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Theodore D. Nierenberg dies at 86; founder of Dansk

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Theodore D. Nierenberg, who founded Dansk International Designs in New York to manufacture modern Scandinavian tableware and cookware that became popular among postwar American families ready to embrace a new casualness at the dinner table, has died. He was 86.

Nierenberg died Friday of pancreatic cancer at his home in Armonk, N.Y., said a son, Al.

Trained as an engineer, Nierenberg was visiting a Copenhagen museum in 1954 when he spotted hand-forged stainless steel flatware with teak handles, then an unusual combination. He tracked down its Danish designer, Jens Quistgaard, on a farm and convinced him it could be mass-produced.

In their garage on Long Island in New York, Nierenberg and his wife, Martha, founded the company that same year. They mainly employed Scandinavian designers and attached the artists' names to their works.

Nierenberg "was providing unbelievable design for everyday use," said Pam Massenburg, vice president of Dansk, which Nierenberg sold to the Lenox Corp. in the 1980s. "He was quite the visionary. . . . He recognized the casualization of America that was starting to happen."

The clean, contemporary lines favored by Dansk came to epitomize overall Scandinavian design. Founding designer Quistgaard, who stayed with the company until the mid-1980s, was especially known for salad bowls of exotic woods and for Fjord, the flatware pattern based on his museum pieces. Quistgaard died last year at 88.

Larry Schaeffer, who sells vintage Dansk pieces at his OK Gallery in Los Angeles, said Nierenberg "created something completely ubiquitous, making it popular and accessible so that each person's mom had it. Because of it, people everywhere became interested in Danish design."

Design integrity was important from the start at Dansk, said Lester Gribetz, president of Lenox. He was vice chairman of Bloomingdale's when the department store became one of Dansk's early clients.

"He was very focused and did not compromise his standards," Gribetz said. "It was always interesting talking to him. He talked design, not sales. He was a purist. It was all about the beauty and clarity of the design."

Theodore David Nierenberg was born May 20, 1923, in New York City to Albert and Rose Nierenberg. He was known as Ted.

During World War II, Nierenberg served as a pilot in the Army Air Forces. In 1944, he earned a bachelor's in engineering management from what is now Carnegie Mellon University.

With a brother, he ran the family's metal-fabrication business but started traveling the world, looking to do something "he could be proud of and enjoy," said Paul Thonis, director of design at Dansk who worked with Nierenberg in the 1980s.

In the late 1950s, Nierenberg bought woodland and lake property in Armonk and built a contemporary house. Nierenberg also spent decades crafting a pastoral landscape around the water.

By the 1980s, he was transforming himself into a photographer, with his garden as his main subject. He took about 75,000 pictures a year for five years, Nierenberg once said.

A selection was published in his 1993 book, "The Beckoning Path: Lessons of a Lifelong Garden."

"One of the things he taught me was, 'Don't think small,' " Thonis said. "It was not unlike him to say, 'I just saw this great vase in Singapore that I want you to see.' And he meant go, right now."

In addition to his wife, Martha, and son Al, Nierenberg is survived by another son, Peter; two daughters, Lisa and Karin; and 10 grandchildren.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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