Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Dansk and the Promise of a Simple Scandinavian Life

Illustration by Carolina Moscoso

In the summer of 1958, the sleek, modernist Statler Hilton in Dallas hosted the presentation of the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, an annual prize created by the department-store president Stanley Marcus and his aunt Carrie Marcus Neiman. Onstage that day were Yves Saint Laurent, fresh from the creation of his Trapeze line, which freed the waist; the children’s couturier Helen Lee, known for bright, poofy girls’ dresses; and a rather standoffish Danish housewares designer named Jens Quistgaard, plucked from the remote island where he lived, wearing antiquated knickerbockers and sailor’s shoes. Under the headline “Designing Dane, Isle’s Only Man,” a reporter for the Atlanta Journal later warned, “All you men who have wives with roving eyes, blindfold them—HURRY! The bearded Dane . . . is in town today, and the ladies are giving him looks akin to those you gave Brigitte Bardot at the movies the other night—remember?” The next day, a trifecta of models, wearing Y.S.L. sweaters and Pucci pants, posed with an ice bucket designed by Quistgaard held high like a trophy. Danish design was having its “Mad Men” moment.

In a classic American twist, the brand that Quistgaard was promoting while wearing his “customary attire of Copenhagen,” as another retailer put it, wasn’t Danish at all. Dansk originated from Great Neck, on Long Island. “ ‘Dansk’ is like when you sell vodka in the USA,” Quistgaard told his biographer, Stig Guldberg. “You use its Russian name and you kind of keep the original letters on the bottle and brochures.” Guldberg’s new monograph from Phaidon, “Jens Quistgaard: The Sculpting Designer,” seeks to disentangle the man from the brand, but the housewares consumer of 2023 treats the book like a catalogue. Yes, I would like Fjord flatware, which almost seamlessly combines teak with stainless steel. Yes, I would like an enamelled Købenstyle casserole, whose lid serves as a trivet, in brilliant red or turquoise. Yes, I would like a wenge bowl with matching salad servers, which cleverly hook on the side. Yes, I will cook and eat an Emily Nunn salad, an Alison Roman pasta, a Smitten Kitchen bake, from any of the above. The life style that Quistgaard’s design suggested—and that the Dansk founders Ted and Martha Nierenberg deftly promoted—so closely aligns with how we aspire to live now that the food-media juggernaut Food52, which acquired the Dansk brand in 2021, has begun a series of reissues and planned collaborations with contemporary designers.