The Heart Museum's exhibition on Jens Quistgaard
From August 29th 2015 to January 31st 2016, the Heart Museum in Herning, Denmark is showcasing a wonderful exhibition to the man behind many of the iconic designs of Dansk, Jens Quistgaard.
The exhibition focuses mainly on his time with Dansk Designs, and his partnership with Ted Nierenberg, an American businessman who would found the company in question.
The story begins with Mr. Nierenberg's trip to Denmark during the 50's where he fell in love with Scandinavian design, and decided to start a business of bringing small, well crafted examples to the US market.
In particular, Nierenberg fell in love with a set of flatware, Fjord, that he spotted at the Danish Museum of Art and Design. Jens Quistgaard had designed the set for a competition for Georg Jensen, which, ironically, it may have been disqualified for the very thing that made it so groundbreaking. The flatware set had been one of the first of its kind, featuring teak handles, caused shockwaves throughout the realm of Danish design that brought together the warmth of natural wood and combined it with the functionality and austerity of stainless steel.
Almost immediately, Nierenberg sought to set up a meeting with the man behind the design. He immediately called Jen Quistgaard for a meeting but unfortunately, the person who answered was not him, as he was in his workshop that day, covered in plaster, busily working on a new casting mold that day. Instead they set up a meeting the next evening, and after a few jokes about Nierenberg and his travel companions, they settled in for several hours over drinks until 3am the next day.
Shortly after, the company of Dansk Designs was formed, with Jens Quistgaard as the chief designer, and the flagship product of Fjord flatware began to sell stateside. Many more designs soon followed, and within the first five years, sales had increased to $4 million a year, and doubling that by 1970. During the 60's Dansk Designs expanded even further as well, setting up shops in Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and London among others. Jens Quistgaard's remarkable designs had made their way into famous museums such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Louvre in Paris.
Centered around much of their success was the accessibility to exceptional Danish design to middle class families and the functionality of the designs. One of the best examples to this point is the Kobenstyle line of enameled cookware, also featured at the Heart exhibit, which featured unusual lids which doubled as trivets and potholders meaning that meals could go directly from the stove to the table, which, at the time of its design was truly innovative and unusual. The enameled surfaces allowed for greater ease of cleaning, but also availed itself to the bright and cheerful colors of the iconic pieces, which has contributed to their value and appeal even today.
With such worldwide success, one would think that Jens Quistgaard would be a household name in his home country, but alas, this was not the case. Although many of his designs were popular natively, including he Relief series of ceramicware, and the Hajfinnen (shark's fin) canopener which remains an iconic design. Unfortunately, many of these designs went unsigned and although are still widely available in the secondhand market in Denmark, the association between the designer and the design was not made.
Jens Quistgaard's experimentation with teak did not end with the Fjord flatware set. Also within the exhibit are examples of his furniture designs rendered in the exotic tropical wood, as well as his Rare Woods series.
Of special note are his works with teak staves, especially in his turned wood pieces. By using techniques traditionally reserved for barrel making, he was able to conserve materials over methods that involve turning solid blocks of wood. The use of staves also allowed for wood of smaller dimensions to be used, making more use of the lumber from the trees. His work with staves also allowed for some wonderful furniture specifically design for boating, which the resinous teak woods are ideal for, and renders “grates” within the wood design for water to be able to pass through.
Of great note also are his pepper mills, which at a time where most mills tended to be bulky and large with protruding screws, Jens Quistgaard's designs encased the entirety of the mechanism within a teak body. The wooden encasements in and of themselves were a sculptural work of art.
This success did not come without its own problems however. Despite designing over 4000 products for Dansk, there have been numerous imitations and designers who plagiarized his works. Perhaps in the same vein as the old saying, “Imitation is the highest form of praise”, Quistgaard would brush off such worries by claiming that there still remained a difference in the quality of the craftsmanship between his works and his copycats, or that even with so many ideas put into form, there were still many more ideas and innovations yet to develop. “ “So let them just plagiarize ...” he said with a shrug.”
Nevertheless, his place within the history of Danish design has been cemented. Around the world Dansk Designs and his iconic works have become some of the first images conjured when one thinks of Danish Modern design.