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Spotlight On: Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College, Oxford

In celebration of The Conran Shop’s exclusive release of Arne Jacobsen’s iconic Egg and Swan chairs in velvet, we take a look at the legacy of this iconic Danish designer in Britain, and how his innovative approach to the design of St Catherine’s College in Oxford served to unify a new generation of thinkers.

It has been over 90 years since Arne Jacobsen’s very first architectural project — a single-family home on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Since these humble beginnings, the Danish designer has amassed great acclaim and a legacy spanning continents, most notably including The National Bank of Denmark, Central Bank of Kuwait, SAS Royal Hotel Copenhagen, and the Town Hall Mainz in Germany, which was the final project that Jacobsen completed before his death in 1971.

Jacobsen’s achievements are not only impressive but incredibly varied (the Skovshoved Petrol Station can attest to this, a 1938 design which later became the inspiration for his classic 1952 Ant Chair). Despite his progressive modernist tendencies, one of Jacobsen’s most famous works belongs to an institution immersed in history and tradition — St Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford. Designed by Jacobsen in 1962, the informally titled ‘Catz’ project was an innovation of its time, a unique aesthetic for the university amidst a decade of protest and reform. The project was a rousing success, and although St Catherine’s is one of the newest colleges in Oxford, it has since become an icon, receiving a Grade 1 listing in 1993.

The Banquet Hall | Image courtesy of Fritz Hansen

Designing for Purpose

It was essential to Jacobsen that his concept be both practical and aesthetically appealing, a modern solution that still reflects the history and traditions of the distinguished thousand-year-old institution to which it belongs. This balancing act is achieved through considered and intelligent design choices, incorporating modernist architecture, open-plan quads, integrated landscape plans and unique interiors. The bold use of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines and the repetitive column and window scheme evokes a sense of the grandiose, whilst the spacious interiors allow inhabitants to feel comfortably at home. The uniformity of the buildings is offset by imaginative cladding, a simulated River Thames running alongside the classroom windows, and an austere bell tower overlooking the campus.

The college exterior | Image courtesy of Architects' Journal

Every detail of the space was meticulously planned out by the designer, and thus the essence of Jacobsen’s aesthetic values are evident from every view. All furniture, lampshades, clocks and even cutlery at St Catherine’s are designed specifically for the college. The eponymous Oxford Chair was purpose-built for formal dinners in St Catherine’s Banquet Hall — the rotating bases for ease of movement, and high backs to create the illusion of privacy for intimate discussions between guests. Jacobsen began working on this design at the very start of the project, as it was important to him that the chair was well-integrated into the wider scheme. The goal was to design in totality, with a conceptual harmony between the building, furniture, interior decor and surrounding outdoor space. It is rumoured that Jacobsen even re-designed the original electrical plug sockets to adhere to his aesthetic scheme, before eventually having to concede to standard UK fittings for adaptability.

The Library

One of the central features of Jacobsen’s landmark design is undoubtedly the library, which is a hub for both learning and socialising. Here Jacobsen arranged his signature Swan Chairs at specific distances around central tables, ergonomically designed with a swivel base to facilitate conversation or to be able to share the space with others and continue working undisturbed. The importance of open communication and shared spaces may seem obvious today. However, the significance of Jacobsen’s choice becomes evident when considering that he was designing at a time when women were campaigning for the right to study alongside men at the university. Eventually in 1974 St Catherine’s became one of the first all-male Oxford colleges in history to admit women, and Jacobsen’s carefully considered design choices ensured that the college could serve as a welcome home for all.

Student accommodation | Image courtesy of St Catherine's College

The Velvet Editions

Today, the Swan and Egg Chairs have been reimagined by the esteemed Danish manufacturer Fritz Hansen, recreating Jacobsen’s classic design in new velvet upholstery. Fritz Hansen’s production methods remain true to the original design, and this contemporary version is upholstered in Febrik’s new wool blend for Kvadrat, specially sourced from The Netherlands in 21 colour options.


Explore the exclusive Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen velvet collection here.