Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Meet John Danzer, Exterior Decorator, Garden Furniture Designer & Visionary

It’s Design Week in Gotham and I can’t think of a better peg to feature a profile about John Danzer, one of the garden design world’s most talented, respected artisan, connoisseur, curator, and the enduring “Exterior Decorator.”

John Danzer, Exterior Decorator

Equal parts visionary, mirthful cosmopolitan, garden historian and lecturer -- you Do want to enjoy cocktails with this unique personality.
If he didn’t exist – you’d be tempted to make him come alive -- from a Preston Sturges movie or a Cary Grant classic iconic image.

His marquee good looks and charm are the threads that weave a tapestry that is meticulously composed of hard work, research, and unbridled passion.
Danzer exudes an unaffected humility matched with a fierce pride and point of view. 
One is hard-pressed to not feel at ease with Danzer, because he makes it so.

I attend a plethora of garden and interior design lectures, talks, trade shows, and events and it’s a rare one that I don’t happily bump into Danzer. 

This man is tireless. 

He is now at the sweet spot of quality, garden design and the decorative arts. 
I dare you to come up with another name or brand that can do what Danzer and his Munder-Skiles do. 

How this garden guru came to embody the genus loci or “spirit of the place” is so much a part of Danzer’s mystique and bespoke outdoor garden room designs, that it propelled his journey to his (trademarked) “exterior decorator” moniker with panache and an unparalleled contribution to the expression of what is meant by good garden design.  

He takes the design that is there, courtesy of nature and the landscape architect or designer, and then works to “select and place furniture and objects within an interpretive context,” as noted on Munder-Skiles website.

Prior to a recent Wave Hill talk with landscape architect Thomas L. Woltz, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects whose wowsy landscapes featured more than a few of Danzer’s designs, I met with Danzer to interview him about his contribution to garden art. 
It seemed especially timely to me to grab him, given that Danzer and his partner – newly married too – will be spending so much of the season at their new country house: in Spain!

The Business
Danzer and his Munder-Skiles is, at first blush, quite complicated to describe.  (The name of his company is derived from a combination of his Midwest, European grandparent’s family names.)
He was a major “brand” with an aggressive portfolio of services before the likes of Martha Stewart or Calvin Klein came round to the world of home design.

For more than 20 years, Danzer’s Munder-Skiles has successfully blossomed to provide a portfolio of products and services with garden art beating passionately at its heart.
This is the key or hub that hugs all the work of his enterprise.

Danzer essentially operates three-plus companies:
·      Munder-Skiles: Design and production of hand-crafted garden furniture and accessories;
·      The Exterior Decorator: Design services, specifying, and counsel
·      The World of Exteriors: Media company providing world of exterior designs, exhibitions, newsletters, lectures/speaking

For decades, Danzer’s design influence emanated from his showroom and office in midtown Manhattan, and now, from his upstate showplace in Garrison, New York, just north of Manhattan in the venerable Hudson Valley.

When I asked how often he designs or changes his garden product designs, he said pretty much all the time. Siempre.
It’s his company and he doesn’t need to follow the design world’s seasonal or cyclical schedules.
If Danzer is inspired—he’s doing it.
He is a self-taught artisan, designer and collector.
From the start, he says he was seduced by the value-added philosophy of one of his heroes, Leo Lionni, a famous sculptor and children’s book author who proposed the “irresistible urge to make things” at a Cooper Hewitt talk.
Today, that design commandment has remained framed, smiling, if you will, on Danzer’s desk, inspiring and illuminating the design prince’s journey to artful greatness.

About a quarter of a century ago, Danzer was living in London: (he furnished his apartment entirely with outdoor garden furniture he bought for next to nothing and still has stored! He was volunteering at a local nursery, Peter Hones, and learning about plants too.)
After some time he quit his banking job to pursue a calling to the romantic world of gardens, kicking off his new pursuit with a worldwide tour -- the first wanderlust of many journeys that over the years, would take him to the ends of the earth.

Obsessively, he was taking pictures. 
The images would become the foundation for his museum-like catalog of photos.
His next step was a year of “Educating John,” drilling down on designs and garden art history, doing research in the United States and Europe from Palm Springs to Monticello – and taking ever more pictures.

Today, Danzer is renowned for his extensive, massive library. 
He possesses more than 10,000 images and 17,000 names in his database!
He claims he subscribes to 57 different design magazines. 
“I have no time for Tweeting or email,” he jokes. But he is serious. He luxuriates in reading. 

In a reversal of the typical career template where one is asked to lecture based on an achievement or lifetime of work, Danzer actually launched his career with a talk at the prestigious Albert & Victoria Museum in London!
Through the Looking Glass indeed!

He followed this success with a talk at the Cooper Hewitt and winning the Jack Lenor Larsen award. (And is now on the Longhouse Board)
Danzer has won many other awards, including the Roscoe Award for his Taconic Chair, and was nominated by the Cooper-Hewitt for a 2005 National Design Award in Landscape architecture.

In 2000, Danzer described how he closed a New York City avenue to create a “streetscape.” It was a retrospective of his work produced by the The New York School of Interior Design, which was extremely an extremely proud moment.
But he says moreover, it was so very satisfying to see how his upscale clients were connecting to the people who made their furniture. 
It was a galvanizing moment in the relationship. 

Early in his career, no less a design authority and celebrity than Albert Hadley called him to do some work.
“Hadley was one of my first clients,” he says with well-deserved pride. 
Danzer felt the need to come up with ideas and sourced suggested nuggets from everywhere. Thus was born Danzer’s strategy of working with all professionals on the design network.

The Strategy
A point he makes in terms of his business strategy is that he can readily recommend so-called competitors.
Danzer is guileless.
“I work for the designer and for the client,” Danzer explained.
This is a refreshing approach. 
Further, Danzer possesses such confidence that this slightly askew work style is just cricket, as he describes it.

For example, a recent job was approximately $350K yet required Danzer to coordinate products from 26 different artists and producers!

Danzer plays well in the sandbox and prefers working with the landscape architect and designer. 
“Most often they don’t have a knowledge of the furniture element,” he explains about his ability to determine the furniture that echoes the spirit of the place -- to create and compliment a nature-inspired lifestyle. 
Sometimes he will get calls from the interior decorator who asks him to just “do” the outside.

“We love the art of making furniture.”
Design requires customization and passion. 

Besides intense research, interviews with the client and garden design professional, he claims he has to know about gardens in general and about the particular garden that will soon be accessorized with his garden furnishings and signature look.
He travels to Dumbarton Oaks or the South Pacific.  “I have to know about gardens,” he emphasizes.

One of the reasons why Munder-Skiles design compositions are so enduring is because they do not just put furniture in a spot or place.
Rather, Danzer and his team research, investigate and allow the spirit of the place to imbue and infuse the design process. 
“We believe the setting defines the furniture rather than the other way around.”

Seen through the lens of Danzer-as-Exterior Decorator, he purrs “The furniture gives the space scale and domesticates it in the eye of the viewer.” 

He just made sense out of a very complicated process. 

Think about it. 

Danzer continued, “If you have a big field, and put two benches out there facing one another – you’ve just created a ‘Destination.’”


Danzer explains all this so eloquently, it is no surprise he is a much sought-after speaker and lecturer. 

“We are animals.  And when we look at a landscape -- be it controlled or uncontrolled – it makes us nervous. Therefore our eye goes right to the man-made (the furniture).”
He adds, “There is a comfort in the man-made.”


And you thought that by just plunking down that Pottery Barn ensemble it would finish off the terrace.
Ha.  It could be jarring to your garden sensibilities.
And a poke in the eye to Mother Nature…

“You can manipulate the whole message by how you arrange the furniture,” Danzer offers.  “You can say, ‘Come here and eat’ or ‘Come here and gather.’”
“You can tell different stories.”

For one client, he described how he used two benches, on grass, and built an earth mound and put a plant on top of the mound and then had a wooden table made to “sit” on top of the mound.

His design work sets the standard for garden furniture, thus it is not surprising to pick up most every shelter magazine or garden book and find Danzer’s work gracing the pages.  In fact, I just received an email from Munder-Skiles strutting three of the company’s installed works of garden art as seen in:
Veranda Magazine, Architecture Digest and one of my favorites, Elle D├ęcor.

The Process
Danzer describes how his firm is perhaps a bit “design-heavy” because he loves the design process. 
Yet he works to balance the design with the engineering – a characteristic not often readily embraced in the world of decorative arts. 
“People don’t use that word anymore,” observes Danzer.
It is a thrill to hear him describe that, unlike other designers who bow to the holy trinity of design, design, design, Danzer, on the other hand, is compelled to employ engineering into the spirit of the piece. 
“I look at the way things are joined together: the woods, the grains, the density -- the exchange of materials – switching from aluminum to bronze.”  
Getting rapturous just describing the engineering process, he enthused, “You might have to change dimensions, give the piece strength. There’s a lot involved,” he added.

Such integrity and approach to his oeuvre is a laudable, sacred art. 
He seeks to combine luxury with technology.

As crazy as it sounds, it was at this moment that I couldn’t get the idea of one of my idols, Leonardo da Vinci, enjoying an illuminating design and engineering conversation with Danzer – with both masters contributing a lively exchange of artistic values!

Through an aesthetic prism, Danzer recognizes and applies the need for engineering in each of his designs, to artfully bring about a masterful construct.

He also promotes nature’s aesthetic. 
He loves the weathering and patina it creates, including rust.
Such attention to the sensual is rare…

Danzer knows his materials – from the cellular structure on out. 
He respects his woods and the trees they come from, like a prize-winning jockey knows every muscle of his racehorse.
In this way, Danzer is downright apoplectic when talking about how people not only don’t love our trees and what they give to us, but how most people mistreat the trees and abuse them.  “It’s really sad…” he sighs. 
“Do I think we should raise trees and harvest them? Absolutely,” he answers his own query.
“But it is criminal how people are ignorant about trees and their beauty and benefits,” he said with reluctant agitation.

The Market
While there is now a seeming onslaught of new companies hitting the US outdoor furniture market – “I could name 30 companies,” he bristles.
“I’m seeing ‘modern’ – which is really just platforms with cushions on it.”

Buyer Beware.

He also deplores the trend of buying “collections.” 
Why would anyone want to buy an entire set of room furniture as opposed to curating pieces – historical pieces that have their stories, to be sure, he notes, but that new owners can make their own stories.
Further, the pieces can be modified, structurally or with color, for example.

His Clients
People come to him for a particular look. 
And there’s always a reference to history in his design and work. “It’s my signature.”

Danzer is recreating old in new ways.

“I think Garden Rooms should be different rooms. They should look different -- not look like your living room. Everyone talks about blending – I talk about the excitement of difference,” he said.
I’m not interested in warming ovens and televisions,” he states assuredly in contrast to the rising tide of ‘trends’ that make outside look like a sports bar…

Shaking his head somewhat bewilderedly, he adds, “For some reason, outside has become this new male domain.”
And not in a good way, I might add.

“While I want to engage the men, when I’m at a dinner party, and people hear what I do, it stops them. They never heard of anyone actually being a garden furniture designer!”
They have a notion of what they think it is…

The design solution is personal for Danzer.
Working with his clients is a process.
There is no “I need this by Memorial Day” kind of flip off.
The work will take time and talent.
There will be a relationship triangulated among the client, nature, and the garden furniture.

His designs and curating and talent are reined in to produce an enduring, personalized, customized bespoke work of garden art.
It’s a love affair.
The romance begins with a shared love of quality, garden history and garden design.

The World of Danzer
Today, Danzer is getting cozy in his beautiful new showroom and offices in Garrison, slated for a September opening.
He is busy overseeing work on updating his new web site. 
He is rebuilding his library and his archives.
“The place looks like the garage/office in the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind,’” he jokes. “There are papers everywhere!”
When asked, he forecast that his business will be almost the same size as it was prior to 2008 when the financial crisis hit and the bottom line suffered a 30-35% body blow.
Now, business is growing again; plus, Danzer, cites more international business, via London, Hawaii, Germany, and Brazil.

What does the future look like?
He is going to focus on producing and writing his book, about the history of mainstream garden furniture. From the medieval times to now.
This will be one comprehensive reference tome.

And he is looking forward to doing their new/old house in Spain.
“It’s going to be ravishingly beautiful garden furniture – inside and outside.”

How glamorous....

Visit the world of Munder-Skiles

And if you are very, very lucky, perhaps you can get John to collaborate with you to create your own magical world of garden art.


  1. He is now at the sweet spot of quality, garden design and the decorative arts.

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    1. Yes, Jon Danzer is surely at that garden design & decorative arts vector point. Have you utilized Danzer's designs in your gardens, @NorthLondonDecorators Tell us more.

  2. Your work looks great,

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