Nanna Ditzel is one of the mid-century furniture design icons and the versatile lady of Nordic designs. Born in Copenhagen in 1923, Ditzel studied carpentry at the Copenhagen School of Arts and Crafts in 1943; In 1944, she attended the prestigious Danish Royal Academy of Art, obtaining an architectural degree while also studying philosophy and cultivating an interest in art history.
Ditzel is known as ‘The First Lady of Danish Furniture Design’ because, in the 20th century, Danish design was mainly the realm of men, and Ditzel emerged as one of the most influential and successful Danish designers of the period. She established an astounding oeuvre during her six-decade career as a virtuoso designer of furniture, jewellery, and textiles. She rethought the functionalist design heritage with her aesthetic interpretations, leaving her mark on thousands of private homes and public forums.
Right from the start, Ditzel’s work portrays organic and dynamic forms inspired by the diversity of nature. She was never afraid to use new materials, and as a result, her works have a wide range of appearances and bright colours. She experimented persistently and came up with a very personal and expressive style, marked by a great yearning for independence and an unquenchable drive to improve on well-known objects of use. Ditzel was acquainted with the entire design universe due to her desire to explore spaces and experiment with approaches on the cutting edge of what is feasible.
Her distinct approach to the design process, combined with her considerable understanding of the craft, resulted in a diverse spectrum of original pieces ranging from furniture to jewellery.
After graduating as a furniture designer in 1946, Nanna married her fellow student Jørgen Ditzel. The two of them founded a design studio in 1946, where the couple embraced modern Danish humanistic principles, moving them to a new era, inspired by the possibilities offered by new materials and techniques. In the 1950s, the Ditzels began designing silver jewellery for the well-known Danish silversmith Georg Jensen; their pieces became very popular and some are still produced today. The pieces designed by them boasted sleek, modern forms, asymmetry, and curvature designed to complement and fuse with the human body. Along with jewellery, they also designed furniture and textile pieces which gained a lot of popularity.
The 1959 Hanging Chair, called the “Egg Chair,” is one of Nanna and Jørgen’s most iconic collaborations, renowned for its organic, rounded shape, hanging construction, adaptable indoor/outdoor use, and principal medium of wicker. Hanging Chair has become an iconic image of modern Danish design and is still produced and sold today through Italian and Japanese companies. The collaboration between Nanna and Jørgen Ditzel was immensely successful, and together they developed a range of furniture that broke with traditional design conventions.
The couple wished to create furniture that would promote a more liberated and lucrative way of life. Many of their furniture pieces were designed to meet their specific requirements. They based their designs on the body representing free play and did not shy away from altering familiar materials and craft methods when combined with a spatial approach. Nanna and Jørgen ran the design studio together until Jørgen died in 1961.
During the 15 year-collaboration, they were able to influence various aspects of Danish design, and their distinctive furniture pieces made of rattan and wood were given both silver and gold awards at the world-famous Milan Triennial exhibition.
Following her husband’s death, Ditzel was able to perfect her style and produce a wide range of designs that are now considered classics. Soon she turned her hand to children’s furniture, creating items such as the Toadstool (1962), a stool that was lightweight and colourful; it was an absolute delight for children of all ages. If the Toadstool was turned on its side, it would satisfyingly spin across the floor. This design was a product of forward-thinking and fun design philosophy.
Nanna Ditzel explored greatly in the 1960s, especially with her media, which included polyester, fiberglass, wicker, cane, teak, and foam rubber, as well as her colour scheme, which typically contained brilliant reds and blues, as well as strongly contrasting patterns of black and white. She also experimented with split-level floor seating, including low-lying chairs and cushions for Danish homes with sunken or raised platforms in their living rooms known as Stairscapes.
Later, Ditzel worked with Danish textile company Kvadrat and created the ever-popular fabric, Hallingdal. In the designs for Kvadrat, she was able to highlight her favourite colours, turquoise, and pink, as well as her interest in texture and structure when she was given the flexibility to build a showroom to display her work.
In 1968, Ditzel married London-based furniture dealer Kurt Heide and moved to London. They established Interspace Worldwide Design Center, a jewellery, textiles, and furniture firm that is now regarded as a major international furniture house. The firm also housed her independent design studio. As her practice grew, she began working with synthetic materials such as foam, fiberglass, and plastics, which could be shaped and moulded into groovy designs of the era. This chapter closed soon after her husband Heide’s death and she moved back to Copenhagen, where she re-established a design studio in her name.
Finally, Ditzel began working for Fredericia, a leading Danish design manufacturer renowned for its exquisitely made furniture. Two of Ditzel’s most popular designs were created during her time with Fredericia: Bench for Two (1989)—a sculptural, plywood piece adorned with mesmerizing black and white geometric patterning and her vivid Butterfly Chair (1990), a dramatic, red, and black piece that cleverly summons inspiration from the natural world. These two designs gained global recognition and have won many awards.
Nanna Ditzel believed that the aesthetics of the chair were just as essential as function, citing, “It is very important to take into account the way a chair’s appearance combines with the person who sits in it. Some chairs look like crutches. And I don’t like them at all.”
Later, Ditzel’s most commercial success came in the form of the stackable Trinidad chair (1993), which had a slotted seat and backrest that helped keep the chair lightweight and well ventilated. The intricate frameworks of the colonial Gingerbread Facades on the Caribbean island of Trinidad inspired the Trinidad chair. According to Ditzel, the facades gently interacted with the sunshine, casting delicate shadows over verandahs, facilitating circulation, and adjusting room temperature. This cut-out design, when installed on a chair, ensured lightweight while also enabling sonic flow across a room.
Numerous prolific years followed, marked particularly by expressive designs that genuinely began to emphasize her status as one of Danish design’s great female creators, resulting in a slew of design prizes and honours. Nanna Ditzel continued to design and exhibit her art with the same enthusiasm and curiosity she had in her younger years until her death in 2005 at the age of 82.
Among other things, she was designated Honorary Designer by the Royal Society of Art in London, earned the Order of the Dannebrog, and got a lifetime achievement grant from the Danish Arts Foundation in 1998. Her awards include the Annual Prize of the Danish Crafts Council and the Thorvald Bindesbøl Medal.
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