Denmark's designs for living

For five decades, Sir Terence Conran has been influenced by Denmark's designers. And there are few better places to buy the look for yourself than in Copenhagen. Let him lead the way...

Copenhagen is rapidly becoming the Barcelona of the north. It has extensive waterfronts, boats, hundreds of cafés and excellent restaurants, pedestrianised shopping streets and lots of quirky little shops, wonderful old buildings and some pretty stunning new ones, nine hot nightclubs and about the same number of gay bars and clubs.

In fact, one of the charming new mayors of Copenhagen is gay and married. Democracy and design seem to be two things that sum up the Danish style of life, and they are intertwined.

Everything the state does is thoughtfully designed - just contrast taking off from the squalid, disorganised bazaar of Heathrow with arriving at the clean, fresh, well-detailed charm of Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport, where even the shops - which, to be fair, have their own share of pretty tacky tourist merchandise - are clean and nicely designed and displayed.

The brand new Metro is a triumph of well-thought-through simplicity. It is beautifully detailed. It also exudes quality and works very smoothly.

I've always been a great admirer of Danish design. I used to make the trek to Jutland in the 1950s to see the annual Danish furniture exhibition (it is in Copenhagen's Bella Center now). Their design at that time was very crafts-based, with most of the designers being expert cabinet makers or chair makers, too.

Almost everything at that time was beautifully made in teak and the designers generously attributed much of their inspiration to 17th-century and 18th-century British below-stairs furniture. I was in love with the work of Finn Juhl - I still am - and together with students of Kaare Klimt, Morgensen, Morgeus Koch and Hans Wagner, designed classic ranges of wooden furniture that are still made to this day.

However, there was a stirring in the dovecote mainly caused by Arne Jacobsen and his gang, whose work used new materials and new manufacturing methods.

Nana Ditzel and, particularly, Verner Panton, produced very stylish modern work in the 1950s and 1960s that is in sharp contrast to the exquisite craftsmen-designed furniture that Denmark became famous for after the war.

There could be no greater contrast than the austere Arne Jacobsen-designed SAS Hotel and the gloriously wild, outrageously over-decorated and lit fun-palaces of the Tivoli Gardens, which face each other in the centre of Copenhagen. Much of Jacobsen's obsessive attention to detail remains. The furniture lighting, door furniture, even the cutlery were all designed by him.

When I first stayed there, just after it opened in the 1960s, I was completely stunned by its sophisticated elegance. However, I recently stayed in the only remaining Jacobsen room, No 606, and I am afraid to say I found it rather too austere and uncomfortable. I was ashamed to find how my taste had changed over the years.

There is a very lively design scene in Copenhagen today, with many small shops selling quirky products often influenced by Dutch Droog design humour. A good place to catch up with the latest work is in the Danish Design Centre, a fine, spacious Henning Larsen-designed, glass-fronted building on Hans Christian Andersens Boulevard. I was particularly impressed with an exhibition called Flowmarket, which looked like a Damien Hirst supermarket filled with packages of "sustainable innovation", "holistic thinking", "clean air and tap water" and "renewable energy", "tolerance", "silence" and "good energy". Summed up by a bottle of "be the best, not in, but for the world" - very thought-provoking. A promising exhibition called "Honey I'm Home" is open until 16 June.

On a more mundane level, Illums Bolighus is the huge, must-see, home-furnishing store filled with the best of mainstream Scandinavian design. It is very near Georg Jensen's grand store, filled with beautiful silver. Do look at the museum in the basement, which also sells old Jensen products.

Just across the street is a tiny, idiosyncratic, rather scruffy, wine and flower shop which sells the royal family's French wine and bunches of flowers.

The other Danish musts are the Bodum five-storey, glass-fronted store on the main shopping street, overflowing with its excellent range of coffee and tea making equipment and really well-designed cookware. And of course, Bang & Olufsen's new flagship store. The huge Klassik store on Bredgade is filled to the brim with classic 1950s and 1960s original Danish furniture, which is very sought-after by the trendspotters at the moment.

Kunstindustrimuseet is Copenhagen's V&A, but has a rather smaller and more focused collection of the decorative and applied arts, related mainly to Danish living rooms since the Middle Ages.

It is beautiful and has a magnificent courtyard. As you would expect in Denmark there are a lot of chairs: they love them.

In sharp contrast, there is the just-launched "Yoo" housing project designed by Philippe Starck. It is a converted 1960s office block in the heart of the city. The various apartments are called "Classic", "Culture", "Minimal" and "Nature" - very Starck, very expensive but madly beautiful. You can buy the furniture and accessories at an interesting shop called Casa, which has the best international collection of household artefacts in Copenhagen.

Although I didn't visit it, I was told about Design Zoo, a workers' co-operative with six craftspeople visibly making products for sale. They also have other one-off work by a dozen or so other designers. It is worth a visit, I was assured.

There have been some wonderful new buildings and structures in recent years - perhaps the most impressive is the Oresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen to Malmo in Sweden. It's a beautiful, serene structure that carries cars and a railway across, and under, the water.

The Royal Library built its Black Diamond exten-sion, designed by Schmidt, Hammer and Larsen about five years ago. It is dramatically pure and simple and buzzes with life, and has been, by all accounts, a huge success.

Last year saw the opening of the big new Opera House designed again by Henning Lassen and paid for by Denmark's leading tycoon, Maersk Moller. It is a most impressive structure with a knife-edged roof projecting out over the water. Again, it has been a great success and is already booked up six months in advance.

All this modernity contrasts with wonderful old waterside warehouses which have been remodelled for contemporary use as apartments, workshops, offices and restaurants. I am preparing the masterplan for a strip of waterfront land diagonally opposite the new Opera House.

The site used to be the Custom House, as well as the ferry terminal - before the bridge made it redundant. I'll be turning it into restaurants, bars and shops.

Sir Terence Conran stayed as a guest of D'Angleterre Hotel (00 45 33 37 06 55; remmen. dk), which offers double rooms from £167 per night. An information pack on weekend breaks to Design Copenhagen is available from VisitDenmark (020-7259 5959; london@visitdenmark. com). SAS Scandinavian Airlines (0870 607 2772; flysas. com) offers return flights from Heathrow, London City, Birmingham, Manchester, Aberdeen, Newcastle and Dublin from £82

My favourite architecture

I found the architecture in Copenhagen quite stunning, but the most impressive structure I saw was the Oresund Bridge, which connects Denmark to Sweden. It opened in July 2000 and is a remarkable feat of ingenuity and engineering by the architect Georg Rotne, and has had a dramatic impact on the lives of locals in the city and across the water in Malmo. The elegant L-shaped bridge spans nearly 8km across the Oresund Strait. It is worth a visit just to look at, but, if you can, go across by car or bus for fantastic views of the coastlines and sea.

My favourite hotels

Good hotels are unfortunately few and far between in Copenhagen. The Arne Jacobsen Radisson SAS Royal Hotel (radissonsas. com) set a standard many years ago that few have followed - but they will. We stayed at the Hotel D'Angleterre (remmen.dk), which is the grandest, the most central and rather traditional, and were treated to the royal suite, which was enormous and rather like, as my wife said, a Café Liegoise. We stepped through the double doors into a chandelier-lit, cream and coffee interior filled with white flowers and bottles of champagne - very luxurious. It looks out over Copenhagen's main square, the beautiful Kogens Nytorv. The Admiral Hotel (admiralhotel.dk) is a huge 18th-century granary on the water's edge. It has a wealth of big wooden beams which make for a romantic, cosy atmosphere. The adjacent 71 Nyhavn (71nyhavnhotelcopenhagen .dk) is also a converted warehouse with great views over the water. I am told that Hotel SKT Petri (hotelsktpetri.com) is the best new contemporary hotel, a converted department store with wonderful views of 17th-century steeples and rooftops.

My favourite restaurants

Copenhagen offers all kinds of restaurants, cafés or bars at any price level. There is quite a preponderance of high-end, Michelin-starred joints, but when they are posh they tend to be less formal that their British or French counterparts. There is also a welcome trend to use Danish ingredients, many of them wild from the forests, hedgerows and sea. Organic is also the buzzword in Denmark. Noma (noma.dk), a waterside restaurant, is a good example. I particularly liked the simplicity and down-to-earth energy of Peder Oxe (pederoxe.dk), a very Danish restaurant, and also Victor (cafevictor.dk), the equivalent of New York's Balthazar. Le Sommelier (lesommelier.dk), as you might expect, has more than 800 wines in its cellar, a really first-rate kitchen and a beautiful simple interior. Le Paul (thepaul.dk), in the middle of Tivoli, is a haven - the chef is an Essex boy made good called Paul Cunningham, who cooks an amazing conveyor belt of delicious dishes. I'd also like to mention Salt (saltrestaurant. dk), a restaurant we designed in the Admiral Hotel overlooking the water. Good food, good service and the place looks quite nice, too.

Objects of my affection: Conran's top tips for Copenhagen

COOL CRAFTS

The whole Vesterbro area is up and coming, with a fantastic buzz. The Designer Zoo (dzoo. dk) co-operative is at Vesterbrogade 137, you can buy crafts and see them being made. Go to Ravnsborgsgade, forantiques and retro, and don't miss Skt Hans Square and Norrebro.

HOME SWEET HOME

Right in the heart of Copenhagen, Illums Bolighus at Amagertorv 10 (royalshopping.com) is a huge home-furnishing store filled with the best in Scandinavian design. This great shop gives an excellent introduction to Danish design - and plenty of inspiration.

SILVER SERVICE

Two minutes from Illums Bolighus at Amagertorv 6, Georg Jensen (georgjensen .com) is a store filled with beautiful silver, and its museum sells old Jensen products. Across the street is a tiny shop selling the Royal Family's French wine and flowers.

MUSEUM HEAVEN

The city hasexcellent museums. The Dansk Design Centre (ddc.dk) at HC Andersens Bvd 27 hosts shows on design themes. And do visit the Architecture Centre (dac.dk) at Strandgade 27B and the Museum of Art and Design (kunstin dustrimuseet.dk) at Bredgade 68.

PRETTY IN PORCELAIN

Hoganas and Iittala feature in Stilleben (stilleben.dk), a small shop at Laederstraeda 14, which represents young Danish potters and ceramic designers, as well as porcelain manufacturers such as Royal Copenhagen. The shop is due to launch its own collection in 2006.

TOP TABLES

If you are planning to shop for furniture in Copenhagen, do your homework - take down dimensions and pack photos of your rooms. All the designers and shop staff I met were eager to help, so doing this will assist them. It's a long way to send something back that doesn't work in a room!

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