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April 7, 2009

If you dig through your parents’ kitchen cupboards, chances are you’ll find a Jens Quistgaard design. Although “Quistgaard” never became a household name, the company he cofounded and the pepper mills he created brought Danish modernism to the American table.

Wooden pepper mills

If you dig through your parents’ kitchen cupboards, chances are you’ll find a Jens Quistgaard design. Although “Quistgaard” never became a household name, the company he cofounded and the pepper mills he created brought Danish modernism to the American table.

Born in 1919 and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, Quistgaard forged metal on his own anvil at age 14 and exhibited self-designed sets of knives a year later. In fact, it was Quistgaard’s work on display at a knife exhibition in Copenhagen in 1950 that caught the eye of American entrepreneur Ted Nierenberg. Quistgaard had the artistic vision to take everyday household tools and make them beautiful, and Nierenberg had the know-how to make beautiful tools available to the everyday buyer. Together they formed Dansk, a flatware and cookware company, in 1954.

The pick of the crop of Dansk’s early lines was Quistgaard’s teak pepper mills. A 1964 advertisement touts the mills’ exotic material, superior grinding mechanisms, and clever design, with a saltshaker on top and a pepper-grinder below—a then-uncommon combination.

Quistgaard changed the way Americans view tableware, says Mark Perlson, author of Danish Pepper: Jens Quistgaard’s Teak Pepper Mills. “He was able to take a very basic machine and make it ergonomic and functional but also very beautiful.” And his timing could not have been better: As modern homes were increasingly being designed with open floor plans and kitchens were moved into dining rooms, cooking and serving utensils were suddenly an artistic focus—and, in the 1960s, Quistgaard’s tiny teaks took center stage.

“They’re a real study in industrial design,” Perlson explains. “Even though they’re all different, they’re still recognizable as Quistgaard’s work—especially once you’ve held them. They feel like Quistgaards.” Perlson adds that it’s almost impossible to judge the scale of each piece until he’s held it; it’s “almost an optical illusion,” he jokes. The photos in Perlson’s book are thus printed, in almost all cases, to scale.

Today the pepper mills’ collection market is thriving. Danish-design enthusiasts regularly pay more than $100 on eBay to add a Quistgaard mill to their collections. It’s perhaps a high price to pay to add spice to your meal—but for a useful piece of art, it’s a steal.
 

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