By Michael Kaminer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Long before Armani, Missoni or Starck slapped their signatures on luxury lodgings, Danish design deity Arne Jacobsen was putting his fingerprints all over the world's first designer hotel.
As the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen gears up for its 50th anniversary next year, Jacobsen's obsessive vision -- he conceived everything from flatware to doorknobs to the building itself -- is getting renewed appreciation as a turning point in mid-20th-century-modern design.
"This hotel was a prescient moment," says Baltimore-based design maven Ellen Lupton, author of "Design Your Life" and a curator at New York's Cooper-Hewitt museum. "Before the Royal, a glamorous hotel meant a lot of red velvet, brocade, gold details, crystal chandeliers. Jacobsen saw a new idea of luxury 50 years ago, and it's still what designer hotels are about."
Some of the reclusive architect's most iconic jet-age furniture designs were created specifically for the Royal. His Egg and Swan chairs, "radical at the time," according to Lupton, still sell thousands of copies each year for as much as $15,000 a pop on such Web sites as Design Within Reach; they're fixtures in boardrooms and first-class airport lounges.
At a time when people would probably have had trouble pronouncing the word "starchitect," Jacobsen also understood the importance of branding his designs, Lupton says. "From the hotel perspective, it's about creating a unified experience, like Disneyland," she says. "Jacobsen understood that guests aren't just paying for basic services. You want something authored and unique." For the canny businessman, it also meant that the hotel depended on him for almost every item it bought.
With mid-20th-century-modern furniture very much back in vogue (after a couple of decades when it epitomized kitsch), it's hard to believe that corporate owners stripped away Jacobsen's vision in the 1980s. "The hotel was left intact until my father retired in 1982," says general manager Roy Kappenberger, whose dad oversaw construction of the property in 1959 before becoming general manager himself. "A new regime came in and wanted its fingerprints on the hotel."
The hotel's basement was strewn with discarded original Jacobsen pieces, which the new management sold off "cheap," Kappenberger says. "No one valued them." After the centennial of Jacobsen's birth in 2002, prices for his designs skyrocketed, and the objects became "hip things to have." The Royal shelled out nearly half a million dollars -- a deep discount -- for 450 Swan chairs from Danish manufacturer Fritz Hansen.
Today, only one room (No. 606) remains exactly as Jacobsen designed it: turquoise Egg chair, wenge-wood desk and wall accents, sea-foam bathroom tiles, curvy door handles, light blue "Royal" floor lamp. You've got a good chance of scoring a stay in the storied suite if you're a Jacobsen fanatic; though tour groups often troop through to glimpse it, few guests seem aware of the room's history, Kappenberger says. "Some people get assigned the room and wonder why Copenhagen hotels don't do any refurbishments," he says. "When they find out, they go, 'Wow.' "
Now part of the Radisson SAS chain, the Royal today feels a bit more like a glossy European business hotel than the jet-age temple Jacobsen realized in 1960. But when you see the Swan and Egg chairs in the lobby, or the sweeping spiral staircase that rises up from the ground floor, it's hard not to long for a buoyant era when travel still held futuristic promise.