Since Danish designers pioneered a new kind of down-to-earth design in the 1950s, “Danish” has been synonymous with “stylish”. Names like Arne Jacobsen, Børge Mogensen and Finn Juhl have long been uttered in reverence by industry savants, and Danish design has become instantly recognisable: natural and functional, simple but sophisticated. The Danish – and Scandinavian -- design movement also reflects the Nordic countries’ brand of social democracy: beautifully crafted things to make life better, not just for the wealthy elite, but democratically available to all.

Though Denmark has long been considered the leader of Scandinavian architecture and design, the Swedes, Norwegians and Finns are not far behind. Not to be outdone by the other stars of Pan-Nordic design (Finland’s capital Helsinki, for example, is World Design Capital for 2012), Copenhagen has been making strides to position itself as Scandinavia’s thought leader in cutting-edge design.

Perhaps this is why Copenhagen is now host to the world’s richest design award, the INDEX:Awards, worth a glittering 500,000 euro; why since 2009, the capital has hosted the prestigious Copenhagen Design Week; why the city has three major architecture and design museums, plus myriad touring exhibitions; and why the best Danish design houses and fashion outlets have their flagship stores in Copenhagen.

Beautiful, thoughtful, pleasingly humanistic designs are everywhere in the city. Here are some places to surround yourself with the best of them:

Museums and design centres
The first stop for design-aficionados, or anyone seeking to understand this national obsession, is the Danish Design Centre. Set on HC Andersens Boulevard in Copenhagen’s heart, it is a knowledge hub for Danish design talent where local designs are researched and promoted. There are exhibitions – from retrospectives, to shows of new materials, to discussions of smart energy use – there is a design shop, and there is beautifully presented food at the centre’s hip Dansk Café.

Copenhagen’s Design Museum, housed in one of Copenhagen’s finest rococo buildings, exhibits historical and contemporary Danish and international designs, and explains the development of design in Scandinavia. Even if you are not passionate about the subject, come here just to gambol on the green lawns of beautiful Grønnegård, the museum’s garden, and take tea and smørrebrød (a Danish open sandwich) outdoors in summer.

Denmark published its first architectural policy in 2007, making it possibly the only place in the world with a country-wide architectural vision. The Danish Architecture Centre on the waterfront in the Christianshavn area focuses on design for the built environment and offers guided tours of changing exhibitions, with an emphasis on environmentally-sustainable architecture. There is also a browse-worthy bookshop with Scandinavia's largest selection of architecture, design and urban planning publications.

Events and exhibitions
Copenhagen hosts the world’s biggest design awards, the INDEX:Awards, billed as “Designs to Improve Life”. The organization passionately believes that clever design is a decisive factor in creating a better, fairer and more sustainable world -- not just in beautifully-designed Scandinavia, but globally. Recent winning designs have included low-cost portable baby warmers for premature infants, free eye glasses for hundreds of thousands of school children and architecturally-designed low-income housing. The biennial awards attract hundreds of international entrants, and the winners are awarded at a black-tie event in the Copenhagen Opera House, designed by Danish architect Henning Larsen. The free exhibition is held outdoors at Copenhagen's new hip hang-out, Kvæsthusmolen – then travels the world. The next awards ceremony will be in 2013.

The wider context for INDEX is Copenhagen Design Week, a major trade show held biennially in September. At Kvæsthusmolen and other sites across the city you can live and breathe design for seven days, with exhibitions, seminars, workshops and discussions, plus wonderful designs purchase. A highlight of the week is the prestigious Danish Design Prize, which pits national designers against each other.           

Design shops
Ask locals where in Copenhagen to buy a piece of all this Danish talent and they will likely direct you to Illums Bolighus. This shop displays every item with museum-like reverence – and the artful layout is simply inspiring. Pick up Danish design icons like the Henning Koppel water pitcher, Arne Jacobsen Ant chairs or a Mogens Lasson candle holder. Similarly revered are furniture, design and accessories shops like Hay – where even filing systems and rubbish bins are made gorgeous – and Bodum, where somehow the simplest kitchen and bathroom things have a magnetic pull.

It is quite a different feel at Designer Zoo where you get to see designers creating in their workshops before you browse and buy. Another hip addition to shopping in Copenhagen is Normann in Østerbro, just north of Copenhagen’s centre, whose cavernous store stocks its own award-winning brand of off-beat homewares, furniture and Danish-designed fashion.

Fashion shopping
Though they wear their style understatedly, people in Copenhagen are said to be more fashionable than anywhere else in Scandinavia. Think layering and clothes that are effortlessly chic as well as bike-riding friendly. To pick up a few pieces, head to the fashion district in Indre By (inner-city Copenhagen) and pop into Day Birger Mikkelsen, a leading Danish brand with elegant, sexy, designs. The classic women’s fashions at Designers Remix is just as smart – and pricey. A firm men’s favourite is Mads Nørgaard – very Danish, smart, timeless gear (now also for women and kids).

Add just the tiniest accessory by jeweller Georg Jensen and you will be set to take on the best design in Scandinavia – in the best of Danish style.

The article 'The reigning king of Scandinavian design' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.