Five Decades of Danish Design
Copenhagen Imports celebrates 50 years of serving Scandinavian style to Valley homeowners.
By Douglas C. Towne | Photography by David B. Moore
When Tony Christensen and Erik Hansen brought Danish Modern furniture to Phoenix in 1970, reactions were mixed. Competitors predicted the quick demise of the retail experiment in minimalist, high-end seating, tables, light fixtures and housewares. “We set up the shop ourselves, and placed an ad in the newspaper,” Christensen recalls of the grand opening. “Fortunately, we did get some customers who stopped by and told us they’d been waiting for a store like ours for years.”
But Copenhagen defied the odds. This year, the family-owned and -operated business is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its flagship Phoenix store. So how did two Danish immigrants come to open the showroom that would become the arbiter of midcentury modern style?
Christensen and Hansen met while working at Bo Danica, a homegoods store with a distinctive Scandinavian flair in La Jolla, California. They quickly became good friends, and although they loved their jobs, “we had a boss who was not very easy to work for,” Christensen recalls.
Seeing a bright future in contemporary furniture—“It’s what we knew and loved,” he adds—they decided to start their own business. Not wanting to compete with their former employer, the couple began analyzing Bo Danica’s client base. “We had so
many summer customers coming over from Phoenix, we thought maybe we should open there,” Christensen says. “We felt there was a market that wasn’t being filled by the existing furniture stores in the Valley.”
Naming their business Copenhagen Imports—after the capital of Denmark, which they thought would be a strong link to the Scandinavian aesthetic—Christensen and Hansen set up shop in a small strip-mall storefront near Seventh Avenue and Indian School Road in 1970.
The pair complemented one another. Christensen was the charming, talkative front man, while Hansen knew shipping and furniture and had a knack for money management. The store’s initial years were challenging, but the pair were unrelenting in their vision. “My father once said, ‘It’s contemporary or nothing; we will not move into another line of goods,’” current co-owner Jens Hansen recollects. “He took Danish modern style into his heart, and it became his calling. He was lucky enough to find his passion.”
Valley creatives have long appreciated Copenhagen’s “functional art” furniture. “The store was a favorite of the Valley’s best architects, in particular, Al Beadle,” notes Alison King, founder of Modern Phoenix. The public, however, was slower to respond. Christensen says that many initially assumed that the simple pieces, often crafted from such functional materials as plywood and plastic, were poorly made. “At that time, some supermarkets sold what they called ‘Scandinavian’ furniture, but it was actually cheaply built, unlike what we offered,” Christensen recalls. “Our biggest challenge was educating people.” To that end, numerous Danish manufacturers would bring traveling exhibits of their products to the store, offering customers an in-depth look at the brands.
While renowned for its style, the store also prides itself on its long history of quality customer service. “Erik and Tony worked hard for years, only taking Sundays off. They sold furniture during the day and delivered it after the store closed at 6 p.m.,” Jens Hansen says. For local resident Jerry Harris, that personal touch is what keeps him coming back. More than 40 years ago, his late-mom and stepfather purchased two chairs from Copenhagen; recently, the pieces needed new hardware. “The furniture was of sentimental value, and I would have gladly paid for them to be fixed,” he says. “The store did it for free; I was amazed.”
In the past five decades, the naysaying competitors have come and gone, and while many other furniture stores have dabbled in midcentury style, Copenhagen has remained a consistent source of Danish modern and contemporary furniture—without compromising the aesthetic principles of its founders. In 1993, the store moved to much larger location on East Camelback Road (see sidebar) and has additional six outposts in Arizona and Texas.
“When Erik and Tony moved here, Phoenix wasn’t a large place, everyone was from somewhere else, and the city didn’t have much of an inherent culture,” Jens Hansen says. “It was an emerging market ready for something new, and they brought that in with furnishings that lent themselves so well to the true Arizona architecture that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. They had the foresight and nerve to break with tradition and bring a never-before-seen product to the Valley. They timed it perfectly.”
A Midcentury Showcase
When Copenhagen first opened, it was based in a 5,000-square-foot storefront. As demand for its Danish modern furnishings grew, so did the need for a new showroom. “It was a no-brainer to move into this Ralph Haver building when it became available in 1993,” co-owner Jens Hansen says. The property perfectly suited the forward-thinking business thanks to its prime location
and its historically significant architecture. “Everything in that building has a purpose, there is no decoration, much like the furniture we sell,” Hansen adds.
The 44,000-square-foot structure at 1701 East Camelback Road was commissioned in 1953 by Lou Regester Furniture Co., which occupied the premises for almost 40 years. “Haver’s firm had the distinction of being one of Arizona’s premier furniture store designers. Its portfolio lists more than 26 individual stores or phase additions up until 1967,” says Alison King, founder of Modern Phoenix and an authority on midcentury architecture in the Valley.
Following a challenging directive to design an unusual building that could be constructed inexpensively, the renowned architect created a large rambling structure with a Southwestern twist. The open-space interior features a rustic wood ceiling and floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. “It maintains the low-slung profile of regional ranch homes, only on a grander scale,” King notes.
The showroom was initially part of a shaded oasis that included Berridge Nursery and Hobo Joe’s Coffee Shop, according to architect Douglas Sydnor, who grew up biking through the neighborhood. “It is the lone survivor from this earlier innocent time,” he says. “The contemporary products that Copenhagen represents are appropriate for this architectural masterpiece and respects the buildings’ legacy.”