By Mark Cox
Once upon a time, shoppers on a budget might have had to choose between buying a piece of art they loved and a household item they needed.
Eight years ago, Denver-based furniture designer Dustin Nyhus decided people shouldn’t be forced to make that choice. He and his wife, Kim, launched Deny Designs – a company that brings the art world into people’s living spaces by blinging up everyday home furnishings and accessories with original artwork.
Today, the business’ customers face a dizzying range of design choices from the company’s in-house art gallery, which features more than 180 artists and 15,000 pieces of art. That means credenzas become sculptural objects; shower curtains turn into giant portraits; dining areas are transformed by crazily creative tableware. And the really good news? Every purchase supports the contributing artists.
Deny Designs has been an enduring success, but in the early days, it didn’t always seem destined to go that way. “When we launched, the notion of using artists’ work on products was slowly becoming normalized, but only with small-scale stuff like cups and mouse pads,” Nyhus recalls. “We took things a big step further by putting individual works of art directly into homes, as home furnishings. People hadn’t seen that before.”
As with many great ideas, good fortune also played a role. Nyhus says that in 2011, technological advances were just reaching a point where the materials the company needed could be mass-produced quickly and affordably. In other words: His was the right idea at the right time.
Before launching the business, Nyhus studied industrial design at Metropolitan State University of Denver, which he describes as a perfect fit. “Since the students don’t live on campus, it’s geared to help people like me, who had to work around full-time jobs. They don’t really hold your hand, and I think that’s a good thing. Studying there taught me a lot about responsibility and working efficiently on a tight schedule.”
That hard work provided a solid grounding, which ultimately helped Nyhus achieve two goals close to his heart – supporting the work of talented artists and producing unique products at reasonable prices. “We set out to establish a highly distinctive niche in the market,” he says, “and I guess we achieved that.”
Deny Designs was recently acquired by Leaf Group, where Nyhus serves as senior vice president of product design and development. Despite his elevated role, the hands-on designer still insists on regularly rolling up his sleeves.
“Leadership responsibilities can pull you in different directions, so you have to be more efficient in scheduling the necessary time to do what’s important to you,” he says. “I still get my hands dirty – literally – on a daily basis, and love playing around with ideas and equipment. Ultimately, the creative side of things is what makes me tick.”
Nyhus’ design journey started when he was a child in Denver, watching his father and grandfather – both gifted builders – craft mini-miracles with their hands. So when he sees his own three young sons playing with their toys, is he looking to see if any of Daddy’s talent has rubbed off on them? Might there be some magic in the family genes?
“That’s certainly a hope,” he says with a laugh. “Every home project I do, the kids are right next to me – wearing their little safety goggles – measuring stuff and cutting up wood. They’re completely hands on. And I always teach them that there’s nothing to be afraid of when you’re creating things, because that’s the truth. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can go out there and make anything.”
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