Great Danes

When Preben and Lis Knudsen moved to the area 40 years ago, they imported their Scandinavian sensibilities to Florida homes.


Lis and Preben Knudsen
Lis and Preben Knudsen brought their sense of European style to their Winter Park condominium

When Preben and Lis Knudsen decided to downsize their life a few years ago, they had to make choices about which furnishings would make the transition with them. Not an easy thing to do for people who live and breathe furniture.

The Knudsens were moving from a 7,000-square-foot family home to a 3,000-square-foot empty nester condominium, both in Winter Park. While the move meant less furniture, it didn’t lessen the distinctive Scandinavian accent they’d always had around them. And for good reason: The couple owns Scan Design, a furniture chain that is famous for European furnishings that combine art with science, form with function. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Knudsens’ business.

A number of iconic teak pieces made the short trip from the single-family home, where the Knudsens raised three children, to the condo, including a set of four chairs designed by Hans Wegner in 1944. So named for their Asian-inspired silhouette, the “Chinese” chairs surround a teak breakfast table whose top flips over to create a game table (another hallmark of Scandinavian furniture is ingenious, multipurpose design). Such mid-century modern pieces rise like abstract sculptures from the home’s pale maple floors, their influences ranging across the European continent from Denmark to Italy.

In the great room, black leather chairs suspended from matte metal frames and a long buffet fronted with frosted glass offer a fanciful Italian ambiance, while a sinuously curving sofa of manufactured suede provides a sensibly modern counterpoint. A floral abstract rug crafted of wool from New Zealand can clearly be seen through the glass coffee table, which sits on glass wheels instead of traditional legs. Vividly hued Christmas-themed Rosenthal plates by the late Danish artist Bjørn Wiinblad bloom like brightly colored flowers on the walls. “He’s one of my very favorite artists,” says Lis, who also has a tapestry designed by the artist hanging in another room.

The carefully chosen furnishings, ample use of glass and a mirrored wall make the large room appear even larger; the effect is demonstrated by the room’s glossy black baby grand. In a more cluttered space without reflective surfaces, such a large instrument would dominate; here, it serves as a subtle accompaniment to the setting.

 Open House
The kitchen is a model of Scandinavian efficiency, with streamlined cabinetry and a combination work island-dining bar

The highly efficient kitchen provides a stylish transition space between the great room and the teak-filled dining room, the occasional site of large dinner parties and family gatherings with the couple’s three children, sons Jesper (a designer and the president of Scan Design) and Peter (who manages the chain’s Hollywood and Miami stores) and daughter Susanne, and seven grandchildren. In the kitchen, sleek German cabinetry surrounds a rounded work island-bar with leather-seated “Cat B” barstools that sit atop spidery chrome legs.

In the master bedroom, a grand bed with a spare wooden frame and leather headboard hails from Italy and a Sirio “Throne” chair, also from Italy, sits by the window overlooking Lake Virginia. The room has a more spacious look than the original plans called for, thanks to the couple’s decision to eschew the walk-in closet specified for the master suite.

Instead of a walled-in separate space, what would have been the closet is open to the bedroom, the walls lined with European-style cabinets. Also in the master suite is a pair of cube-shaped stools designed by Jesper, each with hidden storage under the seat and a lift-out tray.

The understated air of sophistication continues in the streamlined master bath, which features grey-veined white marble and walls clad in a white woven covering imported from Denmark, which Preben, true to his no-nonsense Danish sensibility, approvingly calls “very practical.”

An art-lined hallway leads to the guest bedroom, which beautifully proves the adage that less is more. A few well-placed pieces create a restful retreat where guests can relax without being bombarded with an overabundance of decorative elements. Here, a red-leather “Monte” chair invites visitors to sit and chill, while the Italian-made bed flanked by built-in glass tables provides an even more restful respite.

Lis enjoys the overall tranquility of the condo’s space and décor: “I like the calm look; this is nice to come home to.”

Open House
A red-leather chair on curvy chrome legs invites guests to sit and relax

Scan Design Is Born
The Knudsens have known each other since attending the same school at age 11 in Tørring, a small town in Denmark. They married in 1964 and immigrated to the United States in 1967 after Preben was offered a job at a furniture store in Miami.

The family business began with $2,000 and a cheap flight to Orlando from Miami. Preben had been working for a contemporary furniture store in Miami when he asked for a piece of the business. After he was rebuffed, he decided to turn his $2,000 Christmas bonus into a new opportunity. Preben and Lis planned to open a furniture store of their own, with Atlanta and Orlando targeted as possible places to locate the business. Orlando won out simply because the airfare to it was cheaper.

When Preben arrived at the Orlando airport in 1969, he headed directly for a rental-car counter. As he tells it, he asked a woman at the desk for two things: a rental car and a suggestion for the best place in town to open a furniture store. He left with a set of keys and directions to Park
Avenue in Winter Park.

After failing to find a suitable space on Park Avenue, Preben headed north on U.S. 17-92 and found a storefront for lease in Winter Park. He signed a contract, turned in his notice in Miami and made plans to move to Orlando with Lis, daughter Susanne and the newborn Peter.

Partners at Heart
Money was tight when the Knudsens opened their first store, and a longshoreman’s strike made it difficult to get goods from Denmark. “We took nesting tables and spread them out and put leaves in all the tables” to fill out the 2,000-square-foot showroom space, recalls Preben. Business slowly took off, thanks to the store’s attractive offerings and loyal customers who had purchased items from Preben when he had worked in Miami.

As for Lis, she supported Preben’s efforts without question. “I never really had in my head how big this commitment was, but I trusted his vision,” she says with a smile. “I just went along—he’s the dreamer, the creator, the doer, and I’m the one who follows behind and picks things up.”

Over the next four decades, that single store grew to seven locations from Jacksonville to Miami. And that store in Miami where Preben had worked before striking out on his own? It’s long gone. Preben reveals that he wouldn’t have considered opening a store in Miami as long as his former employer was still in business. But after the Miami store closed, he expanded Scan Design in that direction.

These days, Lis acts as the chain’s accessories buyer and Preben remains involved in store operations when he’s not busy with the family’s other business interests, including the Interior Décor Center in Altamonte Springs.

Now that they’ve mostly passed the torch to the next generation, the Knudsens have more time to enjoy their lower-maintenance lifestyle in their Winter Park condominium. Trading in their oversized freestanding home for a lock-it-and-go condo gives them the freedom to travel on a whim.

And when they are home, they often have their children and grandchildren over for visits, as well as for meals at their massive dining room table, which can seat more than 20. Quieter moments often find Preben relaxing on the spacious outdoor patio, enjoying the lake view.

“You have something here in America called the American Dream,” says Preben. “That’s exactly what we lived and are still living.”

European-style, of course.