W. Danemann & Company was established in 1893 by William (Wilhelm) Danemann, a German-born furniture designer and architect. Danemann grew to become one of Britain's best-known piano manufacturers with a strong reputation for excellent build quality. Danemann undoubtedly produced some of the UK's finest instruments at their factory in Islington, London and has been a brand close to the heart of Sykes & Sons for many years.
William Danemann was born c1864 in the small town of Wittenburg, 60km north of Leipzig, Germany. He emigrated to Britain in the late 1800s and worked as a furniture designer in and around London.
Some areas of the internet assert that William Danemann was a student of John Brinsmead (1814-1908), but there is no evidence to support this claim, in fact only evidence to the contrary exists.
Danemann's journey into the piano industry actually began when he was employed as a furniture designer to sketch a range of piano cabinets for a small piano manufacturer. The piano firm went into receivership shortly afterwards and could not pay Danemann for his work. Upon learning of the insolvency, Danemann negotiated a deal with the liquidators to purchase the piano business, for a price that took what he was owed for the design commission into account.
William Danemann opened up business in a factory on Northampton Street, Islington, later named the Danemann Piano Works. Danemann originally set up as a manufacturer of "trade pianos", otherwise known as "Stencils". Trade/stencil pianos do not bear the name of the manufacturer and are, instead, decorated with a name of their buyer's choosing. Many piano retailers/showrooms would purchase these trade pianos and then furnish them with the name of their own business, a practice that is still alive and well today. Danemann was one of a large group of manufacturers who produced trade pianos in London during this time period and making these stencil pianos remained the business model for the following 50 years.
By the 1920s, William Danemann was joined by three of his sons, Frederick, Edgar, and Edward.
Frederick was involved in a terrible car accident in 1934 and sadly lost his life. Edgar had a deep interest in piano production and became the company's scale designer and quality manager, inspecting every piano before it left the factory. Edward, the youngest, managed sales and the workshop inventory, ensuring the piano works had a plentiful supply of fresh parts.
Pohlmann & Son
In 1934, the long-established and notable Pohlmann & Son of Halifax made the decision to stop manufacturing pianos and closed its West Yorkshire factory. An agreement between Danemann and Pohlmann was made in which much of the manufacturing equipment would be taken from Pohlmann's premises and transported to the Danemann Piano Works, where Danemann would continue to produce Pohlmann pianos and pay a relatively small royalty for each piano that bore the Pohlmann name.
Pohlmann was established in 1823 and, in its own right, was a notable piano manufacterer itself. Pohlmann controlled a number of valuable patents and is credited for being the first manufacterer in Britain to implement the overstrung bass in their upright pianos. As a young man, Henry Pohlmann was sent to study piano design in the Grotrian-Steinweg factory in Braunschweig, Germany. When he returned to Britain he used the knowledge acquired during his time at the Grotrian Works to develop an excellent scale design.
Under the agreement between the Pohlmann and Danemann, Danemann would receive much of the tangible and intangible assets of the Pohlmann company, including the rights to use the Pohlmann scale. This was a significant benefit for Danemann and the Pohlmann scale design was quickly incorporated into many of the instruments produced in Islington. The Pohlmann scale would be modified and improved upon by succesive members of the Danemann family.
The Second World War
Danemann closed down the production of pianos for a period during the Second World War and was wholly engaged in Government contracts, completing work for the Admiralty and Ministry of Supply. The skilled labour, premises, and raw materials previously used for piano production became very valuable to the Government and were repurposed to assist in Britain's war effort.
After the Second World War, Danemann shifted from producing trade pianos and focused all efforts on manufacturing higher quality instruments from the very best materials available to the trade. Danemann ceased production of stencil instruments, even dropping Pohlmann, and directed all resources towards developing a line of models, which would actually bear the Danemann name.
Prior to the war, the only grand pianos produced by Danemann were small baby grands of mediocre quality. Edgar Danemann designed a new baby grand, measuring 5ft 2in, as a replacement of the small trade piano the firm produced before. Edgar also introduced an interesting feature, known as the 'back bridge', into Danemann pianos. The back bridge, not found in any other British-made piano, is a counter bridge on the back of the soundboard that mirrors the pinned bridge (over which the strings pass) with the soundboard in between. The back bridge not only enhances the tonal colour and consistency across all registers of the instrument but adds strength to the soundboard against the down-bearing pressure of the strings.
After meticulous training, Peter Danemann, Edgar's son, joined the Danemann family factory and he, like his father, was a passionate piano builder. Through his education and a passional enthusiasm for the instrument, Peter developed an intricate knowledge of piano construction, scale design, and action geometry. He used his skill and comprehension to develop more Danemann models alongside his father and improved upon the inherited Pohlmann scale.
Peter first designed two modern upright pianos named the PJ and the PJA, and these two would become the foundation for all of Danemann's domestic models from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. He then designed two new models of grand piano, the PJB (a boudoir grand) and the PJC (a concert grand). These Danemann pianos were immediately favoured for their sweet, rich, and full-bodied tone, which was more similar to pianos of German origin than any of their English-made competitors.
Danemann earned several lucrative contracts with some of the most recognised names in the British retail, leisure, and entertainment sectors. Danemann Pianos formed the stock of the musical instrument department at Harrods of Knightsbridge, used on the vessels operated by P&O Cruises, and were found throughout eminent venues all across the UK, such as the Royal Festival Hall. Danemann also supplied instruments to British embassies across the globe, with individual modifications to suit the particular climates that the pianos were being exported to.
Danemann School Pianos
Danemann's capability and willingness to build pianos to very rigid specifications made them a manufacturer of choice for many of the UK's educational authorities. Danemann was entrusted to supply pianos to many of the country's most prestigious institutions, such as the Royal College of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, many of which are still serviced and in use today.
Those seemingly indestructible school pianos are probably what Danemann is best known for... but these instruments do not represent the best of Danemann.
School models were required to be based on a substantial post-braced back, with solid oak case components and zinc-plated music wire. Zinc-plated music wire was chosen for school pianos because of its corrosion-inhibitive properties, but this wire was tonally inferior to the polished music wire that was used in Danemann's domestic pianos. This wire can also be very brittle, so much so that it is commonly referred to in the trade as "chicken wire".
While solid oak case components had the best chance of withstanding the abuse that the pianos were subjected to in schools, solid oak cabinetry is not conducive to the tonal qualities of the piano due to being quite acoustically deadening. The manufacturers of these school pianos were forced to try and circumvent the issue introduced by the oak cabinets by using very hard felt on their hammers. This resulted in pianos which had lots of volume but lacked any warmth in the tone. They instead had quite a strident tone that is remembered as being almost overbearing and harsh on the ears.
Although it is a testament to Danemann that they were able to construct pianos to those specifications, when so many other piano manufacturers could not, the school models certainly do not represent the best of the company's production. For a time, these school pianos accounted for approximately 80% of Danemann's production and if the firm were to continue supplying schools and colleges around the country then they had no choice but to produce pianos to the requirements stipulated by the education authorities, but if Danemann were the decision makers then they certainly would have done things differently.
Thankfully, they had complete autonomy over their domestic models and the differences show. Their domestic pianos are favored for their sweet, warm, and full-bodied tone, more appropriate for the intimate audience of the family home, rather than a school hall.
Unable to compete with the comparatively low retail prices of pianos from abroad and with the diminishing school budgets of the 1970s and 80s, Danemann struggled to remain afloat. Tom Danemann sold both the business and the premises to John Broadwood and Sons Ltd in 1982.
The plan was to use the Danemann Piano Works and the existing workforce to construct at least six models of Broadwood alongside the eight models of Danemann, but the financial troubles were sadly inherited by Broadwood. The new parent company took out a loan of £250,000 with Islington Borough Council, but the repayments could not be met. The council called in the receivers in 1984 and the Danemann Piano Company was formally closed in the following insolvency process in 1985.
The rights to the Danemann name and much of the equipment was sold to a Welsh firm which took production of Danemann Pianos to Wales and continued to make the instruments up until 1994.
The Danemann Piano Works
After the closure of the Danemann Piano Company, the factory which had housed the family enterprise for the last 90 years was converted into a multi-use premises and renamed The Ivories. The building's former life has been commemorated with a pair of iron gates in the shape of two interlocking grand pianos which are erected at the former goods entrance.
The Ivories is still in use today and is comprised of a range of modern open plan studios and offices over a ground and two upper floors.
Each space has its own entrance onto a central shared courtyard, with those on the upperfloors linked via elegantly fabricated steel walkways and a sweeping staircase in the centre. Despite at least two renovations, the building has retained many of its original features, such as the art deco gable, skylights, and decorative brickwork.
The premises contains several businesses, including a retail and workshop space for flutes, several gyms, a therapy centre for children, and an artisan bakery, to name a few.
In 2015, the rights to the Danemann name were sold once again, but this time to a firm which had the intention of affixing the famous name to a line of Chinese-made instruments and the import of these pianos began in 2017. This latest generation of Danemann pianos may share the same logo as their British predecessors, but they contain no designs or influence from the original company or the craftspeople who built the Daneman reputation.
Danemann, once one of Britain's most preeminent, innovative, and well-respected piano makers is sadly now just a name on the modern-day equivalent of a stencil piano.
Danemann pianos at Sykes & Sons
Danemann is a brand that is very close to the heart of Sykes & Sons.
The first piano that Macauley (owner of Sykes & Sons) ever owned was a Danemann and his career in the business started with stripping and refinishing several ex-school Danemanns which formed our fleet of hire pianos. The first grand piano that he restored and sold was also a Danemann.
We would like to stress that Sykes & Sons only stock British-made Danemann pianos, all of which have been carefully reconditioned in our workshop, in a process sympathetic to the original makers. Sykes & Sons really trust the excellent build quality of British-made Danemann pianos and that is why we always aim to have them in stock.
As Danemann is one of our specialties, knowing the brand extremely well and through being so experienced with them, we know exactly what to look out for to ensure that we are only offering the best possible quality of Danemann.