John Danzer, Founder of Munder-Skiles, Has a Legacy That Keeps on Growing
John Danzer is the founder and designer of Munder-Skiles, today’s most intriguing and unassuming garden furniture line that is redefining the relationship we have with the furniture that surrounds us in gardens. Danzer’s journey began after he left an unfulfilling career on Wall Street, took a few trips around the world, and sent a pile of undeveloped film to a close friend. That same friend sent his developed images along with a post-it that read, “All you do is take pictures of gardens and garden furniture.”
At the time, Danzer didn’t know that he would go on to design the trademarked Taconic Chair, which won the 1994 Roscoe Award for “Best American Chair”— the first garden chair to win such an award– but the post-it note served as a sort of totemic prognosis of what was to come. Danzer also didn’t know that he would build a portfolio of 128 unique designs, ushering in an era of furniture designs that bridge the gap between the interior and exterior design world. Today, he stands before me in his newly-occupied Los Angeles showroom with chairs hanging along the wall like art (which is Munder-Skiles’ signature look).
Danzer grew up in Baltimore with a German father that detested foundation planting. “My parents were both gardeners, but one of my earliest memories is of my Dad ripping out the front walkway because he wanted to be able to have dinner on the lawn. The neighbors said, ‘You can’t do that!’ but he wanted to be able to look out on plant material and capitalize on all the space around us. I knew this was strange because my friends houses’ looked like cookie cutters— it was the 1950s. Soon, I became the head gardener of our household and I started my lawn service company called Adam and Eve. The girls did all the clipping. I had a BMW by the time I was 16 because of that,” he mused.
“I wanted to be a landscape architect, but I got swept up studying Art History in college. My grandmother was also a big gardener– her 18th-Century drawings of zinnias are among my most prized possessions. [Zinnias] are also my favorite flower— it’s sort of a trashy thing that I love. I had a bunch of zinnia seeds that I dumped into a planter once. I asked my gardener if he would plant a little pine tree for me and he must have taken the dirt from the area that I planted the seeds! So now there’s a tiny pine tree with zinnias growing all around it. It actually looks fantastic,” he laughs.
After college came the 85-hour work weeks in finance, the expectation that he was to read five newspapers a day, and the non-stop travel (at one point he visited 22 countries in one year). Danzer was ready for a change. He read a speech around the same time called “An Irresistible Urge to Make Things” by beloved children’s book author and illustrator Leo Lionni, which addressed creativity and the creative impulse. After that Danzer knew that he would never work in finance again. “I picked up the phone to call Leo Lionni and asked, ‘Can I come see you?’ He was living in Italy at the time, so off I went. After that I found myself in the Victoria and Albert Museum (in London) wearing white gloves, going through garden furniture archives. I decided then that I would give a lecture on 18th century garden furniture,” he told me. Danzer gave a lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum that year, and the following year at Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Soon to follow was his very own garden furniture line and the legacy that has become Munder-Skiles.
There were certain milestones that Danzer wanted to achieve when he launched the company. “The finest garden in America is the Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. We’re in a three year restoration project with them,” he says. “It’s a garden by Beatrix Farrand that has 67 unique designs [from Munder-Skiles],” Danzer explained as he began to point to a table beside us. “This came out of it! I did my initial research at the garden 24 years ago, so that project has come full-circle for me.”
“I am not someone who has financial goals,” he announces later. “I have legacy goals, which is more interesting. People don’t always understand that in America,” he continues. “The other goal I had [in establishing the direction of the company] is to achieve what I call ‘educated modern’— not the boxes that you see everywhere— ‘modern’ is organic and has a lot of different expressive ways. It’s easy to go down the merchandising role [when it comes to purchasing furniture] but I’m just not that way. I want to engage with people when they shop. I want to grill them. I want them to grill me. I want it to be an experience. We’ve sort of hit the ultimate, in regards to modernism, because we just did the Amangirl Hotel in Utah”– a remote destination resort tucked away in Canyon Point– “And then there’s our showroom in Garrison, New York which is a destination. There are several terraces, there’s an old building which has been completely restored and redone, we are right across the road from The Garden Conservancy, and down the road from a large sculpture park— 1,100 acres with the largest collection of Richard Serra in the world. My husband created a map that includes our hotel, restaurants, golf courses, tennis courts, driving services, and everything is right there. You would think I am in Alaska, because I’m not on sweaty Madison Avenue, but Garrison is the new Sonoma with fjords, mountains, and many art-related activities for our clients to enjoy.”
Danzer has purchased a home in Spain where he plans to be living full-time within the next five years. This will become yet another destination for the garden world to feast their eyes upon, as Munder-Skiles furthers the lineage of garden furniture both in the Mediterranean and throughout the world. Until then, the post-it note sits framed in his office to remind him of how the journey began.