|Danish design is renowned for its simplicity, but is a source of both material and spiritual abundance. Simplicity is not another word for poverty. On the contrary, simplicity can be a source of abundance, both material and spiritual. Simple can of course mean lacking or banal. But simplicity can also take a powerful form, one which never compromises on the overall shape of an object or an idea.
Abundant yet simple forms are found throughout the natural world, as an expression of function and economy. But nature goes further. The fundamental principle of the natural world is that if two theories can each go to explain the same phenomenon, then it's the simpler of the two that holds true.
Creation in hard times
This cohesion between simplicity and abundance has a parallel in society, where economically hard times have often been the source of abundant creativity. Within a few years of the national bankruptcy of 1813, Copenhagen was a flourishing centre for European creativity.
A city of barely 100,000 inhabitants produced such world-famous names as H. C. Ørsted, Søren Kierkegaard, Rasmus Rask, Bertel Thorvaldsen and Hans Christian Andersen.
Ørsted's own work demonstrated in a brilliant and elegant fashion the connection between abundance and simplicity. His description of the electro-magnetic principle covered just four pages. The greater the discovery, the less space it requires to describe it.
The years of economic deprivation following World War II lead to a new flourishing of what became known the world over as Danish design. Hans J. Wegner, the first Danish designer to achieve worldwide fame, always started his work by asking himself how a skilled artisan would tackle it:
Remove material where it's not needed. Keep things simple and functional and execute them carefully. The aim is not to create a work of art, but to produce a good chair.
These principles are not the expression of any particular style. They express something far more important; a respect for the task and function and for the compositional media. Wegner is unique, but he wasn't alone.
In the post-war years, a whole series of Danish designers wrote their names into design history with works exploring the theme of abundance and simplicity: Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, Børge Mogensen, Henning Koppel, Poul Henningsen, Poul Kjærholm, Verner Panton and many others.
Piet Hein Sharing a belief in the basic precepts didn't however lead to uniformity in the objects designed. The common tenets led to abundance and diversity, but with a shared quality such that things visibly belonged to the same culture. The poet and inventor Piet Hein spoke for a whole generation: There is one art, no more, nor less, to do all things with artlessness
Abundance and simplicity
Even though the principle of doing more with less is the most natural in the world, it is in no way a universally endorsed principle in technology or design. Consider how many products are made largely to grab attention or spur envy and therefore become an image of poverty at another level.
Or consider the number of products which employ a superabundance of raw materials to produce something which could be achieved better with less, or which are expensive to use, or which harm the environment. This creates an impression not only of carelessness but also of a lack of intelligence.
Design in industry
Creating more with less is a game which can be played forever using new processes and materials. That was the fundamental principle for most of the large Danish industrial enterprises. The founders of companies like Bang & Olufsen, LEGO, Grundfos, Novo Nordisk and Danfoss all had a desire for quality, to build intelligence into their products and make them outstanding, and to economise on raw materials.
The tasks we face today have new names: Ecology, maintaining prosperity and welfare in a high-tech society, and creating spiritual wealth in our towns and in the lives of individuals. But the aim is the same, to find simple, sound solutions to complex problems - without oversimplifying. The unexpected benefit is that in searching for simple, abundant solutions, we also design ourselves.