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Contemporary craft meets traditional style at the Toronto furniture design store Klaus

Walking into an exclusive contemporary furniture store with only a working knowledge of design is a little like going to a gallery without knowing much about art.  At first you feel a little intimidated; you're not sure where to begin, but soon enough your eyes take the lead and the only thing that matters is what you like.  At Klaus on King Street East, there's plenty to please the eye.

From the life-sized Moooi horse lamp from Holland and the mathematical lamp that contains over 1,000 tiny LED light bulbs, to the Emeco 111, a red Navy chair made with coke bottles, and the E15 solid oak table from Germany, and the Castor limestone beaver stool on which  Klaus Nienkamper sits to talk about his current showroom and pay tribute to the success of his father, who opened its doors in 1966.

Klaus Nienkamper, the elder, emigrated from Germany in 1960 and opened his furniture imports store in 1968. The property he purchased, originally built in 1845 as a family home, had also once housed a Greenshield's grocery store. One of the oldest areas of Toronto, it was hardly the best location for a fine European furniture store, but eventually a collection of design showrooms built up around it. "In the 60s, and even in 2011, Bauhaus is a hard sell in conservative Toronto," says Klaus 2, who began in the business in his mid-twenties.  So, it moved from importing to manufacturing. In the '70s, the location also became a mecca for designers, architects, collectors such as Arthur Erickson and Mario Bellini, and even Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

40-year-old Klaus exhibits a calm confidence and deep respect for the art and business he's been born into. He also has plenty of his own ideas, which are executed and exhibited throughout the 6,000 square ft. multi-leveled retail space. It's a well-balanced blend of imported pieces with Canadian designs and classic Nienkamper creations like the Berkeley loungers, named for the location's cross street. As well as the Pullman bench, named for the street on which their 120,000 square ft manufacturing factory is built. "I grew up surrounded by it and didn't realize anything was different between our home and my friends' homes, except our furniture had changed. I'd come home some days to find out my dad had sold all our furniture." For awhile sales were by appointment only, with contracts being the mainstay. Through an association with Arthur Erickson, Nienkamper has designed and built furniture for Trudeau's office and the Canadian Embassy in Washington.  These days the retail doors are open to ordinary shoppers, three employees are dedicated to approaching corporate offices and interior designers for bulk orders, and the manufacturing business is a separate entity.

"We noticed a shift eight or nine years ago," says Klaus, "a whole new awareness of interior design because of all the DIY television shows. Suddenly it became cool to have a store. I didn't have any passion or much of a head for the corporate business; I found it sort of boring. I'd look at design magazines and historical books and see a lot we could offer; I knew the time was right and the public would support it. When my dad started, he couldn't give away some of the stuff and now even Loblaws is selling Bauhaus inspired pieces! It took awhile to rebrand but now people know this location as Klaus."

On the retail side, those intricate mathematical globe lights have been purchased by Aria, a new restaurant in the Telus Tower; and the solid oak E15 tables grace the offices at Google Canada. On the manufacturing side, 6,000 of their classic Nienkamper executive chairs, purchased for quality and durability, were made and sent for use at a polytechnic university in Saudi Arabia. As well, the Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery at the ROM uses Berkeley lounges in various colours.

So, how does a 44-year-old company stay innovative? "You either take risks or you play it safe. I take risks. But I think the question is more how do you sort through what's good and what's going to be good. One of our objectives is to find pieces that are new classics. I have a solid appreciation for history but I have a passion for things that are new and will last."

Klaus does everything at the store from sourcing products, buying, conceptualizing the showroom and doing the books, selling, and even mopping up the floor if needed. He's there all the time changing displays around, keeping things fresh. At one time he lived in the store's upstairs apartment. "This isn't a job, it's a passion. It sounds cliche but it's a life. My parents' parents were merchants. There's something about it. It gets in the blood."

About following in his father's very prominent footsteps he says, "I feel a real sense of obligation to carry the torch. I would be so sadly disappointed if my father retired and that was it and the company just fizzled.  I'm really trying to maintain something we started but branch it off in a different direction. It's important for me to uphold the past, to try to pay tribute to where we've come from. It's as important as where we're going."

Klaus will be at the Interior Design Show 11 (IDS11) January 27-30 at the Metro Convention Centre.

Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto-based writer, TV producer and essayist for TVO The Agenda with Steve Paikin. She keeps a blog at www.herkind.com.

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