It is reported that Nanna Ditzel used to exclaim, “three steps forward and two back still means I’ve taken a step in the right direction!” This optimistic worldview helped propel an ambitious 60-year-long career that included furniture, textile, jewelry and product design.
Dubbed the “First Lady of Danish Furniture Design,” Ditzel started her career as an apprentice cabinetmaker at the Richards School in Denmark before moving on to study furniture at the School of Arts and Crafts. In the furniture program she would meet her future husband and collaborator, Jørgen Ditzel, and together they began entering (and winning) design competitions and exhibitions while they were still students. Nanna graduated in 1946, and that same year she married Jørgen and they formally established their design studio together. Jørgen had trained in furniture upholstery (his original intention to become a cabinetmaker was stymied by the trade’s lack of left-handed tools), a skill that allowed their curvy experiments with chairs and sofas to flourish. Together they won numerous accolades, including silver medals at the Milan Triennale in 1951 and 1957 and a gold medal in 1960, and the prestigious Lunning Prize in 1956. But their life and work together ended abruptly when Jørgen passed away unexpectedly in 1961 at the age of 40.
Toward the end of their collaboration, Nanna and Jørgen had been experimenting with wickerwork furniture, a medium that Nanna would pick up again in the ’70s—but her first great success as a solo designer was her line of Toadstools from 1962. Originally designed as multipurpose stools and tables for children, the Toadstools quickly expanded into adult-size tables and barstools, and their simple design proved so popular that they are still in production today. Her 1963 Hall Stand also shares the Toadstools’ rounded wooden simplicity, as does the Lulu Cradle from the same year.
The late ’60s found Ditzel in swinging London, having relocated to marry the British-based furniture businessman Kurt Heide. Together they created an international design center and showroom called Interspace that also housed her independent studio. As her practice expanded, she began experimenting with synthetic materials like foam, fiberglass and plastics that could be formed and molded into the groovy shapes of the era. Beyond her furniture designs, Ditzel’s studio also took on commissions for textiles, interiors and a range of product designs. This chapter of Ditzel’s life came to a close when Heide’s death prompted her to return to Copenhagen in 1986 and reestablish her studio there.
Ditzel’s prodigious output from 1986 to her own death in 2005, at age 81, was marked by a number of novel designs. Perhaps the most legendary was the 1989 Bench for Two, where occupants are seated at a conversational right angle to each other. The bench and its accompanying quarter-circle table are made from one-millimeter-thick plywood that has been silkscreened with a hypnotic circular pattern. Awarded a gold medal at the International Furniture Design Competition in Ashikawa, Japan, they were followed the next year by the Butterfly chair, which was cut from a single two-millimeter-thick folded fiberboard and supported by six insect-like legs.
Ditzel’s greatest commercial success came in the stackable form of the Trinidad chair, whose slotted seat and backrest helped to keep the chair lightweight and well ventilated. Introduced in 1993, it became an instant hit for the furniture manufacturer Fredericia—which at one point was producing a thousand chairs a month to keep up with demand.
A selection of Ditzel’s furniture is currently on view at the Trapholt Museum in Denmark through January 2016, as part of an exhibition celebrating women in Danish furniture design. Her work is joined by examples from 65 fellow female designers, including the 20th-century luminary (and Ditzel classmate) Grete Jalk and the contemporary powerhouses Louise Campbell and Cecilie Manz.