Still in the garden, sitting pretty

John Danzer was honored by The Horticultural Society of New York. Photograph Courtesy Munder-Skiles

A conversation with John Danzer will always yield a few things – and among the constants are not only a few laughs but also some savvy insights into the world of outdoor furniture.

WAG first spotlighted Danzer, the founder of the Munder-Skiles garden-furniture firm, in a June 2012 profile. It was back then when we shared the details of his innovative designs that appeal to those he likes to consider “people who are interested in craftsmanship, interested in design, interested in history.”

Ever since, we have followed his ascending career path, so it was a lovely instance of serendipity when WAG spotted Danzer as a fellow attendee at a salon lecture at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House in Manhattan. The fittingly stylish venue was the ideal backdrop for a quick chat, a few moments on the fly to be followed later by a longer conversation to hear more about what he’s been up to.

We congratulated him on his prestigious award: Danzer was honored in late April by The Horticultural Society of New York, receiving its Award of Excellence during the 17th annual New York Flower Show Dinner Dance. It’s a major recognition that the society bestows on “an individual based on his outstanding contributions to the fields of horticulture and/or other related fields such as landscape architecture/design, floral design, garden design, garden publishing/writing, botanical art, urban planning and so forth.”

And, Danzer shared with us, it was particularly rewarding considering his feelings about the organization and its Metro Hort group (“They’re plant people,” he says matter-of-factly).

“I’ve had this long history with them, and I adore them,” Danzer says. In his early days in the field, he often turned to the group’s resources, much in the way an interior designer would delve into a study of architecture.

“When I started my garden-furniture company I realized I needed to know a lot about plants and gardens. I used the library extensively. It is one of my great resources.”

The association also led to an introduction to landscape designer Edwina von Gal, who became a friend and client, affecting his development and outlook.

“We all worked on the projects in the prisons,” Danzer says of the horticultural society’s therapeutic programs working with inmates.

Danzer, originally from Baltimore, was a Wall Street success when one day he left it all to pursue travel and photography. That time also enabled him to pursue his lifelong interests in gardens and garden furniture. Lecturing would soon develop into design, and the rest, as they say, is history with Munder-Skiles set to mark its 25th anniversary in 2017.

Danzer has long held that the best way to see – and appreciate – his work is in a natural, outdoor setting. It’s what prompted him in late 2012 to open a showroom in Garrison that is serving its purpose, “having visitors like crazy.”

“When they’re here, they understand it,” he says.

But that wasn’t the only move in Garrison.

“I moved my design studio here. … It feels very different but it feels right.”

And the word has continued to spread from his Hudson Valley home.

“You don’t have to be in New York to survive,” Danzer adds.

He loves to bring his city-based clients up to Garrison, his spur-of-the-moment approach creating a sense of adventure – “Throw them in a car, get them in a limousine,” he says with a laugh.

And the clients not only experience the showroom but also its surroundings, aided by a charming “Legend of the Hudson Highlands” regional map that highlights points of interest ranging from those of “historic beauty” to others with ties to The Revolutionary War.

Danzer, though, reminds there is a definite sensibility to operations in Garrison. It’s “a showroom, not a shop” and a place to become immersed in the projects that would incorporate his handcrafted furniture and accessories.

“You sit. You contemplate. You think about what makes sense,” he says.

Our longer conversation with Danzer came during the couple of days he was back in New York from the West Coast – and just before he headed out to Spain.

This European trip, he shares, would include a bit of business as he is finalizing the details of upcoming work with a venerable Spanish wicker company he discovered almost by accident.

“I have a tiny farm there,” he says. “I literally bumped into the place.”

Danzer is excited to be working with wicker, which he says, “lends a casualness to a room.”

“We are going to rep some of their products here under private label, but with our own twists to it.”

And those signature twists are what Munder-Skiles has always been about in an industry in which so many seem to follow the same path.

“What’s going on in design… Everyone ran after mid-century design and Modern.”

It’s been exhausted, Danzer says, with new inspirations sought.

Guess what? Companies are now exploring other eras, or turning to, Danzer says, “the way we’ve always worked – Dig into history.”

Danzer is no fan of the mass-market approach, where “It’s all about visuals.”

“Everybody is so concentrated (on) bold, geometrics.”

Good design can get buried under a pile of vibrant cushions.

“I can’t stand cushions,” Danzer says with a laugh, though admits, “We do them, but …”

After all, he playfully notes, “Who do they think is managing all this mess?”

Instead, at Munder-Skiles, the emphasis remains on good design, on tweaking historical influences to meet a refined contemporary taste. He shares a few of the company’s newest designs, a testament to an unwavering point of view and a subtle elegance.

It’s all about, Danzer concludes, on seeing “how quiet can it really get.”


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