Slender, elegant Nancy Bendtsen is ever-attentive to any client’s presence in her Inform Interiors retail space. There are two such spaces, actually, virtually across from each other on Water Street in Vancouver’s Gastown. What she doesn’t know about the items in the store, from furniture to lighting, tableware to carpets, is not worth the knowing. And she is always happy to discuss things with a curious couple or clients who are virtually certain they know what they need, but have a few little questions before purchase. Today, Bendtsen is upstairs, among some individual pieces of furniture, mainly chairs, that form the backbone of what has, over the years, come to be her personal, and amazing, collection.
It did not start out as a conscious effort to build a collection of this aesthetic and historical scope. “Oh, no, I didn’t think of it that way at all,” she says. “We were offered a piece, called the Henna Stool, by Marcel Wanders for Cappellini. I loved it so much, but we did not take that opportunity, and to this day we still don’t have one. After that eye-opener, I looked at a couple of pieces that had not sold, and decided to keep them.” She pauses, looks around the retail space, all clean lines with a lovely open feel, even though it is full of beautiful things. “As we saw the ad hoc collection grow, we realized early on the importance to Vancouver to have such pieces of design available for people to see. When we had the opportunity of acquiring special pieces which were offered to us, we understood the importance of keeping them in Vancouver. Vancouver has been our home, and we hope that this collection will grow into a museum of design in the future. But for now, we are happy to show some of the pieces at the Inform Interiors store.” She pauses again, and quietly adds, with a smile, “We are running a store, a business, after all. That has to be part of the program.”
Nancy and her husband, designer extraordinaire Niels Bendtsen, have travelled the world for professional purposes, and she has made extremely good use of her time and opportunities on the road. “There are so many pieces over the years that I wish I could have had, but the first purpose is always to source items for the store, things I think our regular clients will want,” she says. Still, over time, as a piece here and a piece there did not in fact sell, certain items began to accumulate, and at some point actively acquiring things she found in her travels became part of her practice. “Certain pieces just talked to me, it’s that simple. For a lot of them, it is about a time, a place, and certain producers.”
“Texture, paint, fabric, even the fact that handiwork is now important again, it can be so poetic.”
In the world of fine furniture, there are producers, or manufacturers, and there are designers. Sometimes a key, influential designer is attached to one, and only one, manufacturer, but more often, the manufacturers seek out individual designers with whom they want to create something special. And the reverse can be true, also; designers can seek out a manufacturer they respect and want to work with. So there are permutations and combinations that make the entire universe of fine-furniture design a delightfully complex and rewarding one. Nancy Bendtsen is uniquely qualified to observe, experience, and act upon, at least occasionally, the items she encounters in her travels.
She is soft-spoken, articulate, and entirely modest about the pieces that have, over time, accumulated under her wardenship. So much so, that if you were to have some time to look at the pieces, consider them as a whole, the effect is to, as they say, get blown out of the water. It is an amazing collection. Illustrious design houses, big-name designers, unique pieces, more of art than of furniture, taking the “form and function” dictum to esoteric levels, all encompassed here.
Some examples are in order, illustrating the symbiotic nature of fine furniture design and production; all are presently in the Nancy Bendtsen collection. The Fishnet Chair, designed by Marcel Wanders and produced by Cappellini, was put into mass production, though not many were sold, and it is now out of production. Marc Newson’s Felt Chair, also by Cappellini: 99 produced. Mario Minale’s Red Blue Lego Chair, produced by Droog, is one of only five originally made, with an additional two chairs made somewhat later. The chair is usable, but is in fact constructed using real Lego pieces. The 836 Tre Pezzi armchair, designed by Franco Albini and produced by Cassina, is a wonder of modernist, geometric design. An Eames Elephant Stool, designed by Charles and Ray Eames and produced by Vitra, is one of the more playful from this illustrious American design duo.
The collection is not restricted to chairs and stools, however. From an ink well to a sofa, with various electric appliances, such as turntables, televisions, and especially, lamps, all are part of this as well. There is an Ingo Maurer Hot.Hot brass table lamp, part of a limited-edition release. A Chiara floor light, designed by Mario Bellini, produced by FLOS, and no longer in production.
“A piece can be ugly and astonishingly fabulous. Does a chair have meaning? Well of course it does, because after all we are talking, partially at least, about the home.”
The overall effect is not so much an overarching grandeur, but rather an urge to pay close attention to detail, and thus to participate, really, in a discussion about aesthetics and culture, about technology and history. “There are some nice things here, some precious, but most is commodity,” says Bendtsen. “Texture, paint, fabric, even the fact that handiwork is now important again, it can be so poetic. Since the events of 2001, nesting, safety, a return to natural components, dark wood, and essentially, a conservatism in design have all announced themselves. It is neo-naturalism, back to basics.” Even in the rare air of fine design, nothing comes out of a vacuum, but springs out of cultural realities. “It is both a theory, and a conversation,” Bendtsen observes. “A piece can be ugly and astonishingly fabulous.” She pauses, smiles, and says, “Does a chair have meaning? Well of course it does, because after all we are talking, partially at least, about the home.”
To see what a design artist brought into the world in 1955, or 1960, or 1977, to see some of the first IKEA pieces, to note the relationship between comfort and beauty (not always a seamless relationship in fact), or even just to observe the influence the invention of carbon fibre had on furniture design—these are all part of the process in absorbing this collection. Bendtsen explains her vision going forward: “The collection is for viewing here but it will also be a loaning collection. Most iterations of these items are in people’s homes, and therefore not available if a museum wants to do a show. So our collection will, in the future, have crates made for each piece and will go on loan around the world.”
Nancy Bendtsen, so passionate about even such items as flatware or stemware, place mats or throw rugs, looks around the Inform space. She says, simply, “I suppose I will be buried with this collection. I love it all so much that I must keep it.” She then looks again at the Metropolitan, a chair in teak and leather designed by Ejnar Larsen and Aksel Bender Madsen, and manufactured by Willy Beck specifically for the Copenhagen Furniture Cabinetmaker’s Guild Exhibitions of 1959. Bendtsen runs her hand along the back edge of the chair, and concludes, “I will keep them, until someone else comes along who loves it as much as I do.”