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Nienkämper: Never Compromise
An established leader – and bold innovator – in contemporary workplace furniture, Nienkämper's innovative style transforms the office for the 21st century.
Klaus Nienkamper portrait
Klaus Nienkämper: Confessions of a Chair Man
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Nienkamper Metronome table
Nienkämper’s Metronome Tables Keep Ahead of the Times
2/4
Patkau Twist by Nienkamper
Patkau Architects Crafts a Sinuous Furniture Collection for Nienkämper
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Plexus
Nienkämper’s Plexus Table Gracefully Commands the Boardroom
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Nienkämper: Never Compromise
Nienkämper: Never Compromise
Klaus Nienkamper portrait

Editor’s Note: Since establishing his eponymous furniture manufacturing business in Toronto in the 1960s, Klaus Nienkämper has been a revered champion of contemporary design. Working with a roster of talents from Canada and around the world, the brand continues to produce exciting office collections, including the recently released Heartbeat sofa by Karim Rashid. Published in 2008, this story about some of Klaus Nienkämper’s favourite chairs over his long career has never before been available online. It’s one of many exclusive interviews we are sharing on the occasion of Azure’s 35th anniversary.

Although tables, case goods and shelving account for a large share of his company’s business, it’s fair to say that Klaus Nienkämper is a chair man at heart. He doesn’t just run a company that makes chairs: he haunts auctions and vintage dealerships in search of designer seating he feels compelled to own. He and his wife, Beatrix, have a house in Toronto and a farm outside the city – and both are, in his words, “terribly overchaired.”

In the summer of 1960, the cargo ship Francisca Sartori departed on a transatlantic voyage from Hamburg with 12 passengers on board. Among them was 20-year-old Klaus Nienkämper, a native of Duisburg, an industrial city near Dusseldorf. From an early age, he had helped out in his family’s antiques shop. After graduating from high school, he completed a furniture retailing apprenticeship and honed his appreciation of modern design by working for Knoll International. Nienkämper shared a cabin with the ship’s crew on the voyage, his passage a Canadian government loan he would later repay, at $10 a month.

From left: The Hamburg Chicago Line's Francisca Sartori; Klaus Nienkämper and two other passengers aboard the ship; Klaus Nienkämper, 1968; Beatrix Nienkämper, 1969
From left: The Hamburg Chicago Line’s Francisca Sartori; Klaus Nienkämper and two other passengers aboard the ship; Klaus Nienkämper, 1968; Beatrix Nienkämper, 1969

By 1962, he had joined with designer David Bain in setting up a company in Toronto called Swiss Design of Canada, which manufactured modern Swiss furniture under license. Bain gradually phased out his involvement, and in 1968 Nienkämper took over the business and gave it his own name.

Under his leadership, the company has evolved into one of North America’s most respected manufacturers of furniture for the contemporary work place and other contract and residential environments. Working with such designers as Arthur Erickson, Karim Rashid and Daniel Libeskind, Nienkämper has produced furniture for projects ranging from Pierre Trudeau’s Parliament Hill office to the recent Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. When Nienkämper’s downtown showroom opened in 1968, it offered Toronto’s aficionados of modern design a glimpse of new pieces by Europe’s most influential designers. Today this perennially stylish space is a high-end furniture store, catering primarily to the residential market and run by Klaus and Beatrix’s son, Klaus Jr.

On the eve of Nienkämper’s 40th anniversary, to be celebrated officially in April 2008, Azure contributing editor Pamela Young met with the company’s founder to talk about one of his favourite subjects. In that glorious baritone voice of his – the aural equivalent of fine brandy and a blazing fireplace on a foul night in November – Klaus Nienkämper reminisced about seating that has meant something to him over the decades, and discussed how the sustainable design movement is influencing the shape and construction of chairs to come.

1964
LUCERNE SOFAS AND UNESCO CHAIRS, BOTH BY ROBERT HAUSSMANN, MANUFACTURED UNDER THE DIRECTION OF SWISS DESIGN OF CANADA

“We had a government contract for the furniture for the first lounge at Toronto International Airport before we had a factory. We had Leif Jacobsen doing the upholstery in one place and someone else doing the metalwork in another, and so on. I had a station wagon, and I carted the parts around. I visited with everyone and cracked the whip to make sure the furniture would be ready on time. Excessive use of materials is not fashionable now, but I still think this was a fabulous space.”

1973
ULTRAMOBILE EXHIBITION AT THE ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM, TORONTO. SACCO ALATO CHAIR, DESIGNED BY SEBASTIAN MATTA FOR SIMON COLLEZIONE, 1971

“This was a very frivolous thing to do – something that we could hardly afford. In the early ’70s, Dino Gavina [the Italian manufacturer who had revived such Bauhaus pieces as Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair] started a company called Simon Collezione. We brought their Ultramobile collection – including two chairs by [Chilean-born surrealist artist] Sebastian Matta, produced in a limited edition of six, and some production pieces – over to Canada for an exhibition at the ROM. I bought one of the Matta chairs, Sacco Alato, which means ‘winged sack,’ for $4,000. We had it in our living room for years, and I thought we’d never part with it. But recently one of the other five sold at Sotheby’s for $60,000. Shortly after that, I got a call from someone willing to buy mine for that amount. People sometimes ask me what a chair like Sacco Alato has in common with most of the furniture we manufacture. What I say is, this is the fun stuff; the other stuff is work. It’s important to do both.”

Late ’70s
NONSTOP SOFA BY DE SEDE, MANUFACTURED UNDER LICENCE BY NIENKÄMPER

“In the mid-’70s, we became a licenced manufacturer for de Sede [a Swiss company best known for fine leather furniture], and for a time in the ’80s we were manufacturing de Sede designs for all of North America. This was an absolutely enormous piece of furniture for a hospital in Fort McMurray, Alberta – I think it was 200 feet long. I asked the interior designer, Carolyn Tavender, why they were spending so much money on Fort McMurray, and she said it was to attract doctors. The oil sands development was just starting, and it was dismal place then.”

1982
SCULPTED CHAIR, BY THOMAS LAMB

“[The late Canadian designer] Thomas Lamb started to design for us after he basically attacked me for doing all these foreign pieces. He said, ‘When are you going to do something for Canadian designers?’ I said, ‘Well, do something for us’ – and he did. At the time, we were going from lounge seating into the executive office, without actually knowing how to make wood furniture. We were also manufacturing under licence for Knoll in the ’70s and ’80s, and we were afraid they would get their nose out of joint if our own production looked too contemporary. We decided to take our own pieces in a more transitional direction, and Tom did an incredible job with that.”

1986
RS48 LOUNGE CHAIR, BY RICHARD SCHULTZ

“[Former Knoll design director] Richard Schultz originally designed this as an outdoor chair for Knoll, which decided not to proceed with it. He asked if we could reinterpret it as an indoor chair in leather. We’ve had marginal success with it. Richard was a sort of a minimalist, and this was different from what most designers were doing at that time – it was light, and everything else was heavy. Today, when everyone is trying to use materials responsibly, a chair like this would probably play a greater role.”

1988
THE CHANCERY OF THE CANADIAN EMBASSY, WASHINGTON, D.C.. FURNITURE BY FRANCISCO KRIPACZ AND ARTHUR ERICKSON, MANUFACTURED BY NIENKÄMPER

“Francisco Kripacz was Arthur Erickson’s design director, and they worked together a lot. It’s hard to say where Arthur’s involvement in furniture designed for his buildings ended and Francisco took over. For us, dealing with the government officials and dealing with Arthur was like walking through a minefield. We just had sketches to work with, and there was huge pressure in terms of deadlines, so the luxury of experimenting wasn’t there. I think the embassy is still a very impressive installation. The last time I saw an interview with the Canadian ambassador in his office, everything was still there. I was very pleased.”

1989
BILLOW CHAIR, BY DAVID ROWLAND

“This was a failure, but an interesting failure. Basically, it’s an invention by [American designer] David Rowland; the core of the seat and back is a sort of spring that provides wonderful support. It was beautiful to sit on, and we used it everywhere in the Toronto Blue Jays offices at SkyDome [now the Rogers Centre]. But we could never get the price down to where it should be for something like this. I once asked [Vitra CEO] Rolf Fehlbaum why this one didn’t work, and I’ll never forget what he said: ‘This chair has a beautiful inner life, but nobody is going to pay you for it.’”

1989
PRINCE OF WALES POLO CHAIR

“Hilary Weston commissioned eight of these chairs for her husband Galen’s polo team, and she also commissioned one for Prince Charles and one for Margaret Thatcher. The design is based on British campaign chairs that would have been used, I guess, for sitting in front of your tent in Africa, drinking gin. But those chairs didn’t fold, and this one had to: Prince Charles would arrive at a polo match and pull a folding chair out of the boot of his car.”

1996
CARLISLE CHAIR, BY YABU PUSHELBERG

“George [Yabu] and Glenn [Pushelberg] came to us with an enormous chair, and I was able to persuade them that something a lot smaller would sell much better. The designers had it on four legs when they brought it to us. I said it looked like it should have a swivel base, I think because it reminded me of ’50s pieces. We did a version with four legs, and we did a swivel version, and we do sell more with the swivel base.”

2004
HAB CHAIR, BY BRIGITTE SHIM AND HOWARD SUTCLIFFE

“This version of the HAB isn’t the easiest chair to make – we’ve had problems with moulding the wood – and unfortunately this one doesn’t live outside. [The traditional outdoor Muskoka chair was a source of inspiration for the architects who designed it.] But I like the wood version better than the aluminum one. I think it’s a wonderful chair. I have a friend who has a very exquisite house in Vancouver, and he used it in the guest bedrooms that look out over the rainforest. It’s very appropriate for that. We recently received an order for two from the Aga Khan’s Geneva office.”

2006
KLOUD COLLECTION, BY KARIM RASHID

“For those spaces where you need something a bit more fun, that’s where Karim fits in. But I don’t know that we’d want to be doing something that looks like the Kloud chair five years from now. You can’t have excessively moulded foam pieces anymore – that’s huge blobs of oil right there – although actually there’s less foam in Kloud than you’d think. We build a laminated wood construction inside it to minimize the use of foam. And we’re now working with the first foam that’s part soy.”

2007
YABACO CHAIR, BY RYANN AOUKAR AND DAMIEN ROBACHE

“Ryann Aoukar, who used to work in Montreal and now works with Gensler in New York, came to me with what I thought was a very interesting piece. It was totally over-scaled and over-materialed. He was adamant that he didn’t want any changes to it, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere looking like that.’ Gensler also wanted it scaled down and lightened up, and we were able to do that. This one was just introduced, and it’s already taking off. I’m very happy with it.”

2007
SPIRIT HOUSE CHAIR, DESIGNED BY DANIEL LIBESKIND FOR THE MICHAEL LEE-CHIN CRYSTAL ADDITION TO TORONTO’S ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM
Klaus Nienkamper portrait

“The design process was interesting. I still have the first concepts, which were just not possible – all glass and leather. But Daniel is very easy to work with. I asked him if he’d consider making a model, and he made a whole bunch. We took some licence and made it into a chair you could actually sit in. We built a mock-up in the factory. He came to see it, and he was ecstatic. I think this chair’s going to be around 100 years from now – it has that kind of quality.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2008 Issue.

Nienkamper Metronome table

“It’s often best to focus on a certain area of the business – and we focus on the boardroom,” says Klaus Nienkämper. He’s being modest. For decades, Nienkämper’s eponymous Toronto-based brand is a global leader in contract furnishings, with a richly diverse collection of seating and workstations – and collaborations with the likes of Karim Rashid, Yabu Pushelberg and Daniel Libeskind. But it’s the boardroom, specifically, where Nienkämper reigns. The company’s cutting-edge solutions include the Metronome collection of tables, which continues to evolve with a marquee 2020 addition.

Designed by Toronto’s Fig40, Metronome epitomizes the flexibility – and subtle flair – of a welcoming, collaborative workspace. Its adroit combination of structure, technology and aesthetic grace made it an instant standout when it first debuted in 2011. A winner of an IIDEX/Neocon Silver Award in 2011 and a Red Dot Award in 2013 – not to mention an Award of Merit at the 2012 AZ Awards – the evolving collection has continued to earn plaudits.

Now available in a natural wood finish, the Metronome Table was introduced in 2011…
and the design was lauded with an Award of Merit at the 2012 AZ Awards.

While it has expanded to include a wide range of options for any workplace scenario (including the modular and highly mobile FlipTop tables), the line as a whole is characterized by an elegantly angular aesthetic and unfussy functionality.

The new Metronome Trestle combines the casual energy of a standing desk with the elegant presence of a boardroom table.

This year’s introduction of the Metronome Trestle adds a versatile and refreshingly informal variation on a celebrated design. Building on the refined simplicity of the series’ angular metal frame, the Metronome Trestle table offers a standing-height surface that lends itself to meetings, collaborative work and use as a touchdown station.

While the metal frame maintains the exceptionally stable structural platform that elevates the Metronome collection, the deft addition of soft wood tones gives this high-tech table a timeless presence. The eye-catching wooden legs and metal foot rail can be paired with a wood veneer or plastic laminate top, while a central wood chimney facilitates tidy wire management. The table’s versatility – which is further optimized when paired with Fig40’s Jackal Stool – is a vital complement to today’s fast-evolving office environments.

Which is all according to plan. The collection, explains Fig40’s David Fletcher, was designed to respond to changing needs without becoming obsolete. “The name Metronome comes from the idea of keeping time,” he says, “and of keeping pace with what’s going on in the working environment.” In other words, no wonder it’s been a workplace staple for almost 10 years. And with the 2020 launch of Trestle, it’s safe to say that another decade (at least) of understated design excellence is on the table.

Nienkamper Metronome table

This content was published by Azure on behalf of Nienkämper.

Patkau Twist by Nienkamper

From the Audain Art Museum to the Temple of Light and the Polygon Gallery, an impressive number of Canada’s most striking new cultural and spiritual spaces bear the architectural signature of one firm: Vancouver’s Patkau Architects. This year, the acclaimed designers have turned their distinctive talents to a debut collection of contract furnishings, unveiling a trio of elegant wood seating solutions for industry leaders Nienkämper.

It’s signature Patkau. Informed by the designers’ own award-winning “Warming Huts” installation in Winnipeg, the Patkau Cocoon offers a singularly refined retreat for the modern workplace. Visually and acoustically insulated, the curved plywood and wood veneer cocoons elevate an organic form with a more deliberately sculpted, poetic presence.

Patkau Cocoon by Nienkamper

Nienkämper’s Patkau Bench is a more subtle evocation of the firm’s design philosophy. The two solid wood sections that comprise the bench are contoured to emphasize the natural beauty of wood variations while creating a comfortably sloped seating surface. Resting on stainless steel hairpin legs, the minimal but thoughtfully detailed bench is as well suited to galleries and cultural spaces as office lobbies.

The Patkau Twist Chair is a more playful, kinetic design. Fabricated using a patented process developed by Nienkämper specifically for the chair, two layers of birch plywood are “twisted” to form the complex curves that lend the shell of the Twist Chair its declarative shape and style. Like the Patkau Bench, the chair features slender steel hairpin legs, reinforcing a subtly energetic sense of lightness.

Initially slated to be debuted at NeoCon 2020, the Patkau designs are complemented by Nienkämper’s newly unveiled collection of functional and deftly understated workplace tables.

Comprising a compact media table and a larger conference worktop, the Cantilever series offers height-adjustable solutions that cater to the flexible – and fast-evolving – nature of modern offices. Supported by a secure base wrapped in stitched leather, the Cantilever series combine a quietly luxurious look with serious performance. The media and conference tables are engineered to support weights of 450 lbs. and 375 lbs. respectively, with the wire cables kept discretely out of sight.

Klaus Nienkamper portrait
Klaus Nienkämper: Confessions of a Chair Man
In 2008, on the occasion of his company’s 40th anniversary, Klaus Nienkämper reminisced about some – but by no means all – of the chairs he’s loved before. Read this archival interview never before available on our website.

Finally, the Metronome Trestle collection by Toronto-based designers Fig40 fosters a less formal collaborative space. Combining the strength of a metal frame with the inviting softness of a wood design, the standing-height tables are equally at home in boardrooms and break rooms. It’s understated, everyday office furniture imbued with more than a hint of high design.

More information about Patkau’s 2020 launches – also including new designs by busk + hertzog – is available via the PDF below:

Nienkämper 2020

This content was published by Azure on behalf of Nienkämper.

Plexus

Minimalistic in design but exquisitely refined in detail, Nienkämper’s Plexus introduces an inviting presence to the workplace. From an elegant wooden base detailed with intricate finger joints and a curved inset, the sophisticated table gracefully blurs the line between commercial and residential aesthetics.

Designed by acclaimed Danish duo Busk + Hertzog, Plexus stands out with a welcoming yet streamlined look. Wood details and soft curves inspire a sense of comfort that does not come at the expense of a sleek, professional setting. The well-resolved design pairs discrete curves and warm tones with an intricate old world craftsmanship that belies its technological sophistication.

Featuring in-built power and data connections – routed to the floor via a discrete conduit – Plexus offers ample power outlets and USB connections. An aluminum base option also offers an integrated power supply concealed entirely within the table legs to create a completely seamless look.

Offered in three base sizes, Plexus is available in a variety of configurations, ranging from 48 to 84 inches in width and 120 to 240 inches in length. The flexibility of Busk + Hertzog’s design means that table can be configured to whatever width or length is needed without compromising the design concept and visual identity.

“We wanted to create a table that was curved and straight at the same time,” say Busk + Hertzog. The result is a flexible design that’s ideal for executive boardrooms, conference rooms and small meetings rooms – as well as private offices. (With a contemporary yet timeless look, it’s not a stretch to picture it in the dining room, either).

Nienkamper Belle collection, debuting at NeoCon 2019
Nienkämper Emphasizes Workplace Wellbeing at NeoCon 2019
At this year’s NeoCon, Nienkämper is raising the bar with six impressive new offerings that foster workplace wellbeing.
Plexus

For Nienkämper, Plexus is at the forefront of an innovative portfolio. Introduced at this year’s NeoCon, Plexus was launched alongside a range of new and expanded collections that emphasize wellbeing and comfort in the workplace. Technologically sophisticated, elegant, and meticulously crafted, Plexus offers an inviting seat at the table.

This content was published by Azure on behalf of Nienkamper. More information about Plexus is also available via our Spec Sheets listing, linked here.