We’ve been thinking a lot recently about the frenetic pace of modern life, our constant attachment to technology and the resulting effect on our well-being. Prompted by Carl Honore’s, In Praise of Slow, we’ve consciously been trying to take a measured and stripped-back approach to life. With this in mind, our trip to Nottingham could not have come at a more appropriate time.
The first thing that struck us when we met Simon Harrison of the Danish Homestore was his straight-forward, uncomplicated demeanour. We soon discovered that this approach translates directly into the way he operates his business. He chooses to show his collection in a barely decorated, pared back space of some 18,000 square feet in Nottingham Town Centre. No fancy sets with intentional lighting schemes just beautiful, honest Danish mid century pieces which mostly have proven authenticity. After speaking to Simon, it is evident that the research and provenance side of the business is something which he clearly relishes.
We peeked into Simon’s office which is stacked high with mountains of research material, reference manuals and books. He showed us one of his most prized possessions which is a copy of Møbeltegninger, a learning manual which was used in its original form at the Danish School of Arts. He is constantly adding to his library of reference materials and he is now able to document the provenance of most of the pieces that he sells.
We left Simon with our brains bursting, as he recalled a plethora of restoration techniques, designers and styles – Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Arne Jacobsen, the list goes on. He admits that he can recognise a design by just a glance at a chair leg, and the wealth of knowledge he possesses is captivating. Despite his experience, we weren’t left feeling intimidated, but instead absolutely engaged by the fascinating histories of certain pieces, recounted by Simon with a typical Northern lack of airs and graces.
Simon’s father was born in Wales, raised in Leicester and moved to Denmark in 1961 where he met Simon’s mother. He set up a shop in Denmark importing and selling English antiques. The tables turned when he was asked to bring some Danish furniture back over to England for friends and family and the first teak coffee table was put up for auction, selling for £14. On the next trip he brought a whole van load of furniture and so the foundations of the Danish Homestore were laid. Simon’s heritage lends itself perfectly to the business that he has looked after and grown since 1994.
How did you you get started?
Well, I have a retail degree and served my ‘apprenticeship’ in the corporate world with a large Scandinavian supermarket chain, but I didn’t want to spend my life elbowing people out of the way to climb the ladder. After six years I decided to leave and spent some time in Australia before coming home in 1994 to take over the running of the company from my Dad who had established it many years earlier.
My Dad is still involved and oversees the buying in Denmark where we have two warehouses. I travel to Denmark once a month with a truck to pick up the new collection. We have a large turnover of pieces each month so we need to constantly replenish and this keeps the store vibrant and different.
Who is your typical customer?
Whilst we do some work with designers and other retailers, we love to work with private customers. We have a number of long-standing customers who come to us with pieces for restoration or ask us to look out for certain designs. Lots of our pieces have been specifically sourced and are earmarked for the serious collector.
We set up the website in 1999 and this is where 70% of our sales originate from now. Our website is intentionally very simple and easy to use, it is about the product, price and availability. We update the website every single day and because it has been around for so long we have a strong web presence and we have become a destination platform for people to use it as part of their own research. We have advised people worldwide on recognising pieces and often provide them with valuations. We recently had a visitor who found us on the Internet and came to visit the shop all the way from Beijing!
Who is your favourite Designer?
Without a doubt, it is Hans J Wegner. I have several of his pieces that belong to me and they will never be available for sale.
Do you live amongst theses beautiful pieces in your own home?
I have quite a lot of rosewood pieces at home. It started off with a little Arne Wahl Iversen desk and I added to this with a rosewood dining table, chairs and various other pieces along this line.
Have you had any serious coups where you’ve found something exceptional?
There are currently only three of Hans Wegner’s Mama Bear chairs for sale worldwide and we have them all. They are less well-known than the iconic Papa Bear chair, but equally as well-made and beautiful. If anything, this makes them even more desirable for the serious collector.
Do you remember the first piece that you ever sold?
Yes I do, it was multiple pieces to a local company called Purico. We had emptied a big office filled with Finn Juhl furniture – there was a boardroom table, 6 desks, 24 chairs, multiple wall units and he still has them here in Nottingham today. What he paid for the whole lot in 1994 would be the price for a single desk today, so it has been a good investment for him. This was just before a widespread appreciation for Danish design had taken hold, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the architect-led side of design became interesting and people started to enquire about specific designers.
You must have seen firsthand the explosion of interest in Danish design?
Yes I have and I think that this is now underpinning the whole foundation of the UK antiques industry. What Scandinavia does incredibly well is to produce pieces that are all about simplicity, functionality and form. It is also about quality at the best possible price and knowing that the piece will last. I firmly believe that you can’t achieve this by cutting corners or doing it on the cheap!
This is now spilling out into other industries, such as the food and restaurant scene with the success of Noma in Copenhagen. Sat Bains is a contemporary of the chefs over there and he has just recently set up his own restaurant here in Nottingham. For us, it’s about simple, clean living surrounded by things you truly love and not cluttering things up. Our clients are peppering their homes with a few choice pieces that they really believe in, yes it may have a few marks but it also tells a story of a life already lived and as the new custodian they can begin to enjoy the piece themselves.
Do you carry out the restoration process yourselves?
Yes, I have a large workshop upstairs and we try to carry out any restoration as close to the original method as possible. I learned these skills from my Dad who had picked these up over many years in the trade. When I was growing up I used to play at a factory in Denmark which sadly is no longer around, it was an amazing place which made the most beautiful dining tables and chairs. A close family friend also had a soft furnishings factory, so I really did grow up surrounded by these processes and methods of doing things. It now stands us in good stead to carry out restorations with as much sympathy and integrity as possible.
A distant relative of mine is now 98 years old and he used to make teak furniture in the old days in Denmark. When we have family gatherings the conversation inevitably gravitates towards restoration and we end up picking his brains as to the best way to restore a difficult piece or to get a particular finish.
Some years ago in a B&B, I came across a copy of a book called the Cabinet Maker’s Handbook by Professor Ole Wanscher who used to teach at the Danish School of Design. It was one of those rare books that would have been absolutely invaluable when you are trying to solve a particular restoration problem, I kick myself now that I didn’t ask the question about taking it with me!
Which is your favourite piece at the moment ?
There is a 1956 light upstairs that lives in the showroom but is not for sale, despite repeated requests! It is a Erik Severin Hansen for Haslev and it is absolutely spectacular because of the finesse that has gone in to making it. You could pick it up with one finger, it weighs virtually nothing and the light that emanates from it is amazing.
My second favourite piece is a very simple Book Horse by Poul Cadovius, it is a very early 1950s piece and again it is very light and still in perfect condition. It is amazing that after all these years something so simple is still in one piece waiting for the next chapter of its life.
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