FINANCIAL TIMES STORY
Furniture hunting with the New York design
set’s secret weapon
How one Danish-American dealer has scoured Scandinavia for postwar design classics and sold them to hip New Yorkers
As a child growing up in Denmark, Lars Noah Balderskilde spent his free time in a couple of places: the airfield and the flea market. His parents, florists by profession, had two hobbies — skydiving and antiquing — and dragged their youngest child along to both. While his friends went on summer trips to Mallorca or Greece, little Lars spent holidays camping in southern Denmark, watching his parents jump out of planes.
When he turned 18, he had a go himself. But he found the whole experience strangely underwhelming. “I didn’t get that adrenaline kick,” he says. By then he knew it was through his parents’ other pastime that he found true exhilaration.
Lars loved strolling round stands of bric-à‑brac, hands clammy with pocket money, looking for vintage wooden toys. It was there that he took his early steps in learning how to negotiate a price. “You end up getting them very cheap if you have an adorable kid coming to try and bargain with you,” he smiles. “It’s about being charming, establishing relationships with people.”
Starting young has paid off in spades for the 48-year-old entrepreneur. Mid-century style has seen its reputation rebooted in the US in recent years, bolstered via the replicas churned out by the Design Within Reach network of stores, and the merger two years ago between mid-century’s two foremost proponents stateside, Herman Miller and Knoll, now MillerKnoll.
Today Balderskilde is the foremost discreet dealer of Denmark’s finest furniture in New York, via his New Jersey-based firm, Lanoba. The company, operated by Balderskilde and his husband David Singh, 49, is like an underground railroad for mid-century antiques. For an ever-growing audience in Manhattan and Brooklyn hooked on Scandinavian designers, whether household names like Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner, or insider choices like Erling Torvits or Henry Kjærnulf, Lanoba is their secret weapon. Shared, password-style, among design junkies, it’s the interiors answer to insider trading.
In a grimy, industrial corner of the Jersey City docks, surrounded by trucks, Lanoba’s vast 4,720-sq-ft warehouse-store is a sight for sore eyes. Everywhere you look there are piles of teak and rosewood furniture: desks, credenzas, tables and chairs lining an Aladdin’s cave of Danish modern design. Chestnut dominates, occasionally interrupted by a glimpse of something else — a vase, lamp, trinket or, as on one surface, a heavy bread slicer like a tabletop scythe. Every single item has been personally sourced by Balderskilde back in his home country, then imported in shipping containers carrying seven tons of furniture at a time, four or five times per year, to generate a pipeline. Even the location of the store has been carefully sourced, he admits. “It gives us some authenticity, the fact they have to hunt for the secret place, this warehouse.
” The idea came to Balderskilde and Singh in 2015 when they were visiting Singh’s parents just outside Chicago. As usual, the magpie-like Balderskilde made a beeline for flea markets and estate sales but he was startled to see a surfeit of furniture that he recognized from back home, the legacy of Scandinavian immigrants who had flocked to the Midwest, bringing their chairs and tables with them. Demand for these pieces was high.
“One of the women organizing a sale said, ‘The Danish pieces we have? You need to form a line at 6am because those go like that,’” Singh recalls. This offhand remark ignited an idea. Balderskilde thought he could find similar pieces cheaper in Denmark, bring them over, then refurbish them ready to sell.
Almost a decade on, Balderskilde and Singh estimate they’ve salvaged more than 10,000 pieces, relying on the same homespun system. Several times each year, Balderskilde heads back to Denmark for three-week periods and begins driving around in a small van, spending up to 14 hours a day on the road. These days, he’ll have appointments scheduled before his trip, often sourced via a Danish-language Instagram account, @dansk_retro, to streamline things. But initially the process would often take months.
Back then, Balderskilde might knock on a stranger’s door, deploying his childhood honed charm to ask if the owner had any furniture they might want to sell. Danishness proved his secret weapon. “People in Denmark are very to-the-point, but you have to do it in a polite, gentle way,” he says. “David wouldn’t be able to do it.” Indeed, the couple make a contrasting pair: Singh, who has a background in corporate finance, is compact, fast-talking and energetic. Balderskilde is more reserved, the only hint of swagger suggested by his ska-style patterned trousers and T-shirt
Having sourced the pieces, Balderskilde stores his stash in a barn belonging to his brother, a furniture restorer from whom he learnt many of the skills on which the business now relies. Once there is enough to fill a shipping container, friends and family will be corralled to help tessellate the furniture inside and ensure that it fits in the container. A few weeks and nearly 4,000 miles later, it will arrive in New Jersey, where Balderskilde and Singh spend a few days unloading it themselves, and fielding calls from excited customers.
“I had one woman call me and say ‘Do I need to be there at 6am?’ and I said ‘You need to chill out a little,’” Singh laughs. Perhaps 40-50 per cent of items will sell over the opening weekend after they go on sale; the pair offer them at a discount unrestored, but most buyers opt instead to wait and pay a little more.
It’s easy to see why. New York is the ultimate “I gotta guy” city, a place where it is vital to keep a mental Rolodex of hard-to-find resources, whether that’s a reliable plumber or someone who’ll always squeeze you in for a last-minute tweak or jab. Savviness is social currency and knowing how to outsmart the mainstream is a mark of pride, more Del Boy than doing the right thing. Lanoba leverages that instinct, ticking — and tickling — every neurotic New Yorker’s need for oneupmanship: it’s hard to find but worth the trek, not cheap but still great value, secretive but clubby once you’ve pledged your pocketbook.
“When the containers get unloaded, it’s nuts,” marvels Bryan Kuan, a production designer and customer who lives in Jersey City, just across the Hudson from Manhattan. Kuan, 35, thinks Lanoba’s grassroots approach means they’ve also influenced a new demographic. “I’ve not been to Europe, but thanks to them I’m definitely going to make a trip to Denmark.”
For the most part, the sought-after items at Lanoba are not pricey, name-brand treasures; there might be an occasional recognizable piece, but Balderskilde and Singh aren’t aiming at snooty collectors. Instead, the pair want to reach a middle market keen on good design, but unwilling to pay for an Arne Vodder or Finn Juhl. Credenzas, for example, usually cost about $2,500 at Lanoba, whereas a Vodder purist could pay up to $40,000 for a similar piece with provenance proving it as his work. The record-breaking price for a Finn Juhl set — in this case, a sofa and two chairs — was around £462,000 at auction including buyer’s premium three years ago. “Our customers don’t care about names,” says Balderskilde.
Jonathan Pierce is one of those customers; he moved from California to a new home in upstate New York after retiring as a doctor, and resolved to furnish it in a nod to his childhood home, where his architect father had invested in Danish design. “It just imprinted on me as a child, and seeing that, I wanted to have it again,” he says. He and his wife bought almost all the new pieces for their home from Lanoba, never spending more than $2,250 on a single item. “Every time my wife and I went to Lanoba, we felt uplifted and inspired — we kept saying it was like a candy shop,” he explains.
Kuan was turned on to mid-century by his design-mad (but not Danish) wife Rosa Maria. “She turned our place into somewhere that feels like a café-lounge in Denmark instead of an industrial place full of black, white and monochrome,” he says. They have now outfitted nearly the entire home from Lanoba. “They were able to explain everything to me, how they work, the rose wood and the provenance. I love the stories behind it
.” Balderskilde offers a primer in mid-century design to any client, like Kuan, who shows interest, growing visibly animated as he starts to talk about the origins of Danish modernism. The second world war affected Scandinavia unevenly, he explains: neutral Sweden was able to continue to function, industrializing its production methods and priming it to be the economic powerhouse of today. Occupied Denmark fared differently.
“Everything shut down, and it also kind of went backward,” says Balderskilde. “Coming out of the war, people were still producing furniture as they had before, by hand. It got that stamp of high quality because they spent time and effort to make the joints perfect.” Later people started moving out of the city centres and building houses in suburbs. “They wanted that American dream life, but since there wasn’t really trade between countries, they could only get furniture in Denmark.
” Peter Kjelgaard Jensen, who runs Modern and Decorative Art & Design for the Copenhagen-based Bruun Rasmussen auction house, concurs. “Denmark was an anachronism after the war: modern-thinking designers, but a way of making furniture that was still small-scale, in a peasant’s country. The price of labour wasn’t very high, so even average Danish furniture was very well made compared with Swedish, American or English
The worldwide appeal of those high-calibre mass-market pieces is evident, and Lanoba isn’t alone in acting as a niche importer of Danish design. Others who operate on a similar model include the Vintage Shop in Auckland, New Zealand, and the Danish Homestore in Nottingham, in the UK. Elsewhere in the US, Mid Century Møbler is run from a 10,000‑sq‑ft showroom and warehouse in Berkeley, California, by Julian Goldklang and his wife Desirée. After he was laid off from his job as a TV producer, Goldklang started out scouring local Craigslist ads for underpriced items he could restore and flip to help pay his bills before venturing over to England to bring back some mid-century pieces. The couple bring in around five 40-foot containers each year. Goldklang says he’ll typically charge about $3,000 for a credenza that cost him $1,000; the margin includes shipping, profit and restoring costs of around $800. Like Lanoba, many of Mid Century Møbler’s pieces are dispatched from Denmark.
The markets in the two countries are drastically different, even though both embrace mid-century pieces. Back home, there’s a grandmotherliness to the aesthetic that alienates some younger Danish buyers who prefer contemporary design. And for those who are keen to snap up second-hand pieces, he adds, they cherish the patina, which keeps prices more moderate. In America, however, it’s the refinishing to near-new condition which US buyers prefer, that creates the margins.
“Danes are also design junkies especially when it comes to furniture and love to update their furniture quite often,” says Balderskilde. That makes them more forward-looking than nostalgic — for a Dane, hygge is a contemporary idea, rather than something that just has cosy overtones, and can be achieved with new pieces as readily as with antiques. They’ll happily sell the latter. “People are often thrilled to think ‘Oh, grandma’s piece is going to New York.’ We have a really unique supply chain,” says Singh.
When the pair started, they thought they’d run the business for five years or so; already, they’re in year eight. “So I said maybe we’ll do it for a few more years, until there’s no more furniture,” says Balderskilde, pausing with a half-smile, “And of course, there’s still a lot more furniture.”