Live and Learn: Klaus Nienkämper

Chic furniture maker of choice for prime ministers, ambassadors and tycoons.

I was born in Germany in 1940. My mother had an antique business, but I was rebellious. I went in a completely contemporary direction and apprenticed with furniture manufacturer Knoll International.

I wanted to come to the United States, where everyone was rich. But there was the issue of the army ? which I wasn't too keen on.

If I had stayed in the U.S., I probably would have had a much larger business. Would it be a better business? I don't think so.

In 1964, the Canadian government decided to build new airports. I was aware of a collection from Switzerland ? designed by Robert Haussmann. The government said the furniture can be designed somewhere else, but it has to be made in Canada. So we did that, in this group of shops all over Toronto. The first wave of immigrants from Europe all brought great skills.

For Expo '67, I worked in Montreal doing the Commissioner General's suite in Habitat. De Gaulle was going to stay there, until he went on the balcony and said, “Vive le Québec libre.” We made this great bed ? but he never got to sleep in it.

We made this sofa for Pierre Trudeau's office, a big sofa. It was U-shaped, so 14 cabinet ministers could sit on it as equals.

Trudeau's desk was limestone. There were big discussions in Parliament about where the limestone should come from.

Knoll International asked us to manufacture for them under licence. So we established a factory for soft seating. We did executive office furniture. We didn't know how to do wood ? we were entrenched in leather. We had to make it up a bit as we went along.

We were not a very small business, but not a big business either. But we were always behaving like a big business.

When you reach a certain size, the Canadian economy cannot support you. We decided we had to export.

We were out on our own in the U.S. within a year. We went to Chicago, we went to Los Angeles, we opened showrooms.

When I was at Knoll, I hired one of their people, Kurt Hansen. Kurt always provided the American input. He would say, “No, you must use the American spelling.” I said, OK, if that's where 80% of the business comes from, we will spell the American way.

Supplying furniture to the Canadian Embassy in Washington was very challenging. It was started by the Liberals, then taken over by the Conservatives in 1984. I got very nervous ? I thought the new guy may be very traditional and hate it. But it's all still there.

Working with family can also be challenging. My wife, Beatrix, used to have her office at the showroom. Our son has taken over the business and he told her, “How would you like it, if you go to work in the morning and you find your mother there already?”

I was on a trade mission to China with Jean Chrétien, and I left the mission to meet up with our agent in Hong Kong, because I wanted to see factories. You don't see factories when you are travelling with the prime minister. You just sit there clapping all the time.

The real business was selling to the people on the plane. The McCains, the Iveys. We were on that plane a long time.

We went to the Great Hall of the People for dinner ? the worst dinner of our trip. We got a little booklet on how to behave. But at our table were a lot of professors who were on cellphones while the speeches were going on.

You want to meet up with companies that can take you places you can't go on your own, and vice versa.

Ken Thomson used to come into the showroom. He would say, “Do you own the building?” And I would say, “Yes, I do.” And he would say, “That's good. You don't have to pay rent.” And I would think, I'm not going to tell him about the mortgage.

We did his father Roy Thomson's office. Lots of black leather, simple designs with bronze rims. The father was a very energetic, rambunctious character, whereas Ken was very soft.

If you are going to export to the United States, focus on who the product is for, and find someone on the American side to help you.

Klaus Nienkämper
Duisburg, Germany
Born July 22, 1940
Founder of Nienkämper;
furniture manufacturer and master salesman

1960: Arrives in North America. Settles in Toronto, joins David Bain manufacturing modern furniture designed in Switzerland.

1964: First big contract to supply furniture to new airports across Canada. Follows up with contract to design spaces for Expo '67.

1972: Hired by Knoll International to manufacture furniture under licence in Canada. Leaves Knoll in 1987 to export to the U.S.

1982: Wins contract to supply furniture to the Canadian Embassy in Washington. Continues to expand export presence in U.S.

2002: Expands factory to manufacture the Vox series of wired conference tables. First manufacturer to do this, now much copied.