Last month we checked in with Klaus Nienkämper, one of the granddaddy’s of design in Toronto, maybe the most influential furniture design retailer in Canada, and a Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Patron of Art and Design medal winner for his contribution to Canadian culture. We wanted to discover what his journey through the design business has been like, to uncover his method, and to share his advice and insights.

What do you do and why does it matter? We are always wondering if the world needs an other chair or table…and to find out that we do, is very exciting. I am a furniture manufacturer who asks designers to create products that help corporate clients to do business, and for professionals to do their jobs well. Our work matters to us because it creates real jobs, which support several hundred local families. This industry attracts great people.


What do you view as your role in advancing design? My role is to communicate my client’s requirements to the designer, to provide a venue to manufacture these designs, and to give designers an opportunity to express their ideas that we may want to communicate to the client. In some cases we become the client, because a particular idea may be great but not yet marketable, and Nienkämper could open up other avenues to new products.

Without a doubt Nienkämper has raised the status, perception, and quality of Canadian furniture design. Are you on a mission to influence how we see design? I was on a mission to bring the best of international, mainly European, design to Canada in the sixties. We managed to acquire licenses to produce many of them here, which not only raised awareness of good design, but also elevated the skill level to produce them since we also asked European technicians to visit us and teach us their techniques to produce these designs.

Today, we no longer need to go to Europe for design, Canada has  a great talent pool of young designers to draw from. The strength of Canadian design is this talent pool…and the educational institutions.

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What can we do to enrich Canadian design? Work on educating the general public. Cheaper, better, faster are the three words for most or all manufacturers. The general public should become more educated about design, and what it can do to make life better.

The shortcomings are the lack of dialogue between designers, manufacturers and their clients…as well as the lack of focus and concentration to become the best in a particular field. Designers should participate much more on the marketing side to understand client’s needs, as well as getting client’s to understand the designer’s needs.

Are there advantages for Canadian design internationally, and how do we put these advantages to work? Canadian Design does not yet have the brand equity that we need for international business. I can only speak for our products, because I am not knowledgeable enough about the many other great companies such as Bombardier. Our table program has enjoyed tremendous success in places such as Russia, England, India, the Middle and Far East as well as in the United States. The tables are designed to ship knocked down and take little space in a container and are easily assembled on site.

What would you describe as the benefits of design? The benefit of design is to create functional objects and furniture that are esthetically pleasing and acceptable with materials that are not depleting our resources and can be recycled as well as manufactured economically to bring them to the customer at the best possible price.

LIB_23_23Can you give an example of design that illustrates these benefits? Our Vox Collection, designed by Mark Müller, addressed the need to connect to voice, data and power in the boardroom. With the change to smaller offices this also expanded to the tremendous growth of meeting rooms in most organizations. We decided to focus on that part of the business, and become the best in industry. We designed our own connectivity box, the Vox Forum. All waste and cutoffs that accumulate during the manufacturing process are recycled. The tops were designed with vacuum formed veneer over the edges to eliminate the wasteful solid edges, a process that we were able to patent. The wood comes from certified sources to give us the assurance that it grows in controlled forests. The aluminum bases are made from recycled material and can be recycled again.

Tell me about the business of design, what do you think are the critical forces in the near future that are shaping it? The critical forces are to always produce the best quality products, in the most economic way under the guidelines of the Canada Green Building Council, and to do this without creating waste. You have to start with good design to accomplish this. We continue to focus on supporting Leed principal, both in product design and in our manufacturing process. Our slogan throughout the factory is “excellence from design to delivery”.

You created some of the top furniture pieces in over the past decade. What are some of your personal favourite pieces? What are you most proud of professionally? I am often asked which of our designs is my favorite and I always answer “The last one I worked on”, which is only half true.

I enjoy working with architects or industrial designers who are designing objects for a specific building or project. William Thorsell the past CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, asked us for a special chair (see main above) for the addition to the museum.  We collaborated with the ROM crystal architect Daniel Libeskind, and produced the Spirit House Chair that now is the most photographed object in the museum, and we have made a limited number of signed copies that are in many galleries and museums around the world. Professionally, I am most proud that some of the worlds most famous architects come to us with special requests for their projects and that we have created such a state of the art manufacturing facility and have talent and the skills within to execute their vision.

What is your favourite

car/ The SLS AMG Gullwing Sportscar by Mercedes Benz.

building/ The museum of anthropology by Arthur Erickson in Vancouver.

painting/ Charles Pachter’s ‘Queen on a Moose’.

colour/ Black.

chair/ Hans J. Wegner’s Shell Chair.

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