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Nienkämper Celebrates 50 Years: Built on a History of Watching for Opportunities

May 30, 2018

Nienkämper 50 Years: There’s more than meets the eye in the legacy of this mid-century maverick.

The Showroom: 300 King Street East in Toronto, Canada

In 1968, an unassuming showroom opened at 300 King Street East in Toronto, Canada. Purchased by Klaus and Beatrix Nienkämper with Don Wallace, the space was meant to bring the best of European design to North America.

The Showroom: 300 King Street East in Toronto, Canada in 1968

Celebrating its 50th anniversary May 2018, Nienkämper has expanded over the years from its humble showroom—which the company still proudly owns—to a leader in furniture design. Family-owned and operated with Klaus Nienkämper at the helm, Nienkämper’s Toronto manufacturing plant employs a range of workers and many of them have been with the organization for decades.

Klaus Nienkämper celebrates his company's 50th anniversary May 2018.

Making the Move: Pre-1968

Klaus Nienkämper grew up in Germany where his mother was an antiques dealer. Surrounded by design, he knew he wanted to stay in the furniture world although he wanted to distance himself from his mother’s career. Instead, he looked toward contemporary furniture as an apprentice for Knoll before branching out on his own.

Originally, Nienkämper had envisioned moving to the United States but being German in the post-war period made it difficult. Instead, he saw opportunity in the Toronto market.

“Toronto was very dismal in those years,” he recalled. “There was very, very little in terms of contemporary furniture and I thought maybe that’s a good opportunity to start something. I basically had the ambition of bringing the best of European design to Canada and North America.”

In 1968, the first Nienkämper showroom opened.

Expanding His Vision: 1974

Unrelated to his previous apprenticeship with Knoll, in 1974 the company named Nienkämper as its licensed manufacturer for the North American market until 1987. Prior to the Knoll contract, Nienkämper was producing several European designs via local manufacturers but making Knoll products allowed the Nienkämper company to build a factory in Toronto and emerge onto the American market.

“[The Knoll contract] was a great opportunity to come to the United States because the Canadian market was too small to support a factory,” Nienkämper noted. “That was the beginning.”

More, More, More! Nienkämper​ at NeoCon 50

Rising to Popularity: 1976

Within two years of the Knoll contract, another tremendous opportunity opened to the Nienkämper brand: In 1976, Arthur Erickson of the Canadian Government commissioned the company to furnish then-Prime Minister Trudeau’s office.

Then-Prime Minister Trudeau's Office - furnished by the Nienkamper brand in 1976.

A project of this scale and grandeur opened the door to other prestigious proposals including attending the official functions with the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1986 at the invitation of the Prime Minister and in 1989 designing the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Nienkamper was invited by the Prime Minister to official functions
with the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1986.

1989 designing of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

A Turn Toward Technology: 1997

When asked if there was a moment when he realized his namesake brand would have a long-lasting legacy, Nienkämper recalled the VOX conference table which debuted 21 years ago. 

“One of the biggest changes came about when we had a job in Dallas to provide a boardroom table,”  said Nienkämper. “They wanted the connectivity with embedded power, which almost didn’t exist in those years. We worked very diligently to provide that. I think it took us 18 months to come up with a solution that we called VOX. That was a big turning point for our business. I think we were the only ones in those years who had this, and it made an enormous impact. It created a whole new side business for us. We’re now making over 1,000 boardroom tables every year on account of that development.”

Looking to the Future: 1997 to the present

Although the Nienkämper brand enjoys a legacy and its products—somewhat ironically—are sought after by antique dealers, the company isn’t resting on its laurels. “I always think one of the most important [aspects of the business] is keeping up with the technology,” Nienkämper explained. “I think that drives furniture design most. I’m always worried that the [information technology] people will start designing furniture and that’s why I always say, ‘Keep up with the technology because that always leads to new things in design,and certainly makes things better than they were.’”

Nienkamper Lollipop Chairs

However, progression doesn’t come without drawbacks. “I think of the history of the brand,” he continued. “Midway we became so involved with technology that it took us away from the early years. It is still rewarding; it drives the business now. I’m actually amazed every time I go to our design department and see how many new technological inventions have come out.”

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