“Dansk Designs: Reinventing the American Tabletop, 1954–1985”
Danish designers like Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen and Acton Bjørn translated natural shapes into modern vocabularies with new materials and techniques.
Take a peek into the philosophies and collaborations that triggered the popularity of Dansk Designs, the company that brought Danish tabletop design to the United States with sculptural, colorful tableware and cookware. Founded by entrepreneurs Martha and Ted Nierenberg, along with Danish artist-designer Jens Quistgaard, this American company has been making and marketing memorable lines of flatware, cookware, and tableware since 1954. Dansk is a historical case study of a company that went quickly from entrepreneurial venture to corporation, focusing on well-made tabletop goods and clever marketing strategies. It is also a story about how a midcentury-modern couple, interested in the transitional nature of suburban living and with a vision of what the modern home could be, sold new styles of Scandinavian goods to a stylish new American middle class.
Desirable and now retro-chic, vintage Dansk products can be found in antique shops, auction houses, and flea markets, or passed down to a new generation from mothers and grandmothers. These pieces are equally valuable and meaningful as they were when they were brand-new—perhaps even more so.
Before the birth of Dansk Designs, young American couples were accustomed to selecting fine china and silver for shared meals with guests and family. Stainless steel flatware, cookware, and earthenware dishes were banished to the kitchen, only to be seen by servants, staff, or the lady of the house. It was unthinkable that pots and pans would ever be seen as serving dishes or that cutlery other than the good silver could be used for a formal occasion.
But after World War Two, a time when Victorian ways were well bygone, servants and staff were shrinking, even in well-to-do homes. Smooth, paved highways connected families to their new neighborhoods in the suburbs. A shift was underway for the bourgeoisie, and the Nierenbergs—who were definitely part of this crowd—knew there was a need for products that would serve these new generations who had seen the war, were educated, looking for refuge from city life, and experiencing the affluence of 1950s America. Armed with Jens Quistgaard’s original designs, the Nierenbergs positioned their products around the transitional philosophies of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dansk Designs spoke to this audience with form and then performed in a way that reinforced its meaning.
During the 1940s, most Americans participated in the war effort in some way. Nearly sixteen million American men and women went to war, while others built weaponry, provided logistical support, communications or intelligence. Some provided medical support and many worked in factories, deploying new technologies onto battlefields and into the skies. Others had mothers, fathers, or children who went to war or went to work. Most Americans lived or raised families on rationed food and material goods. Going to war and supporting a soldier was an act of pride, an act of supporting a valiant war effort.
As an example, the legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who would have been 33 in 1941, raised her family during the World War Two. She brought the experience and expertise in food-making she learned in Dijon, France, to wartime tables, inspiring new ideas for cuisine and cookware during a time when everyone had to make do with less. In her celebrated 1942 book, How to Cook A Wolf, she writes:
Present-day pottery and kitchenware, available in peacetime, are a wonderful investment for wartime economy. Used intelligently, it makes something as simple as boiling an egg cost half as much as it would in a thin, badly designed utensil, even though a three-minute egg still takes about as long today as it did in 1722.
After the war, the necessity for rationing came to an end, but the experience of rationing established a compulsion for practicality and a caution for excessive abundance. At the same time, the years of rationing produced a desire for a better life, for handsome things, for refuge from the practicalities associated with the War years. With transcendental spirit, Americans took pleasure in moving their families to the suburbs, to a land of tamed wilderness.
Although the move to suburbia started as early as the 1920s, postwar sentiment and the population boom during the 1950s translated to considerable suburban growth. The typical American story began with a G.I. who returned from the war, went to college and then to work. Next they met their spouse and started having children. The logical step was then to move to suburbia, if they hadn’t already done so.
America was going through a rather contradictory moment. The desire to maximize, to have access to the best that money could buy, combined with the need to simplify processes and to make life easier, now that servants weren’t part of the democratic, suburban lifestyle. The 1930s had ushered in an obsession with streamlining and technological wonder, and those ideals carried through into the 1950s, translating further into new scientific promises for the future, especially in regard to designed objects.
Additionally, the focus on home life for American suburbanites was revived with an interest in organic forms. Scandinavian designers, with their intimate understanding of nature and rich traditions in folk art and craftsmanship, were designing spaces and objects that intersected with these new American virtues. These principles that united the new technological practices and inventions acquired during the war years, made it possible to manufacture amorphous objects that were exciting additions to the suburban American landscape. Design struck a new balance between the man-made and natural worlds.
Scandinavian design was a conduit of these ideals. American consumers were already aware of Scandinavian design. All of the Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden—made an appearance, if not a splash, at the World’s Fair in 1939. Americans had been through the Great Depression by this time and were soon to be engrossed in all-consuming wartime activities. The Fair was the last celebration of domestic technology, design, and culture before the U.S. entered the war. However, Americans did not forget what they had seen at the Fair, as the strong messages that were reinforced there would reemerge with even greater spirit in the coming decades.
In their book Scandinavian Design, writers Charlotte and Peter Fiell explain, “Designers in Scandinavia have instigated and nurtured a democratic approach to design that seeks a social ideal and the enhancement of quality of life through appropriate and affordable products and technology.” These ideals called for functional design that was simultaneously aesthetically appealing, right in line with the nature of the emerging American lifestyle.
Since Scandinavia had been a relatively peaceful region for 200 years and was remarkably homogeneous, Americans were attracted to the kind of prosperity and modernism that such democratic practices brought to the region’s design. Americans could easily relate to Scandinavian culture, which for the most part had been much differently affected by the War than the rest of Europe. Scandinavian design served as a gateway to new cultural exchange.
Danish designers like Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen and Acton Bjørn translated natural shapes into modern vocabularies with new materials and techniques. Jens Quistgaard did this as well, and he also often referred to his muses, Romanesque forms and Norse revivalism. He worked in a range of materials including wood, steel, cast iron, silver, ceramic and glass. The angles and curves present in his designs—spanning from door hinges and hardware, to cookware and flatware, to furniture and wood stoves, to boats and houses—speak volumes about his particular fusion of modernism with history. The synthesis of these expressions combined with the functionality of such objects was what made Quistgaard’s work so attractive to the Nierenbergs and perfect for Dansk Designs.
Quistgaard was the master of making forms that were simple and natural, but at the same time complicated by difficult connections between materials and customized shapes. It was quite a feat to give these forms life through mass manufacturing. Nierenberg was particularly interested in this juxtaposition. He wanted to show how Dansk Designs could overcome the problems of making Quistgaard’s original forms in quantities through mass- production. These complicated and original forms carried precisely the message Nierenberg wanted to promote. Dansk Designs products communicated a level of handicraft that other table- and cook-top items at the time did not.
In addition to the emotive and sculptural qualities of Quistgaard’s designs, Nierenberg was selecting design for himself. He was his customer, or at least a model for the person he thought his customer was. He wasn’t a chef. He was a cook who wanted products that were user-friendly.
As is to be expected in a business based on mass manufacturing what could be considered one-off pieces of working sculpture, Nierenberg and Quistgaard were constantly in a state of discussion, each man fighting for one standard or another. Quistgaard was regularly frustrated with Nierenberg’s constant rounds of negotiations, wanting to adjust the size and weight of various pieces, all in order to be able to produce the piece at a particular price. This perpetual battle made Dansk Designs’ products better, but also demonstrated the difficulties involved in design collaboration. Together, Quistgaard and Nierenberg made a brilliant industrial designer.
Since Quistgaard employed such durable materials for his designs, Dansk Designs products required less care than their predecessors that needed special care or regular polishing. In the case of Dansk’s teak products, they could be easily cleaned with soap and water. Food rarely stuck to the inside enamel of Købenstyle cookware. If the white enamel became stained, a brief soak in bleach diluted with water would make it white again. Stainless steel and teak Fjord flatware, which was sculptural enough to oust silverware from the dining room, never needed polishing and could also be washed with soap and water. As Dansk Designs developed more product lines, several were designed to be dishwasher and microwave-safe.
These easy-to-use objects for cooking and entertaining allowed hosts and hostesses to serve meals to their friends and families with style and grace. These tools looked great while they were used for cooking and while they displayed meals for family and friends. Ted Nierenberg said, “In the late ’50s it was a time of suburbia, growing families, togetherness, sharing, friends, home entertaining, and buffet dining.” The Nierenbergs truly entertained this way and they promoted these new entertainment rituals with every product that Dansk Designs produced and promoted. The Nierenbergs were anticipating more than a fashionable fad; they were defining an emerging lifestyle.