From Denmark, With Love
By Tom Lassiter
Furniture design is to Denmark as automotive engineering is to Germany as haute couture is to Paris. The association is so strong as to be stereotypical, but there’s a reason for that.
The Danes think differently about furniture. Which is to say, they really think about furniture.
Consider the fact that the small nation of Denmark – population 5.7 million – gave rise 80 years ago to an entirely new and enduring genre of furniture design. The style became known as Danish Modern and was wildly popular in Europe as well as the United States from the 1940s into the 1970s.
Today, Danish Modern remains popular and collectible. In the United States, Danish Modern helped make traditionalists comfortable with contemporary looks, and helped pave the way for today’s most popular retro style, Mid-Century Modern.
Out of the Danish tradition of obsessing about furniture comes Cane-line and its president, Brian Djernes. He didn’t study at the School of Arts and Crafts at The Royal Danish Academy of Art, which birthed the Danish Modern furniture movement. Nor did he train anywhere as a furniture designer. But it’s in his bones.
“I come from a supermarket background,” he confesses. That was his family’s business. One of his first jobs was pedaling a “Long John” cargo bike to deliver groceries to elderly customers. He could have had a career in the family business, but other interests won out.
“I have a good eye for design and have always been interested in design,” he explains. “Furniture, clothing, all these things. That’s why I chose to go for the furniture path.”
Djernes, 48, joined Cane-line as a salesman 26 years ago. The furniture path turned out to be the right direction for him.
Now Djernes owns 60% of the holding company that presides over Cane-line and its sister company, Sika Design. Sika Design began in 1942, primarily making furniture in Denmark using native materials. Later, Sika Design made furniture of imported rattan, always with an emphasis on quality and design. Cane-line was launched in 1986.
To Djernes, excellent furniture design means more than just looking good. Form must follow function, as in the Bauhaus tradition. No extraneous frou-frou, no gimmicks. Every element is integral to the design and must have a purpose.
In Cane-line seating, there’s one more essential characteristic: ergonomic comfort.
Almost everything with a deep cushion seems comfortable during a brief shopping test in a furniture store, Djernes says. Comfort can be a bigger challenge to achieve in a contemporary chair without oodles of padding – especially prolonged comfort. Attaining sustained comfort is more difficult, he says, yet entirely possible. Sustained comfort is possible when designers fully understand the body’s comfort requirements and meet those needs with proper design.
The key, Djernes says, is to engineer what he calls ergonomic comfort, or “right comfort.”
“That’s what we aim to do on a daily basis in our development,” he says. “That is, to create a comfortable seat. It’s easy to make a comfortable chair if you just put on a thick cushion. But we try to make something more contemporary.”
Cane-line’s motto – “Life made comfortable” – conveys this idea to consumers from the outset, before their first sit test. The motto is not a hollow promise. Djernes says every new Cane-line product goes to his home or that of a colleague for two weeks of testing “to make sure the comfort is there.” Before a chair goes into production, it’s critical “that you feel it’s correct.”
“We spend a lot of time on details” in pursuit of perfection, Djernes says. His hope is that the small, painstaking corrections, such as changing the angle of a chair arm by a degree or the rake of a seat back by a fraction, will be appreciated by “somebody, somewhere.”
“It’s not like we are saints or anything,” he says, “but when you spend the time to do a chair, why not do it as good as you can? We’re just trying our utmost all the time.
“I find it fun to do nice designs,” Djernes says, “but also to do a chair that will be your favorite chair.”
The marketplace recognizes the Cane-line difference. Cane-line exports to more than 100 nations, serving all with the same catalog and product line.
Dimitri Toloraia, owner of Real Patio Living in Houston, describes Cane-line as “just different from the whole crowd” of other casual furniture makers. Cane-line doesn’t change its product line because of trending fashions or fads.
“Cane-line just goes against everybody and just brings something that is different,” Toloraia says. “And the ergonomics are fantastic.”
A Timely Advantage
Unrelated developments, years apart, altered the outdoor furnishings status quo and set the stage for Cane-line’s future success.
The founder of Sika Design, Ankjær Andreasen, made a trip to Malaysia in the early 1970s to purchase rattan raw materials. On that visit he found highly skilled framers and weavers and labor costs much lower than in Denmark. Andreasen purchased land and hired a Norwegian to build and run a factory. It opened in 1973 and soon employed 150 people making rattan furniture.
In 1987, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – sources of the world’s best rattan – banned its export. The Asian nations wanted to build an industrial base and develop value-added manufacturing jobs for their citizens. The raw rattan export ban led to a halt in Sika Design’s rattan production in Denmark.
“We have been some of the pioneers in manufacturing in Asia,” Djernes says. The company’s early move to Asian manufacturing has “blessed us ever since. Because we were forced to go out and get some experience and learn it the hard way. That has helped us a lot (over) the last 20 years.”
Sika Design and Cane-line now operate two factories in Malaysia and two in Indonesia.
The introduction of the resin-fiber brand Hularo, in the late 1990s, was another milestone in Cane-line’s development. DEDON, based in Germany, created the wicker substitute and used it for its own groundbreaking furniture. Dedon, according to Djernes, allowed few international competitors to have access to Hularo. One was Brown Jordan. Another was Cane-line.
“That was the break-through for us,” Djernes says. Hularo “was a unique material; it was new for the market, and there were only a few of us selling it.”
At the time, Cane-line was concentrating on weaving indoor furniture. Hularo, the first resin wicker product with a superior hand, durability, and color-fastness, gave Cane-line its entry into the outdoor category.
Cane-line had used iron frames for its indoor furniture. Outdoor performance standards required a change in frame material, and Cane-line chose hot-dipped galvanized steel. This process allows protective coatings to reach and adhere to all surfaces, including inside hollow core frames.
“We were changing the raw materials,” he says, “but we had many, many years of experience in production. We moved into this area quite rapidly and had a big increase in sales.”
Djernes introduced Cane-line’s outdoor products to the U.S. market at Casual Market Chicago right at the turn of the century. The brand still makes a limited amount of rattan furniture for interior use. “We are 95% outdoor,” Djernes says.
The introduction of Hularo fiber and the expansion into outdoor furniture set Cane-line off on a decade of rapid growth. “During those years, we developed designs and we also developed the market,” he says. “We had growth between 35% and 45% every year, until the crisis came.”
The crisis, of course, was the Great Recession. Because Cane-line was not overly dependent on the North American market, and was selling its products globally, the company was able to withstand the contraction of the U.S. economy without disastrous results.
Cane-line eventually phased out using Hularo-brand fiber. “It didn’t make sense to continue sending 50 to 80 containers of Hularo” from Europe to Indonesia every year to be woven, Djernes says. Now the company extrudes its own resin fiber at a company-owned facility in Indonesia.
Just before the onset of the Great Recession, Cane-line began incorporating other materials into its lineup to decrease dependence on synthetic fiber. Today Cane-line’s range of products includes upholstered and cushioned seating, teak, stainless steel, ceramic tables, and some products with aluminum frames.
Hot-dipped galvanized steel accounts for more than 50% of Cane-line’s frames.
The process ensures that a Cane-line steel frame will last “25 to 30 years before rusting, even in severe areas.”
The company’s reliance on steel, when so many other outdoor furniture makers rely totally on aluminum, is anchored in steel’s strength advantages, Djernes says.
“Design-wise, you can do some spectacular things,” he says. For example, Cane-line makes “simple looking stacking chairs, standing on thin legs.” Aluminum chair legs of the same dimension would not be strong enough to stack. That’s an important consideration for the contract market, he says, as well as for the European consumer market. European homes and Outdoor Rooms typically are smaller than those in the United States; homeowners value the ability to stack chairs and conserve space.
Steel’s strength allows designs that cannot be replicated in aluminum without modification, Djernes notes. “You would need to reinforce it in many ways,” he says, which would likely add to the cost while compromising the design.
The company introduced its version of an outdoor kitchen at Casual Market Chicago in 2018. The product offers a work surface, storage, and a sink that is plumbed and ready to go. A do-it-yourself homeowner might choose to bring water to the sink with a hose and capture the wastewater. Or, Djernes says, the unit can be set up with permanent plumbing.
Cane-line’s “Drop kitchen module” lists for $7,590 and has been well received, he says.
Cane-line’s U.S. distribution center is in upstate New York. The location was determined by Djernes’ initial decision to bring product into North America through the port of Montreal. Why? Because it’s the closest port to Europe, with product on the water for just 17 days, and Cane-line still makes some goods in Europe.
The company now brings product into the United States through U.S. ports as well, and the distribution center close to the Canadian border still serves American retailers well. Prompt delivery to Patio & Things, a casual retailer in Coral Gables, Florida, is never an issue, says Raul Santamarina, one of the owners.
Plus, he says, Cane-line sends him an availability list every day “so we know exactly what they have in stock” at the New York warehouse. The warehouse has what he needs “99.9% of the time, and they’ll put it on a truck right away.”
All About Design
Cane-line may be the only casual furniture manufacturer that credits the designer or design team behind every single product on its website. Products created within the company are credited to “Cane-line design team.”
The simple act of attributing design credit acknowledges the importance of design to the company’s overall philosophy and is a nod to Cane-line’s important home markets.
Crediting designers “in certain countries in Europe is a selling point,” Djernes says, especially in Scandinavian markets. Consumers who care about design then are able to research the specific designer “to see what they are doing or follow them on social media,” Djernes says.
Djernes acknowledges that its designers are not household names in the United States, and that U.S. consumers probably are less interested in general about designers than Danish consumers. If they’re not enamored of designers, “then it’s OK,” he says. The information is there for those who care.
Cane-line has worked with some of its designers for 15 years or more, “so it’s a little bit like they are our own designers,” he says. Yet, in Scandinavia, he says, “you’re not a real designer” of note if you are employed full-time by a manufacturer. “You want to be independent, even if you are working for just two companies.”
Cane-line recognizes seven designers, or design collaborators, with photos and short biographies on its website. Leading the list are Johannes Foersom and Peter Hiort-Lorenzen, “two of Scandinavia’s most renowned and successful furniture designers. The impressive use of flexibility makes the furniture appear as small architectonic wonders.”
The base price, in dollars, accompanies each item on the company’s website for the United States.
While designers provide creativity and inspiration, Cane-line provides the goals and parameters so that new products work with the Cane-line range.
“We are the ones who specify,” Djernes says. “We are the ones who put the collection together.” The Cane-line team perfects the engineering and monitors every detail so that the company’s individual products can be manufactured affordably, look good together, and work well together.
In new seating designs, the comfort question is always foremost. “We’ll correct it until it’s perfectly comfortable,” Djernes says, “if it’s not like that from the beginning.”
All of Cane-line’s products are designed to complement one another, regardless of color or material. The company has pursued this approach for years, making it an authority on the current trend of mixing and matching Outdoor Room items for an eclectic look.
The company also strives to create products that literally work well together, even when purchased years apart.
For instance, the arms of any Cane-line chair will fit under the top of a Cane-line table, whether new or in use for years. Suppose you have a long Cane-line table, built to seat eight. Will new Cane-line chairs fit properly, three to a side? Absolutely.
This design consideration is not new, Djernes says. “This has been in our bones always,” he says, perhaps “because the market demands it in Scandinavia.”
This philosophy of always making sure that Cane-line products play well together offers customers assurance and comfort, he explains. “If you want to shop from the catalog or online, it’s not too dangerous. You can just pick and choose, and you will not be disappointed that it doesn’t fit together when it arrives.”
Djernes says Cane-line’s practice is to ensure that its products look good together, physically fit together, and offer unsurpassed comfort.
“That’s the promise we make as a brand, to take care of those things,” he says. “That’s our goal.”