fact Nordic homogeneity is an entirely relative concept: Finland, to take one example, lies outside the Scandinavian group for reasons of language and history, while Norway, which lies within it, is driven by wealth in oil rather than human resources. For countries such as Denmark it is the other way around: the Danes, lacking natural resources, have carved out a position of strength in the world economy almost entirely from their ingenuity. Differences aside, these small well-run societies regularly cluster together in top ten global league tables of innovation, intelligence and prosperity – they occupy places four, five and six in the 2013 Forbes list of the best countries in which to do business. At the same time the Toronto-based Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank headed by Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002), ranks Sweden, Finland and Denmark respectively first, third and fourth in its catalogue of the world's most creative countries.

There seems no neat explanation – at least no principle of history, geography or genetics – for the Nordic miracle. If there were more than a shred of truth to the notion that long winter nights incubate creative dynamism in a kind of climatic inversion of the greenhouse principle, then Mumbai and Singapore would not also be powers in the world of creativity, while Denmark's Kronborg castle, and not the Athenian agora, would have fathered Western civilisation.

TO A LARGE extent the creative capacity of Denmark has itself been created, beginning with a 1997 design policy that recognised and sought to promote good design, including design education and 'design thinking' – or problem-solving – as a fillip for export success and growth. The emphasis has broadened from the design of beautiful objects to the design or redesign of processes: better ways of doing things. The 1997 design policy, since revised by a 2020 Design Committee, was not enough to insulate the economy from the 2008 recession in the Eurozone – the bulk of Denmark's exports are within Europe – and the perforated housing bubble that followed. But it doubtless softened the blow. In Denmark the creative industries –which include fashion, jewellery, furs, design, furniture, architecture, music, gaming and cinema –are today one of five 'priority sectors' within the economy. They reel in the equivalent of $12.4 billion in export turnover a year, representing 10 per cent of Danish exports.

Creativity and culture, in Denmark, are business: big business. The Danes have a unique gift for conceptualising culture as an arm of trade – the word Copenhagen means 'trading town' – while at the same time insisting on the autonomy of its cultural value. It is a conceptual chameleon that in one context takes on the features of a commodity, in another of art as an enhancement of life, and yet it is the manifestly the same creature.

Søren Krogh, head of the international program at Denmark's Agency of Culture, was one of many Danes to attend the opera house anniversary in October last year and an exhibition titled Danish Design at the House including objects from Bang & Olufsen, Bodum, Republic of Fritz Hansen, Georg Jensen, Nordisk, Ecco, Louis Poulsen lightwear and others. Its theme, he explains, was that of 'collaboration and synergy between the arts and business, between the creative and the commercial aspects of cultural items. Their significance is defined by a double contract of creating value for both the individual and for society.' He goes on to explain that art and culture are 'often misunderstood as just events or entertainment, not creating real value for society, and able to thrive only with public support, in comparison to industries and business. In fact culture is a global business with an export orientation and it is capable of adjusting to financial challenges: fewer cultural businesses are closing down during the financial crisis than in any other areas.'

On the other hand, 'the collaboration between arts and business, whether it takes place inside a cultural institution or outside, is at the same time both fragile and very strong. It is fragile because value systems can be jeopardised by pure commercial speculation, and strong because value systems can make changes.'

One of the Australians behind the Danish Design at the House exhibition, Gerard Reinmuth, is founder and director of Sydney architectural practice Terroir. For the past four years Reinmouth, who is married to a Dane, has maintained an office in Copenhagen and held teaching posts there, and he recognises a strong commercial colouring to the Danish psyche. 'Danes have historically been deal makers and the Danish economy today is a textbook case of how to sell services,' he says. 'It's a country with Sydney's population and Tasmania's land mass, a small farming nation, and with an acute awareness of its shortage of natural resources it has sought to invest in people. As soon as you are dealing with people rather than natural resources, you are dealing with creativity and the ability to use products and processes differently. This means investing in skills, and new contracts now mandate professional development.'

Unlike the Anglo-Saxon economies of England, America and Australia, the social-democratic Nordic model of advancement has not been undergirded by hyper+competitive individualism. As Lotte Darsø, an ash-blond associate professor of innovation at the University of Aarhus, Denmark's second city, tells me over a coffee by the Copenhagen harbourfront, creative environments are nurtured by 'trust and respect' and impeded by rigid hierarchical structures determined by power and social place. 'In Denmark we have the advantage of very flat management structures, and a relatively high degree of social and economic equality between people,' she says. 'In many Danish companies the CEO will have a totally normal relationship with other employees. In management theory they talk about distance in leadership. Well, in Denmark this distance is one of the lowest in the world.'

The trope of equity, as foreshadowed by Lotte Darsø, governs the Danish social imagination in many ways. In Australia we give it a name that befits a pathology: the tall poppy syndrome. The idea is that something is lost when the big are bought down a rung or two and the princes of financial power are divested of their robes. But it's a gain for the Dane, who wants to invest the ordinary with some of the qualities of the extraordinary. When I meet Henrik Lindberg, founder of Lindberg eyewear, at his factory in Aarhus he explains. 'It needs to be remembered that all those icons of Danish furniture design that we now revere – things like the Hans Wegner round chair and the Finn Juhl Pelican chair – were designed for the ordinary person and in the 1950s and 1960s they were all very affordable.' Many of the most sinuous furniture designs from this period were made after a precise study of the human form, in order to meet simple human needs, and they were manufactured oftentimes in cheap materials such as plywood.

At the Danish Design Museum in central Copenhagen, objects such as the Wegner and Juhl chairs, as well as Arne Jacobsen's popular three-legged ant chair, are on display in a refined eighteenth-century building with a steep tiled roof and a pedimented entrance. The aesthetic mood of the museum's exterior is worth noting for it, too, has something to say about the post-war tradition of Danish design; a tradition which, despite its flair for formal innovation, particularly its fondness for the organic and sculptural, is profoundly old school. On a tour of the permanent collection, with its roots in neo-classical furniture and the English arts and crafts movement, curator Christian Holmsted Olesen tells how industrialisation came providentially late to Denmark.

The delay was advantageous, he believes, as it allowed for the preservation of craft traditions alongside influences that had percolated from the Bauhaus into international modernism on both sides of the Atlantic: 'Danish designers brought the virtue of craftsmanship across to industrial design, which is worked on with great understanding of detail, the proportioning and perception of material.' The Danish gift is pragmatic rather than revolutionary, he insists. In fact Danish design only became internationally known when American magazines such as Interiors in the late 1940s became aware of new Danish furniture and trumpeted its arrival. These futuristic works were first displayed to the world not in a factory, warehouse, exhibition space or Mies van der Rohe-like pavilion of angles and planes and austere spaces, but at the Danish Cabinetmakers' Guild.

THE POSTER BOY for Danish contemporary commercial design today is Bjarke Ingels. I first heard about his firm BIG in 2011 when an architecture friend sent me a link to a presentation – more a performance – by Bjarke about his plans for an urban complex on Copenhagen's fringe at Ørestad. Modelled on a figure eight it has since been called, appropriately, 8-House. Dressed in a natty black coat and white sneakers, with a shaggy mop of hair and boyish features, Bjarke exuded rockstar confidence as he explained with the aid of computer graphics how the building would work. The concept was European, in that it imagined a medium-density building layered with shops, offices and residences. It was Danish in that it took its inspiration from the courtyard – a typical feature of the country's urban fabric. And it was BIG in its audacity. Bjarke devised a figure eight bowtie structure pierced by a walkway leading to parkland, crowned by a bike track, and finessed with different orientations and elevations to capture the sun and create an urban interface with the street. Sections of the building are hoisted up, others are pushed down, and the whole thing is moulded like an organic entity adapted to a unique environment.

When I finally arrive at the new BIG offices in a reclaimed bottling factory with a large vaulting roof in an industrial suburb of Copenhagen, Bjarke is asleep in his Manhattan apartment and it is design director Andreas Klok Pedersen who shows me around. The firm's founder and smiling public face, a former acolyte of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, spends much of his time in Manhattan as a BIG – in scale and by name – apartment block on West 57 street takes shape. The 600-room block is a dreamy pyramid with a chunk taken out for a courtyard, an application in a very different environment of the same kind of design plasticity of its progenitor, 8-House. Bjarke's manifesto, 'Yes is More', is a joke at the expense of Mies' minimalist motto 'Less is More' and it's given a fuller articulation by Pedersen, who speaks of his aim to create 'adventurous, fantastic and surprising work that is really the by-product of a rational process'. BIG adopts this give-it-all-you've-got approach to all their buildings, and their utterances.

I can think of one – and perhaps only one – other building on the international stage with the same degree of dynamic sculptural expression as 8-House. And it is, in part, the reason I'm here. Surprisingly, though, Pedersen resists the temptation to rhapsodise over the bold outer form of Utzon's masterpiece, preferring instead to discuss the way its offices and stage works – the building's guts – are incorporated into its ziggurat-like sandstone plinth, which is itself integrated into the open public space of the opera house precinct. One of the core assumptions with which I began my quest – that BIG's sculptural flair is an extension of Utzon's and that both are in some sense quintessentially Danish – has been thoroughly messed with. And things get even messier still when I'm taken for drinks later that night by a group of Danish fashion designers after a runway show. Few of them, it turns out, really warm to BIG's architecture. The Bjarke Ingels repertoire, despite its emphasis on the creation of communities and problem solving through negotiation, as well as its zeitgeisty green values, is not even perceived as a part of the mainstream Danish tradition. And the reason is simple: BIG is just too big. Too showy and amped up. In the minds of some, a little immodest. 'The one thing I really value about BIG is that it's shown young architects that they can make it,' offers a young woman designer.

The architect this small group mentions as an emblem of contemporary Danish design is Lene Tranberg, co-founder of Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects and designer, most recently, of the Royal Danish Playhouse on the Copenhagen waterfront. This building, distinguished by its fine-grained textures of brickwork, oak beams and copper cladding, as well as its cantilevered floor of glass that glows at night as if it has been fractured into shards, is as memorable as it is subtle. Though designed by a woman, it has a distinctive bluff masculine air.

Lene Tranberg is holidaying during my visit and the closest I get to her is a video posted by Copenhagen's contemporary art gallery Louisiana in which she visits her 'place of inspiration' in the old part of the city. The opening sequence shows Tranberg, in her mid-fifties yet trim in blue jeans, visiting the fifteenth-century St Peter's Church and its grounds. She remembers the 'magic' of this place vividly from childhood and the pleasure of reminiscence seems to lend her a radiant air. It is a flawless summer day in the video and the brickwork of the old church is warmed by a soft slanting sunlight. Within the shadows pooling beneath spreading trees people sit and pass the time. Somewhere in the world office workers are pushing to meet deadlines, but not here. 'This is humanity in a way,' Tranberg says. 'You are here framed or surrounded by these wonderful buildings with their character of craft and knowledge and stories, and I think this space can accommodate life for the next thousand years.' When she makes a pointed contrast between the serenity and warmth of her surroundings and 'trendy fashionable' living, it's difficult not to think of BIG.

The ethos of connection – with the past, with materials, with memory – seems to have a special value for her. 'You could learn from this spot how could architecture be connected,' she says. Paradoxically, however, good architecture is about gaps, or special places, contemplative sanctuaries, breaking everyday connections. 'We shouldn't over plan,' she goes on. 'Today every thing we do is de-signed [she gives the word a theatrically laboured emphasis]. And I'm so tired of design. I think it's too much. I think we should sometimes get back and just, say, let things happen.' She'd like to just throw a few chairs around – chairs without names.

WHAT TRANBERG IS articulating is a philosophy of architectural humanism that registers the need for cultural continuity and social connection. Her own work is stamped with these qualities, though she is not alone. When I return from my second visit to Denmark and review my interviews I can clearly make out a pattern that had been indiscernible on the road. Perhaps humanism – Tranberg's word – is as good an appellation as any for this sentiment. It contains a strong trace of reverence for the past that falls just shy of nostalgia. In my tour through the Danish creative class it was rare to find a creator who was not also highly conscious of being an inheritor. Young fashion designers Louise Sigvardt and Mathilde Maalouf were consciously echoing the '50s design universe of Finn Juhl, while Juhl himself was echoing primitive, particularly African, design. Jens Erik Sørensen, founding director of the ARoS art museum in Aarhus, Denmark's second biggest city, set out to 'confront the future' with a building adorned with an Olafur Eliasson-designed rainbow panorama and crowded with funky art installations. But it didn't stop him incorporating a whole floor of serene post-impressionist paintings from the nineteenth-century Danish golden age. For her part Gudrun Rogvadottir of Faroe Island knitwear company Gudrun & Gudrun, makers of the Sofie Gråbøl snowflake jumper worn in The Killing, turned to wool to keep an island tradition alive. 'Wool was our first export,' she tells me. 'We called it Faroese gold. But in the late 1990s there was no market at all for the wool and it broke my heart to see it.'

Tradition was there, too, at the heart of Utzon's opera house design, though it took a visit to the old family home near the Kronborg castle at Elsinore, imagined setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet, to see it clearly. Jørn Utzon had grown up in this area and returned to it with his young family in 1951. 'He found it beautiful here from his childhood,' Jan recalls. 'He used to observe of the Kronborg castle that whenever you sail around it, it changes shape. He thought the Sydney Opera House should have a similar sculptural nature.' That one of the design principles animating the twentieth century's greatest work of architectural modernism should have been inspired by memories of a sixteenth-century coastal stronghold attests to the power of tradition in the Danish creative imagination – and perhaps the creative imagination full stop.

Continuity, of course, is not the only strain in the story of creative Denmark. But it does lend to Danish creativity a uniquely humane aspect: the Danes design with soul. And this was recognised in the latest Danish policy document from the Design 2020 Committee: 'The Danish humanistic tradition and the legacy of our historical design traditions influence and inspire contemporary Danish design, differentiating Danish design from other design positions in the global market.'

If Australia is ever going to be rich in anything other than natural resources it will need to learn from the Danish miracle. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that there is no such thing as Danish exceptionalism: that creativity is not so much a gift as an acquisition, that creativity is created. In the words of Gerard Reinmuth, the Sydney-based architect whose work in Denmark must surely earn him honorary Scandinavian status: 'The main thing for me is the constant investment in people, which is so different from our condition. Creativity comes from that.'

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review