Tiger founder turns a Lutheran church into a livingroom away from home

An Irishwoman’s Diary: The businessman put 10 million Danish kroner on the table when the Danish culture minister decided to close six churches in Copenhagen

The “Folkehuset Absalon”, a Danish “living room away from home” in Copenhagen. Photograph: Susanne McIntyre

The “Folkehuset Absalon”, a Danish “living room away from home” in Copenhagen. Photograph: Susanne McIntyre

 

For a Lutheran church, the chatter and clatter of prams and bikes outside and the bright bold and pastel shades within seem a little unexpected. No distant hum of an organ, no memorial plaques on cold and soberly-painted walls.

It takes a couple of seconds to cop that there is no aisle, there are no pews, and even the altar has vanished. To its left, where the pulpit might be, three large letters on a mirror signal “BAR”. Babies roll, wriggle and gurgle to jazz, while parents play backgammon or chess, sip juice or tea.

There is a congregation of laptops on long wooden tables, but most of the owners are locked in eye contact, even chatting! Up on the balcony, there are cushions and quiet corners, and a discreet view of the activity below, where ping-pong balls shoot across table-tennis nets. Welcome to “Folkehuset Absalon”, a Danish “living room away from home”.

There are a myriad of classes daily, from morning, evening and midnight yoga to baby rhythmics and cookery, to 'philosophical speed-dating' with wine

The community house on Sonder Boulevard in the Vesterbro quarter is a regular haunt for a close artist friend who has me addicted to Copenhagen, And so Folkehuset Absalon was a compulsory stopover on a recent 30km circuit with her by bike, with a promise later of a swim in the Baltic. Coffee is among the cheapest in the pricy kroner capital, and the evening dinner, which is a simple set menu (with tickets on sale at 5pm each evening), is the best value in town. On fine nights, of which there are many, the benches and tables are set up outside.

There are a myriad of classes daily, from morning, evening and midnight yoga to baby rhythmics and cookery, to “philosophical speed-dating” with wine. The mover and shaker behind it all is Lennart Lajboschitz, best known for the Tiger store chain which has filled zillions of bedrooms and bathrooms across continents with stuff we mostly don’t need. Lajboschitz and his wife Suz first set out selling umbrellas and sunglasses in a flea market, moved to bricks and mortar in the late 1980s, and opened their first Tiger shop in 1995 with everything priced at no more than 10 kroner.

Six churches

The businessman put large multiples of this – 10 million Danish kroner – on the table when the Danish culture minister decided to close six churches in Copenhagen five years ago. He bought the Vesterbro parish building, and teamed up with an architectural practice to transform it into a creative space. Israeli-born Danish artist Tal R was commissioned to design the interior, and the architects clad the ceiling with acoustic panels to reduce the type of reverberation more suited to Sunday hymns.

Folkehuset Absalon has, not surprisingly, won a coveted architectural named after famous Danish designer Arne Jacobsen. The Danish Gastronomic Academy has given Lajboschitz an honorary diploma for his contribution to popularising communal meals. The centre has given a fillip to the folkekøkkener, or community kitchen concept in a city experiencing the same building boom and rent prices rises and income squeeze as everywhere else.

‘Artistic universe’

For all Copenhagen’s apparent perfection, it is alive with debates and arguments over familiar European-wide issues, such as a hardening political attitude to migrants. A controversial government proposal several years ago to confiscate the assets of asylum-seekers drew large protests. As my friend observes, her home is not quite the same welcoming city as it was several decades ago when she first met French Algerian artist Manuel Tafat.

He was inspired by the expressionists, Miro, Matisse and Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, but he was also fuelled by a need to lose himself when hit periodically with depression

Tafat rented a place to live in a street not far from Absalon in Vesterbro, and began decorating its ceiling with pieces of broken pottery and smashed tiles, recycling materials in all sorts of colours and shapes. He was inspired by the expressionists, Miro, Matisse and Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, but he was also fuelled by a need to lose himself when hit periodically with depression.

Tafat died in 2006, but his daughter Manuela has inherited her father’s living space – walls inside and out covered in thousands of pieces creating words and shapes and symbols which relate all sorts of different stories. “Mosaic”, as it is called, is opening as a café and a gallery and a retreat for those who wish to lose themselves in Tafat’s “artistic universe”.

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