Our look at the man who started the King East Design District
He looks and sounds like someone born wearing a well-cut suit. (The voice, still urbanely German in its inflections, is a marvel – the aural equivalent of a fireside brandy savoured within a club chair’s leather-upholstered depths on the coldest night of the year.) But when a 20-year-old Klaus Nienkämper immigrated to Canada in 1960, his first job was at a car wash. He improved his English, and when he wasn’t soaping cars, he was networking with the German cabinetmakers who had arrived in Toronto before him. Having worked in his mother’s antique business and apprenticed at the German subsidiary of U.S. design giant Knoll, he already knew furniture – and he knew that he liked it well made and modern in a way that would not pass swiftly out of fashion.
In 1968, he founded Klaus Nienkämper Ltd., the contract furniture company that has been known since 1975 simply as Nienkämper. With his friend Don Wallace, he transformed a dilapidated former grocery, built on King Street East in 1845, into Canada’s first modern furniture showroom. Initially, the company manufactured European modernist furniture under license. But Klaus soon began hiring talented locals to design collections: first Thomas Lamb, and then Tom Deacon, George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, Mark Müller, Scot Laughton, Karim Rashid and many others. An entire design district grew around the King Street showroom. Today, a retail establishment run by scion Klaus Nienkämper Jr. – KLAUS, as it’s now called – carries top residential lines from around the world, as well as contract furniture by Nienkämper. On the 50th anniversary of that company’s founding, it behooves design-loving Canadians to pay homage to Klaus the First. Our nation would be less modern without him, and King Street East would be unrecognizable.
Originally published in our Fall 2018 issue as King Klaus.