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Nanna Ditzel

Nanna Ditzel (1923 – 2005) Discovering that Nanna Ditzel is often called, “The First Lady of Danish Furniture Design” may come as a surprise especially as she appears in this index. In the 20th Century’s male dominated fields of architecture and furniture design, she was the most successful female Danish designer of that time.

Born in Copenhagen in 1923, Nanna Ditzel became one of Denmark’s most accomplished designers and the first woman to design for Georg Jensen. She and her first husband, Jorgen (1921-1961), were trained as furniture and textile designers, but Nanna later switched to jewelry design. The fruitful Ditzel collaboration also produced influential enamel pieces for A. Michelsen.

Nanna trained as a cabinetmaker before attending the Danish School of Arts, Crafts and Design and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts from which she graduated in 1946. Even while she studied, Nanna began showing her work at the Cabinetmaker’s Guild annual exhibits. She met husband, Jorgen at school and they began working and exhibiting together in 1944.

While she was trained in cabinet making and he in upholstery, they shared the idea of creating comfortable, livable and simple environments. They established their own design studio where Nanna continued to work and developed careers in other fields of design.

The Ditzels spent the first part of their career trying to produce furniture that would expand, separate or serve a dual purpose so it could comfortably fit into small apartments. They first focused on children’s furniture, though they soon began designing items for the rest of the home.

Two of their innovative designs were a tea table with a top that lifted off to become a tray, in 195, a bed that tapered towards the foot to take up less space and the 1959 “Basket” chair designed to be suspended from the ceiling. That chair is the most famous example of their experiments in wicker.

In 1954, they began to create designs for Georg Jensen. Nanna and Jorgen created many designs for Jensen, mostly jewelry although she also created some hollowware. Even after Jorgen passed away, Nanna kept the studio going and continued to work in a variety of media.

The collaboration between the Ditzels and Jensen began when Nanna decided to start designing jewelry as something she could do at home while her children slept. It was not long after the Ditzels and Jensen began their relationship that a jewelry competition sponsored by A. Michelsen arose and her designs won first prize.

In 1954, Finn Juhl, who was developing the exhibition’s 50th anniversary exhibition chose the Ditzels for the design work. They created five pieces of jewelry for the exhibit that were very well received. Further jewelry designs were created, and many of these pieces would go on to win various awards and prizes.

The jewelry the Ditzels designed was very successful. These very modern designs were considered unique when first released. It’s been said that Ditzel designs would almost melt together with the curves of the human body instead of standing out as something cold and metallic. In 1956 the Ditzels jointly received the Lunning Prize for their jewelry designs.

The famous Ditzel necklace of silver petals, created for and produced by Jensen beginning in 1956 is the most expensive ever produced by that firm. It remains in production as do many other Ditzel early, innovative, striking designs. Nanna Ditzel once said “…Clarity of mind and dress are necessary to wear this jewelry.”

Jorgen’s untimely death in 1961 at only age 40 was a terrible time for Nanna. She had not only lost her husband and lover but also her business and design partner. However, Nanna Ditzel was a very strong woman and continued to design on her own. She would go on to create many pieces of experimental and industrial furniture, textiles and artwork.

In 1968, Nanna married her second husband, Kurt Heide and relocated to London where they continued to work in design. They established their company Nanna Ditzel Productions Ltd.

In 1986, when Kurt passed away, Nanna moved back to Denmark to continue her work. For the last twenty years of her life, Ditzel focused mainly on furniture design, such as the Trinidad chair (1993). This design, however, also led to further refinement of her jewelry pieces such as bracelet #389 in 1994.

Sometimes the Ditzel mark appears as “NJ” for Nanna and Jorgen or “ND” for Nanna Ditzel and are stamped alongside the Jensen mark. 

Ditzel won many major awards during her long career and had her work exhibited all over the world. She received the silver and gold medals at the Milan Tirennale (1954 and 1960), the Lunning Prize (with Jorgen in 1954), a gold medal at the International Furniture Design Competition in 1990, and the Thorvald Bindesboll Medal in 1999. She also received the title of Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog, Honorable Royal Designer in 1996.

Among her designs still in production are jewelry for Georg Jensen, textiles for Kvadrat and furniture for Fredericia Furniture, Snedkergaarden, Getama, OneCollection, SikaDesign and more. A film about Nanna Ditzel, her designs and working methods was produced in 1991 by the Danish Ministry of Education.

When most have long since retired, the grand old lady of Danish design continued to attract worldwide attention and welcomed the inspiration she found in new materials and production methods. She used to say, “Three steps forward and two back still means I’ve taken a step in the right direction!”

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