In the era we now call “mid-century modern,” Dansk Designs was among the most successful early importers of Scandinavian design. It populated countless American homes with sleek tableware and other furnishings, many of them the work of the great Danish designer Jens Quistgaard. (The company itself was more distributor and facilitator than traditional design studio; it was founded and headquartered not in Copenhagen but in Mount Kisco, New York.) It was neither Ikea-cheap nor Alessi-expensive; its products lived in a middling price niche that was upscale but not elite, pitched to connoisseurship rather than extravagance. You’d see Dansk flatware (bearing its minuscule stamp of Quistgaard’s monogram, IHQ) on the unadorned slab tables of university professors in New Haven or ad copywriters in Greenwich Village.
Since the early 1990s, Dansk has been a subsidiary of the giant tableware company Lenox. This week, the website Food52, which has been a Dansk retailer for some years, announced that it had bought the brand and intends to expand it with reissues and new designs. Last night, I spoke to Amanda Hesser, Food52’s founder and CEO, about her plans. (When I called her, I had just finished eating dinner off a Dansk plate, having served myself with a pair of 1960s Dansk Variation V utensils.)
You must be hearing from older customers: At one time, anybody who was design-inclined in this country had a relationship with Dansk stuff.
So many people have a connection with Dansk. And I have to say that today I have been really bowled over by the number of people who have commented — you know, old friends, people who I never would have expected knew this brand who felt a connection to it, grew up with it.
Were you one of those people who grew up with it?
I didn’t. It was something that I discovered after I went to college, and so for me, it symbolized adulthood and a more sort of sophisticated lifestyle. When I met my husband and we went to his parents’ house, instantly you could spot the Dansk pieces around the kitchen. For me, it was an aspirational brand, so incredibly cool and modern, and I really, really fell in love with it. I spent one of my first paychecks as an adult on Dansk.
What did you buy?
The Jens Quistgaard Odin salad servers — they kind of look like two very elegant paws — and the little candlesticks and very thin candles that essentially only Dansk sold. And I treasured the candles so much that I never burned them — I still have the candles, 25 years later. Like “I don’t want to not be able to replenish them.” They were so special, I just used them for looking at.
So that brings up a question, which is that this brand has such a long history that it would be easy to just treat it as a nostalgia play. But in the announcement, you said that you’re going to commission new stuff. You’re going to take it forward.
Yeah. There are three components to the products that we’d like to release. One is, you know, their existing assortment: There are pieces in there that we feel like have great potential — we could expand the colors, maybe change the materials in some cases, add a few different sizes. There’s opportunity just to make the existing assortment even more useful and more comprehensive. Then there’s this amazing archive of 2,000-plus designs — many amazing designs that just fell out of the sort of public consciousness for one reason or another that we’re going to want to bring back. And actually one way we’re hoping will guide us is, we ask people on our social channels to take pictures of their favorite Dansk pieces and tag us so that we can take a look at them.
The third piece is what you were alluding to: We feel like the beauty of Dansk is this timelessness and the fact that it was a brand that really stood for great design and for celebrating great designers — and not always designers who were obvious. Like, one of the designers that they worked with was this woman named Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe, a well-known silversmith and a jeweler. But they commissioned her and she did a lot of different pieces — a beautiful tea set, things that were kind of out of her comfort zone.
When you take a great designer and you ask them to kind of address the household, we feel like there’s just a great opportunity for beautiful things to come out of that. And obviously Dansk was very focused on Danish designers, but there are amazing designers around the world, and I think that there’s a path to celebrating them through Dansk.
You mentioned archival designs — is there an actual physical archive? In Denmark or somewhere?
It’s in Pennsylvania, which is where Lenox is. I went there last summer. It’s not digitized—it’s these giant sets of technical drawings of products that are in architect’s drawers. And then they have a room that has old catalogs and a few older pieces. It’s kind of amazing. A bit of a time capsule.
Do they have a room with every piece ever made? Like a museum?
They don’t actually — I wish they did. We might have to assemble one ourselves. I mean, that would take a very large room, because there were a lot of Dansk products over the years. They even did furniture, which a lot of people don’t know.
Really? What was the furniture like?
Very simple, as you might suspect [laughs] — I’ve only seen pictures of a couple of pieces. But they did textiles; they did a lot of different things. They really explore the home with a lot of breadth in a way that few brands have. That’s another kind of exciting piece of this — we could take something like furniture and run with it.
One thing that always struck me about Dansk is that they really ran the gamut in terms of materials—not just obvious things like stainless steel, but also teak, black cast iron, all sorts of stuff.
Yeah. They did a lot of tropical woods, bamboo—really, it’s not like no other brands were doing it then, but definitely they were early in making it a more commercial pursuit.
That’s another thing about Dansk: They were commercial, by which I mean that the stuff was a little upscale but it wasn’t terribly expensive.
That’s right. Of course, they had some pieces that were, I guess, what you would call a capsule collection today. But yeah, it was really made to be great design made accessible. And that was another thing that speaks to us. It feels very much in line with how we see the world.
It’s super-contemporary. A whole lot of people see the world that way now.
Do you feel as though Lenox was — I don’t want to say letting the brand languish, but that they perhaps weren’t doing everything with it that they could?
You know, they have a lot of other brands under their umbrella. And so I think they were doing what they could, given that there were other brands that were just frankly bigger and would naturally get a bigger focus. We need to do a general assessment of what’s there and really understand the sales numbers, understand any production challenges or opportunities.
I wanted to ask you about one particular product, something I’d never heard of till relatively recently. In the ’70s, Dansk made a line of copper pots with brass handles and a chafing-dish burner for the table, with a separate teak handle that clipped on for serving. It was a Jens Quistgaard design — it was called Quistgaard’s Copper — and it’s just wild looking.
Oh my gosh. There are a number of collector’s markets — there’s a site that is devoted just to his pepper mills! I learned about that today. [pauses to Google] Oh, I’m seeing the copper that you’re talking about — oh my gosh. It’s super. So interesting. It’s a beautiful handle, huh? Really, really cool. This is not something I’ve come across. Do you have a set?
I did, but I don’t anymore. I sold them to a collector.
Dang. I was just going to try to rope you in to sending me pictures. [Laughs]
What are the biggest sellers these days from the Dansk line? I mean, we see a lot about the Kobenstyle pots — what else is still moving?
We have this line of everyday plates, Kisco — they’re out of stock right now — that are incredibly reasonably priced, and they fly off the shelves every time they come back in stock. They’re these beautiful natural kind of earth-tone colors, simple shapes. I don’t think it’s an old design — it’s one of their more modern designs — and clearly aimed at everyday use. Inexpensive: You get like a full set for less than $200.
Anything you’ve spotted in the archive that you’re super-excited about?
There’s a teak bowl in the shape of a big canoe that I found on a really nice vintage-home-goods site. It’s so stunning and beautiful, but I’d never seen it before. That seems like something that we could do a lot with. There are some pan shapes that I think are really cool that have really interesting handles — just really kind of elegant. I don’t know what materials they were made of, but it would be really great to do. And then a cast-iron version of one of their Dutch ovens from the archive, or something like Kobenstyle.
With that cross-shaped handle on top? That’d work.
Yeah. But now I’ve suddenly become obsessed with the copper, thanks to you.