Written by Lily Kane
Nanna Ditzel was, by any definition, a true design icon. She worked tirelessly in the field for more than fifty years, won major prizes and recognitions (including the Lunning Prize, three silver medals and a gold at the Milan Triennale, and the Danish Ministry of Culture’s Lifelong Artist’s Grant), and created works that are still best sellers. And yet, her impact on twentieth-century design, unlike that of Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, or even Finn Juhl, is belied by how much less frequently one actually comes across her work.
Despite that she wrote, with her husband Jørgen, the influential 1954 book Danish Chairs, one is unlikely to encounter her designs in a public space or as a highlight in a magazine spread. Of the dozens of objects she designed, few ever appear at auction. Her most popular child’s table and stool are, essentially, an elegant take on a spindle design, and Hallingdal, her successful textile, is a contract upholstery workhorse with no flashy graphic. Modest functionality was the name of her game. But Ditzel’s career output—which also included designs for installations, jewelry, and products made of porcelain, glass, and enamel—is well worth revisiting, especially as scholarly and cultural interest deepens in the often-overlooked histories of women in the field.
Ditzel has been referred to as the “First Lady of Danish Furniture Design,” though the general public may be hard-pressed to name a second, or third. Ditzel was also one of the first female designers with a major monograph, Motion and Beauty: The Book of Nanna Ditzel (published in 1998). A comprehensive, idiosyncratic, and poetic volume, Motion and Beauty contains—especially for those who have ever experienced “fair fatigue”—a spot-on description of Ditzel’s intelligence and passion for design and life:
"At the huge international furniture fairs you can also meet her, always well informed and incredibly energetic. You can envy her for that when you yourself are overwhelmed by death-like fatigue from looking at ten sofas in a row. But Nanna Ditzel is a very un-neurotic person who lunges into life, who parties until well into the night with happy people who like good food and glorious wine. . . . She has always gone her own way, and above her work she writes: Think For Yourself."
Born in Copenhagen in 1923, she trained at the School for Arts and Crafts and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts with many who now make up the bold-faced names of Danish cabinetmaking’s midcentury heyday, including Peter Koch, Ejner Larsen, Peter Hvidt, and Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen. Early on, she met Jørgen Ditzel, who became her collaborator and whom she later married.
By all accounts, their partnership represented a remarkable equality, with both husband and wife contributing fully to their practice as well as to housework and childcare. Unlike many design wives, who were, unfortunately, long considered asterisks next to the names of their more famous husbands, Ditzel held her own from the outset. In the years just following Jørgen’s untimely death in 1961, as a newly solo mother of three young daughters, she was the subject of one-woman exhibitions in London, New York, Berlin, and Vienna, and maintained a rigorous engagement with design and production.
The Ditzels’ life as parents perhaps even made them more creative. Nanna explained that she tried her hand at designing jewelry as a smaller-scale, more intimate project she could work on while her newborn slept. As with many other endeavors, she immediately excelled at it, winning a 1950 Goldsmiths Association competition and launching a production line with Michelsen, the jewelers for the Danish court, and, later, Georg Jensen. Her elegant, organic forms are pure modernism. In Motion and Beauty, she recounts that, when she wore her clip-on earrings to parties, men would try to buy them right off of her for their wives.
In 1955, Nanna and Jørgen came out with their high chair, composed of soft, clean curves, and turned in Oregon pine with a leather strap. The chair had an adjustable footrest so that it could be used through the toddler years. The Ditzels’ twin daughters appeared in the chair’s advertisements, which are still used by the contemporary Japanese company Kitani, who produce a version of the high chair.
Inspired by the way her children—like many children—tended toward constant motion and stacking objects, she designed the turned-wood Trisse, or “Toadstool,” in 1962. It was initially produced by Kolds Savaerk, also in Oregon pine. With an unobtrusive center “stalk” keeping it stable and balanced, the Toadstool was available in two sizes, to be used either as a seat or as a table. Though perfectly scaled for children, the object knows no age limits, working equally well as a side table or stool for adults. The Toadstool, like the high chair, was built to last—a hallmark of children’s design, which is generally subject to more wear than pieces designed for adults only. It is still produced, in different woods and colors, by the Danish company Snedkergaarden. Another midcentury nursery staple by Ditzel, the Lulu cradle from 1963, had a limited rerelease of two hundred by the company Brdr. Krüger in 2012.
Ditzel also designed interactive children’s spaces that encouraged physically and narratively imaginative play. For a 1960s exhibition, she designed a playground that emerged from the floor in stepped planes that she referred to as “step mountain” and culminated in ladders that echoed the branches of her iconic 1963 coatrack. While play spaces like this abound now, they were, at that time, a new frontier in exhibition design. Danish architect, critic, and giant of light-fixture design Poul Henningsen praised it in a Mobilia journal review: “She introduced something as unusual and exciting as the third dimension in the life of the child, making the world look different from several meters’ height than from the flat floor.” Children who visited the installation were also given dresses, coats, shawls, and hats as costumes, which completed the immersive, fantastical experience.
Perhaps Ditzel’s most enduring design is the low-profile, high-use Hallingdal 65 textile. The first product from Kvadrat, it is still a best seller, and the company describes it as the “archetype of woolen textiles.” Ditzel created Hallingdal in 1965 for the Halling-Koch Design Center; it was commissioned by her friend and colleague Percy von Halling-Koch, who also produced Verner Panton’s now-famous textile designs. A simple crosshatch in wool and viscose, the Hallingdal textile was awarded the Danish Design Centre’s Classic Prize in 2001, four years before Ditzel’s death. Maharam, in partnership with Kvadrat, distributes the textile in the United States.
Ditzel’s legacy is that of a Danish designer, though she spent nearly twenty years in London, running a design firm called Interspace with her second husband, Kurt Heide. When she arrived in 1968, pop and psychedelic patterns were rampant, but she resisted incorporating such ornamentation in her own work. The closest she came was a foray into silk-screened patterns—simple targets and stripes—with her Bench for Two (1989) and her Butterfly Chair (1990). She ventured into CNC technology with the Trinidad chair (1993), which, with its light, fan-shaped seat and back, is renowned for its comfort and ventilation, and is still produced by Fredericia Furniture.
Ditzel never stopped working, and by the end of her career, her designs had been exhibited in more than a dozen countries. Her training in cabinetmaking allowed her to produce subtle design solutions and simple yet stunning details. In almost all of her best work, the craftsmanship is the star, and the forms are beautiful in their functionality. An early adopter of the mixed-material design practice that has now become commonplace among emerging designers, Ditzel is an excellent case study for the breadth of possibilities in the field when you stay curious, excited, and open to new directions. And, of course, when you “Think For Yourself.”