Meet the Designer Behind Dansk’s Most Iconic Pieces
Phaidon's new book, ‘The Sculpting Designer,’ spotlights Jens Quistgaard—an unsung hero of Scandinavian modern style.
Turn over the most iconic Dansk designs and you’ll see the initials J.H.Q. stamped on the bottom. They stand for Jens Harald Quistgaard, the Danish designer who crafted more than 4,000 pieces for the American company between its founding in 1954 and the early ‘80s. His Fjord flatware, teak ice buckets, Købenstyle pitchers, Flamestone dishes, Designs With Light candle holders, and more are in museums from the Met to the Louvre and fetch increasingly high prices. But the multi-hyphenate talent behind them has always been in the shadow of his Scandinavian contemporaries, such as Hans Wegner, in both his native country and the United States—that is, until the publication of Jens Quistgaard: The Sculpting Designer.
When I began building the Dansk archive in the spring of 2021, there weren’t many resources about Quistgaard that I could learn from, aside from a few Danish museum catalogs and a visit to his daughter, Henriette, who lives in their home in rural Denmark. Nor was there a reliable source for the exact dates of designs like Odin flatware and his famous pepper mills.
Early on, Henriette introduced me to Stig Guldberg, a curator, film director, and design collector who became a friend in Jens’ last years. Guldberg made the Quistgaard documentary, The Designer Jens Quistgaard: A Saucepan for My Wife, and curated an exhibition in Denmark whose catalog became a touchstone. And now Guldberg has put together the ultimate monograph. From its cover (the spine echoes the wrapped handle of those Købenstyle pitchers that have been selling out since they were reissued last year) to its extensive visual timeline, the handsomely designed book is now the bible among the Dansk team.
It provides not only a detailed portrait of the artist and trained silversmith as he evolved into a designer of iconic mid-century modern housewares—able to apply his clean, sculptural touch to silver, metal, iron, wood, clay, and glass, even graphic design—but also deep-dives into selected pieces that make us want to collect them all. (As Alexandra Lange put it in her review of the book for The New Yorker, which also discusses Food52’s purchase of Dansk in 2021, Guldberg “seeks to disentangle the man from the brand, but the housewares consumer of 2023 treats the book like a catalogue.”)
Guldberg includes little-known stories in his extensive biography of the iconoclastic designer, who, at the first sign of success, left Copenhagen for a private island, where he built a cottage and workshop and ferried guests over in a dinghy of his own design. There’s the tale of how Quistgaard named the company with cofounder Ted Nierenberg, who wanted to call it Danish Design (“Call it ‘Dansk Designs,’” Quistgaard told him. “Because ‘Dansk’ is like when you sell vodka in the U.S.A. You use its Russian name…”) And how one of the early buyers of Dansk’s first product, the teak and stainless-steel Fjord flatware, was Edgar Kauffman, Jr., who bought it for his country house—aka the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater. And then there are images of pieces I’d never seen in my many hours scouring eBay and auction sites for the Dansk archive, such as colorful lacquered candlesticks from the Festivaal collection, which I immediately snapped and sent to the Dansk design team.
The Sculpting Designer will surely inspire reissues that will one day make it to the table. And it will give collectors of Quistgaard’s many designs even more appreciation for their timeless charm.
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