A visit with John Danzer, the witty, charming founder of garden-furniture firm Munder-Skiles, might find you seated in one of his designs.
But as the conversation continues, you might find yourself offered another chair to try out and then another.
Each one will be singularly artistic and incredibly comfortable – the perfect introduction to the range of Munder-Skiles.
Headquartered in Garrison with a studio/showroom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the company has been producing its signature furniture and accessories “very much below the radar,” Danzer says, for 20 years.
When it comes to garden furniture, Danzer is clearly tired of the same old.
“You talk to most people. What do they know? Adirondack, Adirondack, Adirondack – and that’s it,” he says.
Sure, that iconic design has its admirers, though Danzer playfully flops his head back to mimic the angle that is not everyone’s favorite, despite the chair’s enduring popularity.
“I think we all respond to silhouettes,” he says. “I think a lot of people buy by silhouettes. They don’t even think about comfort.”
But Danzer has specialized in adapting historic forms for a contemporary audience, a process that has earned the company a select following.
The Munder-Skiles’ way
“We still sell mostly to the trade, to decorators,” Danzer says, though his database now boasts some 15,000 discerning design lovers around the world. The Munder-Skiles clients, Danzer says, are “people who are interested in craftsmanship, interested in design, interested in history.”
Munder-Skiles, Danzer explains, uses two of his great-grandparents’ names. The nod to his own family history had a bonus: “It sounded fancier than my name.”
Danzer, who’s from Baltimore, was a lifelong gardener in the midst of a successful Wall Street career, when “I walked out on my birthday when I was 37.”
Traveling and photographing the world found him focusing on his keen interest in gardens and garden furniture. Soon, he was in London lecturing on the history of garden furniture. Returning to America, he expanded that specialty into a job designing what had so long fascinated him.
And with that came early success. The ergonomic Taconic chair (a trademarked piece), earned the Roscoe Award for “Best American Chair” in 1994. By 2000, the New York School of Interior Design offered “Re-Inventing the Garden Seat,” a Munder-Skiles design retrospective.
Danzer worked with and befriended such design luminaries as John Saladino and the late Albert Hadley (said to have called Danzer the first “exterior designer”) as he continued to develop the Munder-Skiles approach.
“We design it. We produce it. We distribute it. We photograph it,” he says. “When you call us, it’s all internal.”
On the morning of a recent conversation, Danzer says he was up until 2:30 a.m. going through magazines to add articles and photographs to his massive archives that already include countless books, rare catalogs and all kinds of ephemera. (Yes, all will be turned into Danzer’s own book).
“I’m a lunatic about it, and I know it,” he says. “I’m the library. If you look in my bag, it’s full of clips.”
And whether it’s a parchment-paper catalog from the 19th-century, a magazine clip from last week, a $5 garage-sale find or a $5,000 antique chair, all provide inspiration for the company’s creations, which are crafted in Costa Rica.
Danzer is involved in every aspect: “I love the whole science of it….Furniture has to be engineered. It’s not just blocks, squares with big cushions. There’s a whole mess of quiet stuff going on in there.”
He loves the challenge of taking a classic, such as the Windsor chair and making his own version.
Living out of doors
Danzer says people often blur the line between indoor and outdoor living.
“When you put something out into an exterior, it domesticates it,” he says. “Even on a sunny day, your eye gravitates to it.”
So it should make a statement, a singular statement.
“We sell garden rooms,” he says. “We do not sell outdoor rooms.”
People shouldn’t try to do every last thing – “eat, sleep, entertain, take a shower, watch a movie” – outside, he says. Don’t turn the backyard into a loft but rather a welcoming retreat that is separate from what you find inside.
“Really – what do you need?” Danzer will ask.
If he could name one goal? “Try to get them away from one big patio… I try to get people to utilize their entire property, not just walk out and ‘plunk.’”
As part of the company’s anniversary celebration – to be marked officially in October – Danzer shares that a Munder-Skiles showroom in Garrison will be opening in the coming months.
“It will be purely focused on garden furniture,” Danzer says, before adding with a laugh, “It’s not a gift shop. I don’t want to be inventorying garden gloves – and soap.”
Instead, the shop will give his clients the chance to sit down and discuss what they hope to create – and what Munder-Skiles can do for them.
“We’re design-centric,” Danzer stresses. “We’ll do almost anything with enough time, money and patience.”
After all, he knows just how much his clients appreciate their way of life.
“A lot of our clients are people who have built their own special spots.”
Munder-Skiles furniture, which has an innate European feel, is not a mass-market product.
“People come to me for a sensibility,” Danzer says. “I don’t do anything weird… I want it to be calm and useful.”
He’ll go to contemporary design shows and exhibitions and be amazed at the outlandish stuff, which he sometimes sees as quirky simply for the sake of being quirky.
“I don’t want a living room with flippy-floppy things,” he says.
He champions a return to appreciating simple beauty, of function with a nod to Old World elegance.
“I’ve really worked with old things and learned what made them great.”
Munder-Skiles, though, does embrace the latest technology in both production and getting the word out. Danzer, for example, mentions a new online design magazine the company is launching.
At the end of the day, though, it all comes back to the way people enjoy Munder-Skiles chairs, benches and tables.
“There’s a certain simplicity in all of it,” he says. “We’re doing something unique. Some people see it, and most don’t. And that’s OK with us.”
For more about Munder-Skiles or to request a catalog, visit munder-skiles.com.