Monday, April 18, 2016

Den Permanente

A couple weeks ago I came across some simple teak bar boards. I grabbed them because vintage barware does well in the store, and frankly a nice bar board is a great find under any circumstances, new or vintage. Each had a price sticker from a store unknown to me called “Den Permanente.” I figured they were import items, usually a solid selection, and moved on.

Obviously once I was home I did some digging on Den Permanente. Information online was surprisingly limited, but what I did find left me with one question: Why, after nearly 20 years of researching mid-century design, and after all the Danish Modern furniture and housewares I've bought and sold, did I know nothing about the greatest Danish design store that ever existed?

Den Permanente Copenhagen 1972 JCRA Archive Photo
Den Permanente, 1972 (photo: JC Raulston Arboretum archive)



Den Permanente was a store in Copenhagen that existed from the 1930s to the 1980s. It was really more than a store, it was a collective of designers and artisans who created a venue to promote the best in modern Danish design. And for many years it was the pre-eminent source for the finest Danish modern furniture, home accessories, lighting, jewelry, textiles and other crafts in the world.

The idea of a permanent display of Danish design came in 1929 from Kay Bojesen, the Danish silversmith and designer today best known for his wooden toy monkey, but just as an exhibit and not centered on sales. It was developed into a commercial endeavor in 1931 by Christian Grauballe, the director of Holmegaard Glassworks, who brought together a group of prominent Danish craftspeople to select the board for the “Permanent Exhibition of Danish Arts,” or Den Permanente.

Products were chosen in what we would call a juried manner (although in Europe they call it a censorship process, a name I personally enjoy enormously). To be able to show, a producer must first submit their designs to the censorship committee, who decides if they are acceptable for inclusion. Those product recommendations then move to the managing board who vote for or against the designs. If accepted, membership to Den Permanente is granted, and the new member, whether industrial producer or craftsperson, now has one vote toward electing the board in the future. But throughout their membership, every single item to be displayed is approved by the board.

Den Permanente started as a 7800 sf space in a second floor exhibition space in the Versterport office building opposide the Central Railway Station. 126 exhibitors were originally shown in the space. The store moved around a bit – to the ground floor in 1937, to a different spot in 1940, out altogether when the Nazis took occupation of the building in 1944 – before finally settling in a two-story space facing Vesterbrogade, the main shopping street in the Vesterbro district.

Here is an excellent and detailed history of Den Permanente written by its director in 1965, and below is a hip little French video clip from 1961 with some interior shots (click the "fiche media" icon to view the video on the site if you want subtitles.)


Den Permanente became a go-to spot for American tourists as the US economy expanded after World War II and modernism made its way into American homes. In May 1955, a time when Danish Modern furnishings and housewares were really coming into vogue in the US, the Sunday New York Times detailed quite extensively the types of items you would find. The first floor was devoted to furniture – other than Fritz Hansen's factory-made pieces all of it the handmade teak and rosewood beauty that fetches such high prices today – and ceramics. Upstairs (“the staircase itself is a masterpiece of Danish architecture”) was bronze, silver, linens, lighting, jewelry and leather goods, as well as a selection of elevated souvenirs. There was also a section devoted to contemporary paintings, sculpture and posters, “again, the masters are displayed alongside the unknowns.”

Den Permanente, 1963, wsg Georg Jensen

You have to imagine what a revelation walking into a place like this must have been, at a time when most cities had maybe just a store or two that specialized in modern design, and you barely had color photos in magazines let alone the internet for all your design porn. In 1971 the Chicago Tribune's Traveler's Guide advised, “Plan to spend at least two hours of your shopping time in Den Permanente.”

Den Permanente, 1972, wsg Bjorn Wiinblad
Den Permanente, 1972 (photos: JC Raulston Arboretum archive)

Den Permanente had a busy export component, first developed so international shoppers at the store could send their purchases home, then evolving into a wholesale business of its own. By the 1960s "Den Permanente" was a Danish brand listed alongside Georg Jensen, Dansk, Copco and others in US design store advertisements. A nice result of this was the printing of annual catalogs, which I am sure has served many an auction house researcher well.

Den Permanente, 1972 catalog

It's hard to believe today, but enthusiasm for Danish Modern design had waned by the 1980s. Everything goes through that fashion cycle, of course, but by then it had been copied and cheapened (search “Danish Modern” on Craigslist to see what I mean). Tastes had turned to lighter woods and, according to a New York Times pieces from 1980 entitled “The Melancholy Fate of Danish Modern Style,” the counterculture of the 60s and 70s had rebelled against everything establishment and Danish Modern was nothing if not established good taste. If it wasn't shocking or new, it was for suburban squares. (This same article wisely predicted “Like the Victoriana in the attic, it will all be discovered again.”)

Leather wastebaskets from Den Permanente in the upcoming
Scandinavian Design auction at Wright, est. $3000 - $5000.

Den Permanente as a cooperative ended in 1981. Instead of closing it was purchased from its 250 owners and incorporated by a Japanese exporter who was a fan of the store, but by 1989 it was gone for good. A travel writer for the Los Angeles Times wrote of her discovery that the store had closed, “I felt as if I had returned home to find my family missing--and the furniture gone as well. “

If you have a little bit of life behind you then you've probably felt the sadness of discovering a favorite store has closed. It's maybe even more acute now that the internet provides such stiff competition for bricks and mortar retailers and unique shopping experiences are so few and far between. I'm not sure why there isn't more digital love for Den Permanente, except perhaps for the fact that anyone who shopped there probably never jumped on the blogging bandwagon. But it seems like it deserves the treatment the Boston store Design Research got (in this excellent book), at the very least.

Digging around for information on this reminded me how every once in a while the great part of the hunt for vintage stuff isn't just what you find, but what you learn. This was a pretty satisfying end result, coming from a couple small pieces of teak.

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