RAIC Allied Arts Medal: Klaus Nienkämper

The Kloud chair was designed by Karim Rashid and manufactured by Nienkämper. Photo by Leif Norman

For the past five decades, Klaus Nienkämper has been a champion of design in Canada. He has continuously collaborated with architects and furniture designers to realize a broad range of chairs, tables and sofas that contribute to holistic and integrated spaces.

Nienkämper arrived in Toronto from Germany in the 1960s, after working as a furniture apprentice for the design house Knoll International. His company, founded in 1968, developed its expertise and precision as the North American manufacturer under license for Knoll. Nienkämper was also the licensed manufacturer for de Sede, a Swiss modern furniture company.

Nienkämper furnished the Governor General’s suite in Habitat 67, designed by Moshe Safdie. Photo by Milan Knezevc

Nienkämper received his first government contract in 1964—to furnish the lounge at the Toronto International Airport. He went on to work on government-sponsored design centres in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. At Expo ’67 in Montreal, Nienkämper provided the modern furniture for  the Governor General’s suite in Habitat, designed by architect and RAIC gold medallist Moshe Safdie, FRAIC. He also helped realize furnishings for the minimalist modern airport terminal in Gander, Newfoundland.

Nienkämper built the furniture for the Prime Minister’s office, designed by Arthur Erickson. Photo by Fiona Spalding-Smith

When Canadian furniture designer Thomas Lamb asked: “When are you going to do something for Canadian designers?” Nienkämper began working directly with several generations of Canadian furniture designers, including Thomas Lamb, Tom Deacon, George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, Mark Müller, Scot Laughton, Karim Rashid and others. He also developed relationships with architects, including RAIC gold medallist Arthur Erickson, FRAIC. In 1976, the Canadian government, with Erickson, commissioned Nienkämper to build the furniture for Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Nienkämper manufactured the Chaise Hab, designed by Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe. Photo by Nienkämper

In 1989, Erickson commissioned furniture from Nienkämper for the Embassy of Canada in Washington, D.C. The furniture was integrated into the architect’s vision for the reception spaces and ambassador’s offices that project Canada’s image to the world.

That same year, the Weston family hired Nienkämper to design a British Campaign chair as a gift to Prince Charles. It was a folding chair made of wood and leather.

In 1996, designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg approached Nienkämper to design a leather club chair with a swivel base. Together, they realized the Carlisle Chair, which sits in many prominent interior settings. Other Canadian designs realized by Nienkämper include the shaped plywood HAB chair (2004), designed by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, the injection-moulded, leather-wrapped Kloud Chair (2006), designed by Karim Rashid, and the Royal Ontario Museum’s Spirit Chair (2007), designed by Daniel Libeskind. 

Nienkämper believes that modern furniture is more vital now than it has ever been because it contributes to significant spaces designed by architects.

Nienkämper manufactured the Spirit Chair, designed by Daniel Libeskind for the Royal Ontario Museum. Photos by Nienkämper

:: Jury ::  Shirley Blumberg (CM, FRAIC), John Brown (FRAIC), Philip Beesley (FRAIC)

Nienkämper has profoundly contributed to the culture of design in Canada, and enriched the quality of architecture that this country has produced through his support and collaboration with significant architects and designers. His work is supremely architectural. I think it is no exaggeration to say that his works have helped to define contemporary Canadian design.