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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.’”
Brilliant.
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.”
Fascinating.
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 Décor.





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.
Indeed.
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.

5 Comments

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Great post. Finding ideas to write about is one of the hardest things about running a blog. Please visit http://goo.gl/gHKKJf

  • 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.

  • Anonymous

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

    north london decorators

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"Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art."
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 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

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