On a Road Trip for Danish Modern Furniture

The credenza in the back of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van groaned as Lars Balderskilde drove through the woodlands near Vejle, a city on a fjord about two and a half hours from Copenhagen.

It was late January, and after passing a lake filled with swans, Mr. Balderskilde stopped at a house where he picked up an old bar cabinet that he paid for in cash. Then came stops at other homes to collect nesting tables and a mirror. The sun had set by the time he met Nina Toft and Grethe Kock, two sisters, at the home of their mother, whose funeral they had hosted earlier that day.

“It’s always emotional, but you have to let go,” Ms. Toft said to Mr. Balderskilde, who had come to look at various pieces in the house.

Ms. Kock showed him a tiny clay bird that she had made as a girl. “I’ll give you a good deal,” she said, jokingly.

Mr. Balderskilde did not take the bird. But he did fill the van with a teak dresser and bookcase the sisters’ parents had owned since the 1950s, a desk, a blue PH 5 pendant lamp and a Le Klint 325 floor lamp, a model originally designed to decorate a residence of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr. He paid the sisters $1,800 for the items.

Ms. Toft and Ms. Kock had contacted Mr. Balderskilde through a website where he offers to buy furniture from people all over Denmark. While lugging the pieces out of the house, Mr. Balderskilde told Ms. Toft, “I have a boutique in New York.”

The store, Lanoba, is actually in Jersey City, N.J., and sells refurbished Danish modern furniture, a minimalist style originating in Denmark that was typically made with natural materials like wood, leather and Danish cord from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Mr. Balderskilde, 47, who is Danish, and his husband, David Singh, 48, started the business in late 2015. Mr. Balderskilde said that he and his husband, who liked going to estate sales, had noticed a growing demand for midcentury modern furniture, particularly in the wake of “Mad Men,” the highly stylized TV show set mostly in the 1960s, whose final season was broadcast in the spring of 2015.

Danish modern design was influenced by the work of Kaare Klint, an architect, furniture designer and academic known for measuring “paper, books, tableware and humans to find the optimal proportions for furniture,” said Christian Holmsted Olesen, the head of exhibitions and collections at the Design Museum Danmark in Copenhagen. (Mr. Klint’s brother, Tage Klint, founded the brand Le Klint in 1943.)

By the 1960s, the furniture had become associated with the broader midcentury modern style popularized by American designers like Charles and Ray Eames, who often mixed wood and leather with materials like metal and plastic. Among the most notable Danish modern pieces of that decade were a pair of teak and leather chairs by Hans Wegner, which were used in a televised 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The chairs, Mr. Balderskilde said jokingly, “almost took focus away from the debate.”

In the 1970s, as decorating tastes shifted toward what he described as “plastic fantastic,” Danish modern furniture became less desirable. In Denmark, some pieces were tossed to the curb, according to Mr. Balderskilde, who said that a lot of furniture produced in the style’s heyday no longer exists.

“Nobody — nobody — wanted this stuff,” Mr. Balderskilde added.

By the time Mr. Balderskilde and Mr. Singh had started Lanoba, demand had risen for furniture by leading Danish modern designers like Mr. Wegner, Finn Juhl and Grethe Jalk. (Mr. Balderskilde said that few retailers in the United States were offering pieces by “middle market” designers like Johannes Andersen and Omann Jun.) He saw potential in a business that brought unwanted pieces from Danish homes to American buyers, even if he had to travel around Denmark to buy items from individual sellers.

Amassing an inventory, he said, at first required the type of canvassing done by fledgling political campaigns. “I chatted up a lot of people in the grocery,” Mr. Balderskilde said. “I knocked on so many doors.”

Lanoba’s first sale was a footstool to a psychologist in Manhattan, which Mr. Balderskilde delivered to the buyer’s office. The business has since imported thousands of pieces, he said; most of the buyers live in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

Mr. Balderskilde now has a network of people in Denmark who know what he is looking for and who help spread the word, and he also finds pieces on platforms like Facebook Marketplace and DBA, a Danish secondhand exchange. He takes three or four sourcing trips a year (Mr. Singh stays behind to run the store), on which he tries to collect as many as 500 items.

Before the pieces are sent from Denmark to New York in shipping containers, they are stored in a barn owned by Mr. Balderskilde’s older brother, a cabinetmaker who taught him how to restore furniture.

The markup on items sold at Lanoba varies — some pieces cost hundreds of dollars, others thousands — and is determined in part by the shipping costs to the United States, Mr. Balderskilde said. Sellers in Denmark, he said, generally know the provenance of the furniture he buys from them.

“It’s not like ‘American Pickers,’” Mr. Balderskilde said, referring to the reality show about antiques sellers buying unwanted items from people who are often unaware of the items’ potential value. “People know what they have.”

When many offices closed during the pandemic, Mr. Balderskilde said, Lanoba was flooded with requests for desks. He could not travel to Denmark at the time, so he asked friends and family there to find pieces for him. At one point, the store received a shipment of about 250 desks. “They sold out in five weeks,” Mr. Balderskilde said.

A lot of buyers appreciate that the furniture comes from “real Danish homes,” he said, and many sellers in Denmark like what he called the “saga” of Grandma’s furniture making its way to a brownstone in Brooklyn.

The day after Mr. Balderskilde had bought pieces from the sisters, he drove to a house in Brylle, a village on the Danish island of Funen, passing a wooden windmill, a metal windmill and an abandoned mink farm along the way.

The home, which had a for-sale sign on its lawn, belonged to the parents of Lars Egedal. Mr. Egedal was meeting Mr. Balderskilde to show him a desk that Mr. Egedal’s parents had received as a wedding gift from his grandparents in the 1960s.

Mr. Egedal said that his grandmother wasn’t happy when his parents used the desk, which had a built-in bookshelf, to decorate his brother’s childhood bedroom. “But I think she would have approved of it going to New York,” he said.

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