Great Dane

Design - Matthew Dodd celebrates the centenary of the modernist Arne Jacobsen

According to one of his biographers, when the archi- tect and designer Arne Jacobsen was growing up in pre-First World War Denmark, his parents lived in a typical 19th-century mansion. For young Arne, their taste in decoration was a little too florid, and he did something that must have seemed shocking at the time, but which gave a clue as to the boy's future aesthetic vision: he painted his room white.

If there is somewhere a white cuboid pantheon to the founding fathers of modernism, then Jacobsen should certainly be placed there. Alongside Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames, he was one of the paternalist visionaries who dreamed into life a clean, functional future.

Jacobsen could apparently design anything. He gave us furniture, gardens, taps, factories, even door handles, which are all instantly recognisable for their cool and elegant modernism. His 1952 Ant chair, with its distinctive back shaped like an upturned curved triangle, has sold six million to date. As much as anyone, Jacobsen symbolises Denmark's reputation as the home of sophisticated and restrained design.

At the height of Jacobsen's international fame in the 1950s and 1960s, the more dogmatic followers of Le Corbusier and van der Rohe criticised him for not wanting to use his work to change society. The Dane just claimed to be pragmatic: "If I have a philosophy, it must be to sit at the drawing board." He was not an obviously provocative architect, trying to shock polite society into an appreciation of something it previously despised. Certainly, he suffered the usual humiliations over his more ambitious work. His SAS Royal Hotel, a 19-storey skyscraper in the middle of Copenhagen, was instantly voted the city's ugliest building in one newspaper poll. But if there was a radicalism to his work, it was crafted and understated.

This year is the centenary of Jacobsen's birth, and it is being celebrated across the Danish capital with exhibitions and shop displays. His famous chairs, tables and cutlery are placed on plinths like crown jewels. But as you walk through white room upon white room of his incredible output, one can't help detecting an air of nostalgia. Nostalgia for the social-democratic context in which Jacobsen prospered. Perhaps this has something to do with how the Jacobsen celebrations have coincided this year with the first 100 days in office of Denmark's new centre-right government. While Denmark has had non-Social Democratic governments before, the current Liberal/Conservative coalition now has majority support in parliament which includes the backing of the hardline Danish People's Party. After completing an initial 100 days "to make a difference", the coalition has plans to restrict immigration, cut overseas aid and reduce environmental restrictions on business. The futuristic, clean, engineered lines of Denmark's Social Democratic era, like the shape of Jacobsen's furniture, seem distinctly retro.

Such an assessment may have seemed strange to some of Jacobsen's contemporaries in Danish design. They criticised him for producing only objects and buildings that catered to the well-heeled. But, half a century on, the parallels are more striking.

In the 1950s, when Danish governments, as in the rest of Scandinavia, were constructing a welfare society that catered for citizens "from cradle to grave", Jacobsen was likewise preoccupied with every detail of a building, from its architectural plan to the exact spots where its occupants should place their chairs. "The art of creation is equally exhilarating, whether one is working on a teaspoon or a national bank," he once assured an interviewer. In the seaside resort of Klampenborg, north of Copenhagen, he tried to use his work on a housing project as a way of designing a whole community. This dedication to "total art" mirrored the political quest for a utopian society.

His conviction, developed in the 1920s and 1930s, that functionalism and mass production offered a well-designed future for everyone, echoed the economists and social engineers who were constructing Denmark's egalitarian and high-quality national future. The important feature of the famous Ant chair was that it was elegant and practical. Its ability to be stacked guaranteed its place in canteens and offices across the world.

Even in the 1960s, when Jacobsen had acquired the image of an exclusive international architect, his modest studio was still taking on local industrial plants and smaller housing developments.

One of his prestigious overseas clients was the young Master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, Alan Bullock, who was looking for a modern architect for his new college. It is no surprise that Jacobsen should appeal to him. Bullock, later the biographer of Ernest Bevin, was an academic trying to construct a new, meritocratic educational environment where the best facilities were available to the best, rather than just the richest, students. The result was one of Oxford's few true architectural homages to the 20th century.

To underline Jacobsen's contribution to the egalitarian awakening of society and politics, it might be only slightly overstretching his symbolic value to remember his small role in the Profumo affair. In a well-known photograph by Lewis Morley, Christine Keeler sat naked astride a cheap imitation of one of Jacobsen's Series 7 chairs (bought for 50 bob in a Heal's sale).

Today, that furniture's mixture of tubular steel and bent plywood is seen as commonplace, and not the technical innovation it was in Jacobsen's day. Instead, it is the organic features of his most famous chairs that are most striking. Even their names - Ant, Swan and Egg - seem positively ecological, in a way that even the most environmentally aware designers might find too wholesome. It is not surprising that a recent exhibition at the Danish Design Centre in Copenhagen called these objects "Evergreen". All are still in production, and remain some of the most celebrated Danish design objects in the world. Given the competition - J0rn Utzon's Sydney Opera House, Poul Henningsen's lamps and Bang and Olufsen's stereos, to name just a few - this is quite an achievement.

Jacobsen was dedicated to his work, a hard taskmaster to his staff, who were assiduous in realising his projects. Alan Bullock has described how, during the construction of St Catherine's College, Jacobsen (whom Bullock claims pretended not to speak English) pushed a contractor in Norwich close to tears with his insistent and uncompromising demands for a certain concrete construction. And legend has it that, in his own home, all the coffee cups had to be kept in strict geometric order.

In the current, rather more fragmented aesthetic order, Jacobsen has still managed to enjoy a small revival. His Vola taps are a must-have in any prosperous bathroom refurbishment. A cow-print version of his Egg chair was one of the longer-lasting occupants of the Big Brother household.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Jacobsen once quite literally represented the future. In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a space odyssey, the astronauts eat their space food with Jacobsen cutlery.

In 2002, the designer and architect is being celebrated in Denmark as a national hero. But he is inevitably slipping into the past. The flagship example of his total vision, the SAS Royal Hotel, has now been refurbished and is owned by Radisson. Only one room - 606 - remains as a living museum of Jacobsen's versatility and obsession with detail.

St Catherine's - now a Grade I listed building - is about to move into the 21st century, with the architect Stephen Hodder building an extension to the college. In homage to Jacobsen's qualities, Hodder describes the project as "extending the humanist tradition".

In current Danish politics, meanwhile, that humanist tradition seems to be struggling. Government ministers have been blaming immigrants for their own exclusion from society. The British favourites Arriva have arrived in Jutland to run the trains. The Liberal/Conservative government is picking away at some of the country's Social Democratic shibboleths. Let's hope that, when they have finished their work, Denmark, unlike the SAS Hotel, retains more of its great achievements of the past 50 years than small rooms showing museum pieces.

"How to be Modern: Arne Jacobsen in the 21st century" is at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (01865 722733), from 20 April to 23 June

Matthew Dodd is a producer of BBC Radio 3's Night Waves