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18 February 2021

Dealer in Dreams: Q & A with John Danzer

Pair of Glynwood Benches by Munder Skiles

Josephine Nuese, who wrote “The Country Garden,” once said, “January is when gardening really begins, with the dream,” requotes John Danzer. He founded Munder Skiles, a well-known outdoors furnishings company that designs its own pieces as well as replicates the finest anonymously-designed garden furniture. If coverage in national magazines is any barometer of success (Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Hamptons Magazine, Veranda, and California Homes, to name a few), Munder Skiles’ designs are killing it in the dreams-fulfilled department. Its catalog is full of statement pieces that are as carefully put together as indoor furnishings.  He says “Good gardens and great outdoor living spaces are products of dreams and intention, not last-minute decisions.” As such, John would like to remind those listening that spring arrives quickly—quicker than you think—after the New Year, so it’s time to start dreaming.

Janet Mavec: How did you find your calling in the greater garden world?

John Danzer: While I was working in London around 30 years ago, I nurtured a curious side-interest in outdoor furniture and began researching the history of its design over time. On weekends, I volunteered at Clifton Nurseries to be around the world of gardening and beautiful outdoor furnishings. Around then, a friend sent me a piece written by author and illustrator Leo Leonni. It was the commencement speech he gave at The Cooper Union called “The Irresistible Urge to Make Things.” It resonated with me and emboldened me to leave my humdrum job in finance and pursue the hurly burly of garden furniture design history. As a career. Seriously. People would ask (and still ask), Is it even a thing? Can you make a living doing that? Yes and yes, as it happens, particularly when I then leveraged my earlier research to start Munder Skiles.

JM: What are some changes or opportunities you see in design?

JD: As designers and producers of garden furnishings, we are foundational for interior designers, garden designers and landscape architects. That is, we create the products that help express their designs. To best serve their clients, they need to check the comfort of our furniture, get to know who we are, and inspect the joinery, finishes and hardware. Websites are useful, but cannot replace direct experience. Designers only need to visit a producer’s showroom once to understand the collection sufficiently to explain to their clients the reasons for their selections. The internet has bred a certain laziness. I think it weakens the design process and the value to the client (to undertake this process via the internet). Most clients appreciate their furnishings more when they know more about them.  And oh, for those not working with a design professional, we can be hired by homeowners to make an on-site visit as your Exterior Decorator tm.  We specify to fit needs and budget.

Cantor Lounge Chair and Lyford Table

Cantor Lounge Chair and Lyford Table by Munder Skiles

JM: What plant gets no love (is underused) and why should we pay more attention to it?

JD: When I started Adam + Eve lawn-mowing service at age 12, my first client was Mrs. Schulman next door. She would feed me cake and show me the dandelion wine she was making. Dandelions (and purslane, by the way) are plants that are as insistently present as stink bugs, and that many people are equally eager to be rid of. But they are delicious to eat, highly nutritious, and beyond carefree—they thrive on our complete indifference and neglect.

But speaking of getting no love ... outdoor furnishings. Some landscape architects and garden designers do not realize how important the right outdoors piece is. I’ll go back to my is-it-even-a-thing? comment. Some people aren’t aware of the variety and styles available in outdoor furnishings; or they don’t focus on it carefully, as part of the spaces they’re designing. Of course, there are those designers who are hyper attentive to the impact furnishings have on gardens and landscapes so much so that they often require that specifying them be part of their contract. So, yeah, sometimes it feels like indoors gets all the love. As Ginger Rogers said, she did exactly the same thing as Fred Astaire but in high heels and backwards.

Windsor Chair Painted Medium Iron with Rush seat cover

Windsor Chair Painted Medium Iron with Rush seat cover by Munder Skiles

JM: What makes outdoors furnishings fulfill dreams?

JD: Outdoor furnishings need to complement the character and visual experience of the garden or landscape. And be comfortable. And stay together and look good when being dragged around then left outside for decades.

JM: What’s Munder Stiles aesthetic?

JD: Our furniture is highly influenced by our goal to minimize cushions, due mainly to the hassle of storing and cleaning them, and to the cost. We rely on things like shape, finish, silhouette, material quality and craftsmanship for beauty and comfort. The appeal of a home’s interior is often heightened by a person’s collecting and traveling. Similarly, my preference is to produce interesting pieces that stand beautifully on their own but also combine well to create visual interest and character. I like mixing materials and styles when designing exterior spaces, and that is why we produce in metal, wood and outdoor wicker.

New Bubble Chair

New Bubble Chair by Munder Skiles

JM: What’s the one outdoors / garden tool you can’t live without?

JD: The rake. Love the rake. Love the deep scratch sound, love the finality (leaves, no leaves), love the no-think accomplishment. Could rake all day.

JM: What gardens have you visited recently that you love?

JD: I enjoy visiting Innisfree and Wethersfield gardens (both in New York) on the same day, often with clients. Between them, the two gardens have many of the elements that one might choose to incorporate in their own gardens.

Swan lounge chair and ottoman

Swan Lounge Chair and Ottoman by Munder Skiles

JM: What garden institution has influenced your designs?

JD: Dumbarton Oaks (in Washington D.C.). We’ve replicated Beatrix Farrand’s designs of outdoor furniture for Dumbarton Oaks for the past 20 years and they are among the pieces that have most instructed me.

JM: What’s one of your favorite inspirational books on gardening?

JD: “Eden Revisited” by Umberto Pasti and “Garden Design Master Class: 100 Lessons from the World’s Finest Designers on the Art of the Garden” edited by Carl Dellatore

JM: ... Non-profits?

JD: The Cultural Landscape Foundation and The Garden Conservancy

JM: ... stewards of the land?

JD: Love Edwina von Gal’s Perfect Earth Project

JM: Finally, how have you been coping with the pandemic?

JD: Lots of hiking near our office and showroom in Garrison, New York. A favorite is Sugarloaf Trail with spectacular views over the Hudson River, West Point and Storm King mountain. In the fall, I created a new design studio with all my archives at the showroom in Garrison.

John Danzer at the Munder Skiles showroom in Garrison, NY wearing Janet Mavec's sunflower lapel pin.

John Danzer at the Munder Skiles showroom in Garrison, NY wearing Janet Mavec's Sunflower Lapel Pin.