People who are familiar with the name Nanna Ditzel (1923-2005) tend to associate her with one thing: her ‘Hanging Egg’ chair of 1959, whose cocooning wicker form heralded the playful, free-spirited mood of the 1960s. But there’s much more to Ditzel’s story, in fact, she was one of the most versatile talents of her day. As Danish brands Fredericia and Brdr. Krüger reissue two of her iconic designs, it’s time to bring her work back into the spotlight.
Born in Copenhagen, Ditzel inherited a passion for art and design from her mother. She studied cabinetmaking and then did a degree in architecture at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of FineArts, graduating in 1946. While she was there, she met her future husband, Jørgen Ditzel. They became the golden couple of Danish design, creating pared-down wooden furniture in their studio as well as minimalist jewellery for silversmith Georg Jensen. The latter won them the coveted Lunning Prize – the design world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize – in 1956.
The first of several turning points in Ditzel’s life came in 1961, when her husband died aged just 40. Devastated but undaunted, she reinvented herself as a solo designer, experimenting with materials like fibreglass as well as producing a range of upholstery fabrics –‘Hallingdal’ (1965), a plain wool now produced by Kvadrat, remains a classic. Identifying a ‘Ditzel look’ is all but impossible: for every nature-inspired wicker piece she made, there was one more brightly coloured and urban in feel, like her Sputnik-style hall stand of 1963. And she diversified again in 1968, opening the Hampstead store Interspace with her second husband, manufacturer Kurt Heide. It was one of the first places in London to showcase contemporary furniture.
After being widowed again in 1985, Ditzel returned to Copenhagen. Now in her sixties, she was Denmark’s grande dame of design. A line of upholstery for Danish and Swedish IC3 railway trains cemented her place in the popular imagination and in 1993 came one of her most successful works: the ‘Trinidad’ dining chair, whose fan-shaped back creates an elegant play of light and shadow. It marked the high point of a partnership with Fredericia, which lasted from 1989 until her death.
When Ditzel was 72, she brought her three daughters on board to help run her studio and, today, they continue to safeguard her legacy. She’d surely be delighted with the latest projects: her 1949 lounge chair – a comfortingly round shape intended to be admired from every angle – has been reissued by Fredericia, while the ‘Arkade’ chair, a previously unreleased piece from 1983, is making its debut. A collaboration between Ditzel and Niels Krüger of furniture brand Brdr. Krüger, the sculptural piece favours soft circular shapes with elegant recurring arches. There's also the 'Ocean' chairs and tables she designed with Jørgen in 1955, which have recently been revisited by Danish brand Mater, now made from recycled ocean plastics. All of which go to show that her work, even now, is continuing to evolve. brdr-kruger.com; fredericia.com; materdesign.co.uk
This article appeared in ELLE Decoration June 2020 issue
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