Pieter Compernol and Stephanie Grusenmeyer invite me into their unique world of bespoke furniture-making and living a life dedicated to Art and Travel.
(above: Aaydium in Bangkok, bringing you the latest news from the design, luxury, lifestyle and fashion world).
Pieter Compernol and Stephanie Grusenmeyer’s showroom is located in the creative compound Warehouse 30 shared with other kindred spirits; galleries, hip boutiques, concept stores and haute cuisine. I was intrigued to discover more about their world and how they became the ‘go-to-people-for-tables’ in town. I arranged to meet them for an intimate chat at their showroom but Pieter double booked and had to take care of clients.
(above: PTendercool oval table in reclaimed Chin Chan wood with an oiled finish.)
Stephanie rose to the challenge as brand spokesperson, a role usually designated to Pieter, however he kept jumping in spontaneously from nowhere to share his thoughts. Stephanie, dressed in an understated style of white capri pant and silk top with soft blonde wavy hair cut above her shoulders and a wonderful Belgian accent, invited me to relax on one of their bespoke sofas and we began.
(above: A private event held for clients in the PTendercool showroom.)
Aaydiyum: "Stephanie, let’s take a walk down memory lane and chat a little about your history and how you ended up here in Bangkok…"
Stephanie: "The first time I came to Bangkok was with my mother when I was 12 years old. I loved travelling from a very young age. We always traveled a lot as a family. By my early teens I started working weekends so I could finance my own trips abroad. I would go backpacking all over Central and South America...everywhere! For me, travel is about learning from different cultures; it’s so fantastic. I love it.
(above: The Couple’s Antique Gallery from a Pre-Bangkok life in Antwerp, Belgium.)
I had always wanted to live in Asia one day. My father had relocated to Bangkok in the late 90’s. He opened some shops at OP Place, River City and he had a fantastic residence where he sold goods to private clients too."
A: "Sounds like a family business; were you following in your father’s foot steps?"
S: "The three galleries had a distinctly different feel and identity; my father was an antique dealer in Brussels, while my brother was located in Gent and Pieter and I were in Antwerp (the three main cities in Belgium). We had three very different shops per se but we supported one another.
We focused on selling really great pieces to private clients whereas my father would sell to other antique dealers. My mother owned a modern art gallery, so I grew up surrounded by art and antiques and I still am to this day."
A: "So your father came to Bangkok before you and Pieter?"
(above: Pieter, Stephanie and their son, Aeneas on the opening night of PTendercool Bangkok in January 2008.)
S: "Yes. At this time we still had our Gallery in Antwerp, dealing in South East Asian Art."
A: "Were you traveling often to Asia at this time?"
S: "Yes we were; we love travelling and the new perspective it brings to our lives. Travelling enables you to you see how good it is in your own country."
A: "Or how bad it is?"
S: "LOL, yes! Belgium is a really fantastic country to live in but people are not happy and complain a lot. This was really bothering us a lot. When we first came to Bangkok we fell in love; the people are friendly and happy, plus they are not too stressed out, while in Europe it’s just stress, stress, stress. We wanted to enjoy our lives more and that’s why we came here. Also, we love the excitement we find in living elsewhere. Oh and the beautiful weather!"
(above: The warmth of natural wood is "tender," while the "cool" touch is found in the use of metals of various types for the bases and frames in designs at PTendercool.)
A: "The first time I came to Asia in the early 90’s I was so surprised at people’s attitudes and their joy of life."
S: "Yes and the culture...Thai culture is so different - the way they think and their honesty. Even after living here for 13 years, you know, you will never be considered one of them; you can try but their culture is so different from ours and that can be quite challenging at times."
A: "It’s about taking the best parts of their culture and adapting that into your own life. You mentioned earlier you worked primarily in South East Asian antiques but looking at your showroom it has a different vision now, so, how did you make the crossover?"
S: "After leaving everything behind in Belgium, including our beautiful home, we wanted to create a similar environment in Bangkok. We completely renovated three old shophouses nearby; these are now Speedy Grandma Gallery.
(above: Reclaimed wood is key to the beauty of each unique design.)
One evening we invited a client over for dinner and he really liked it. He had just bought an apartment near Central Park in NYC and he offered us the job as interior designers. We said 'Yes,' of course!
We began working on the creative concept for his apartment which included a lot of traveling for research and to buy antiques. On our travels we discovered two beautiful slabs of wood in an antique shop and asked if they had any more.
The shop owner said his relatives all have them because they use them as beds, so we drove around with a truck to buy more and after a while we had a collection of fifty slabs of wood and then we said, 'Wow! We have to do something with these!' ”
A: "You never bought them with the intention of making tables?"
S: "No. We just bought them because we thought they were so beautiful, we knew each slab would keep its beauty and value and so on, so yeah, we just loved them and bought them. After a while we decided to make tables. We spent so much time researching tables, including developing the hardware that unfortunately we were spending a lot less time on the antiques. We started to feel we couldn’t pursue two different careers at the same time. Furthermore, if you don’t continue sourcing clients stop coming back. So we made the decision to stop the antique business. I still love antiques but I have more fun in doing what we’re doing now. We felt in our hearts the right thing to do was to make these beautiful tables."
A: "It was that easy?"
S: "Yes, that easy, over the last 28 years we have made most decisions with our gut feelings; after we consider something in detail we find ourselves thinking 'Yeah! Seems like a good idea!' "
A: "I totally get that! Your intuition kicks in and you go with that sense of internal guidance."
S: "To make the decision to change careers in your 40’s is a risk but…"
A: "A door of opportunity opened, you took it and never looked back."
S: "Yes, we never look back. I’m sure there are certain things we should have done differently but we have no regrets. We have to live for today and a little in the future; that's how we live. The joy we get from our work and being creative is something special. It’s like our baby."
A: "It’s often challenging to describe the relationship between the artist and their work. It’s a very emotional relationship. How about your creative process from concept to completion...Is that an emotional journey for you?"
S: "Pieter and I have been together so long we have almost the same tastes. When either comes along with an idea we will work on it together. We have our creative process. You can’t take one element out, or one person, because everything is done together and it’s done with a team spirit. We start with illustrations and send these to the client for observations. This process goes back and forth several times until we reach a point where both sides are happy."
A: "Looking at your work, I see beautiful tables that have incredible impact - the type you see in the lobby of a cool building, or a media company’s meeting room or a hi-so beach house."
S: "Yeah that’s true, we’ve sold a chef’s table with ten chairs to a restaurant and one to a hotel lobby but generally our tables are too expensive for most hotels. We have many hi-so clients. We never sell to expats because they come and go and usually rent fully furnished homes."
A: "The hardware on your tables is very elegant."
S: "We design with simplicity in mind and eliminate anything unnecessary. We really want to create something simple."
A: "Your work is definitely minimal, non-fussy."
S: "Our product looks very simple but it’s actually very difficult to achieve, it looks easy but it’s not."
P: "I think our work is minimal but often with minimalism you loose warmth. For me, I associate minimalism with cold and sleek, not particularly attractive, comfortable or cosy. We have a mix through our choice of materials which is quite unusual because furniture makers use only wood or metal workers use only metal but we fuse both those worlds. That’s typical in the PTendercool philosophy, we have the tender part.. the warm, woody, touchy feely and the cool part… the hardware of the table bases. That’s in everything we do."
A: "Contradictions! What other materials are you working with?"
P: "We work with wood, brass, glass, bronze, leather and then fabrics from renowned Thai brand Jim Thompson, but our clients can send us any fabrics they like."
A: "The pieces you sell, do you think the clients keep them for life right? They could easily be passed down to future generations."
S: "Oh yes, because the design is minimal, so simple, timeless."
A: "People are always going to need tables."
S: "Yes and a table is a very important element in a house, it brings families together, you eat, you do everything around a table. Work too. A focus point for a room. Even if it’s empty or unused it’s still a beautiful object."
A: "Tell me about the ‘reclaimed’ concept of your brand."
S: "For me it’s very important."
A: "Me too."
S: "I think we all have a huge responsibility to take care of our planet and mother nature. We don’t want to be involved in illegal logging, why would we when we have access to all this beautiful reclaimed wood? We have many pieces of wood that are between 100 and 200 years old. Reclaimed wood has a history, a texture and a grain. It’s aesthetically so beautiful. I love old stuff. New wood can warp and doesn’t have a soul."
A: "In Thailand they have a different view on old things because of ghosts."
S: "I think it’s important when they’re buying houses perhaps, but we have never had an issue about this with our tables. You know there used to be a time when I loved skulls and we had a lot at home; I even had one next to our dining table on a stand and that didn’t bother me at all knowing it used to be a real person. When we first brought our antiques here, Thais didn’t want a broken statue without an arm or leg, but, instead they wanted perfect pieces. But for me? I don’t want perfect pieces."
A: "There’s a great beauty in things that are decaying."
S: "Yes! So that’s a big difference in the way we look at these things."
A: "How long does a dining table and six chairs for a client take to develop?"
S: "It depends, there’s a difference in the process of a new design or an existing piece. The table tops are newly created from reclaimed wood, that work is done in our workshop and we need a lead time of about twelve weeks for the whole process. The casting factory needs about eight weeks."
A: "Are your clients understanding about timelines?"
S: "Yes, usually they accept because we’re making them a one-off piece so we never have a problem."
A: "Where are most of your clients from these days?"
S: "For the moment it’s 50% in Thailand and 50% from overseas. We’ve been on the website 1stdibs.com for about a year and it’s a great platform for design, antiques, jewellery and fashion. There’s about 20,000 artists selling their work there and it’s given us great exposure in the USA. We’ve picked up a lot of new clients there."
A: "My eyes keep wandering to all the other items in your eclectic showroom, how did your brand develop from primarily focusing on tables into a wider range of furniture?"
S: "We started with tables as you know and we started developing coffee tables at about the same time. Over time we asked ourselves about chairs and that’s how we introduced them. Then came the sofas, the frame is the same material as the tables, the mattress is 100% natural latex and the client chooses their own fabrics. As time progressed we naturally came up with new ideas for products. Now we’re working on book shelves, that’s coming up soon."
A: "It’s great watching brands develop."
S: "Yes and it’s great to be able to offer more creations to our clients."
A: "Would you say your work has a Belgian aesthetic?"
P: "I don’t think so!"
S: "Uh… in a way, probably yes. You can see we are not Asians, you can tell we’re Europeans. Throughout its history Belgium has been invaded by many countries.
We took the best parts from all those different cultures and that results in us being open to many cultures. That's one of the reasons why we are strong in certain designs, like fashion design. I guess it’s inevitable that you can feel that we’re Belgians or Europeans; we have a certain style."
A: "Are you influenced consciously or subconsciously by your environment?"
S: "Yes of course, we are influenced by Thai culture but that doesn’t necessarily translate into design elements in our work. We use fabrics from Jim Thompson as Pieter already mentioned, because we really love them. We just follow our taste."
A: "Who would you compare your brand to?"
P: "What a question! For some reason Steve McQueen pops up and I don’t know why…"
S: "Why Steve McQueen?"
P: "He’s unusual, he has personality, he has a mature side and women like him; he’s in touch with his feminine side, he has a style without being in your face and he’s timeless."
A: "Tables are very functional, have you ever had a request from a client asking for something out of the ordinary?"
S: "No, not really… a ping pong table but that’s about it."
A: "Yeah I’m in awe of it; it’s very unique and pretty cool."
(above: Their notorious ‘ping-pong’ table complete with leather bats.)
S: "Again it’s all in our details, that makes a big difference."
P: "We were asked to create something specific for Thomas Erber, for his Cabinet du Curiosite, Bangkok edition, (after NYC, London, Paris, Hong Kong.) He invited artists from various creative fields to contribute with a made-for-the-occasion piece. Being table makers we came up with the idea of a ping pong table because Thai are typically playful and offer so much more than their ping pong shows, LOL! So it's playful. Let’s have fun in life and show a table as a refined ping-pong table with leather bats. We used a vintage net we found on eBay. It’s beautiful!"
A: "When I arrived this morning you told me you’re curating an exhibition here for a British artist… is your showroom more of multi-functional space?"
S: "We operate as a gallery now since we are a part of The Creative District. In the beginning we didn’t curate exhibitions but for the past four years we have had a new exhibition every three months. We have many requests from artists but it has to be a good match."
A: "How do you make that match?"
S: "Personal taste. Artists approach us, present their work and if it clicks with us we start discussing the possibility of an exhibition. It’s a labour of love and it’s actually our hobby. In Thailand there is still so much more potential in terms of art."
A: "I like the way you have staged your furniture with artwork and other artefacts, it gives a total new look to your work such as dimension, proportion or sensibility. I’m loving the cross referencing you have here, different world’s colliding under one roof. Bespoke table makers evolve into curators! I’m seeing many creative individuals being asked to develop products they’re not known for because they have an interesting point of view, architects being asked to design an installation in the lobby of a cool boutique or a musician asked to design footwear for sportswear brands."
S: "Yes it’s interesting because you get an approach from a totally different angle. If you’re in the creative businesses you also like challenges."
(above: The artisans at work in the PTendercool studio.)
A: "How do you stay afloat in this world of art and business?"
S: "In the beginning we were busy managing a business so the amount of time we spent on being creative became a lot less than we wanted, but we got to that point where it’s all manageable, where we feel good about it. We’ve created a good balance.
Money has never been our motivation. We don’t design collections every few months like in the fashion industry where you have to in order to survive. Some furniture brands do, but we come up with something when we’re ready. We’re not interested in being commercial. That's also why we only work from here; we’re not interested in having five locations. That’s not our vision."
(above: Quality and simplicity are noted in every piece in the showroom.)
A: "What happens if you receive an order of 1,000 pieces for a chair?"
S: "Since we work with a reputed foundry we could probably handle this, but I am afraid our creations are a tad too expensive for large volumes. Maintaining quality and integrity to our design is our focus. It’s so much more important than having millions in the bank."
A: "How about compromising so you could make a more price-competitive product?"
S: "No. A product has its price and we can offer a discount but that’s it. Something beautiful has its price tag for a reason; we use high quality materials and the creation process is labour intensive."
A: "For me creativity is priceless; you can’t put a price on it. There’s no greater pleasure when working with clients who believe the same, they just want to buy…The price is not an issue. It’s never discussed."
S: "LOL, we don’t have that luxury… price is still an issue!"
A: "It is and it isn’t. If someone falls in love with something and they have the funds they’ll buy it."
S: "Yes that’s true...that was our philosophy when we worked with antiques. If you really fall in love with something, once you’ve bought it you forget about the price. Do you remember the price of stuff you bought last year?"
A: "I would say, hmmmm…some of it yes, definitely and other things no. I buy certain things because they make me happy and I don’t remember the price but then I pay for other things like taxes that make me unhappy and I remember how much I spent!"
S: "Yes, prices are relative and you forget but you get something in return for a very long time. If you like something you will always enjoy it."
A: "Pieter showed me some tattoos on one of your leather chairs that you commissioned a local tattoo artist to work on. Is collaboration important to you?"
S: "We like it; it adds value and fun. The other artist brings in new ideas and a new way of looking at things. So we collaborate with MaisonClose and Tantai Tattooer on tattooed chairs. They researched how to tattoo on leather as opposed to skin; something very new for them. We sell their work here and It shows people how our chairs can be personalised. It’s special."
A: "How important is social media to your business?"
S: "Pieter works on that side of the business and it’s a great way to show our work, reach other artists and clients and bring people to our showroom. It’s a lot of work; it’s not easy but we are now in a position to work more on marketing and to increase our brand awareness. We are growing, we are employing more people but as I keep saying I do not want to grow too big.
Admittedly we were a little slow in the beginning with social media because we want to present our work with such high standards and to be consistent. We have a very strong philosophy that 'If you can’t do it well, don’t do it,' so it’s only recently we feel we have such a great body of work to show and now we have our gallery, our warehouse and so on...We are more open to sharing on social media these days plus, Khun Boy, our in-house photographer, shoots all our finished items and more than a few behind-the-scenes too."
A: "I like that about social media in terms of the fact that you can share the creative process at any point to your clients and fans. It’s akin to having an ‘Access all Areas’ card where you can take a peek into someone’s life. It’s powerful."
P: "I hear you. You have what’s in your head in an ideal world, and then you have reality. I mean it’s a lot of super hard work and we spend a tremendous amount of time on it with story lines, logistics, photography and graphics. We are getting there, I post almost everyday on Instagram. Already the nature of what we do is so demanding, when you position yourself as bespoke luxury we have to spend a lot of time communicating with clients before we make a sale. Emailing back and forth, sending photos of their furniture being made. There’s only so many hours in a day."
S: "And I’m not a workaholic, in my free time I love to travel and go to fairs. I visit antique shops, other designers showrooms, it’s all related to our work."
A: "I ask many artists and creators what they do in their spare time and the answer is quite similar to what you just said, it’s always work related because that’s where their real passion lies, anything else just doesn’t interest them."
S: "It’s very difficult to switch off."
A: "You never switch off, the passion is always alive. Is your life harmonious?"
P: "To be honest I think we’re reaching that stage now, touch wood! This is a whole new team we have nurtured over the last six months, I hope I’m right but I see super potential, they work well together and they love each other. Hopefully it will give us more free time to really get creative again. Our business can operate without us being here all the time. We have a team of thirteen staff, eight in the workshop and five in the showroom, so it’s manageable."
A: "You’d like to spend time doing something else?"
P: "To stay on par with things you need to travel, get out there and see what’s happening in the world and get inspired."
A: "Many people do that from their laptop these days right?"
P: "It’s so much fun if you’re actually there and don’t forget in our previous life we used to travel so much. We are the perfect example of people who want to combine work with pleasure and we do it very well."
A: "Who are your favourite artists?"
S: "I love architecture because that’s what I studied. I like Tadao Ando and I like Frank Lloyd Wright."
A: "I worked in one of his first buildings in Tokyo...a dream come true! It’s been subsequently knocked down."
S: "Oh wow… there are so many of his buildings I like."
P: "I like Giacometti, Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe."
A: "Where do you see yourself in five years' time?"
P: "To be the ‘GO-TO’ address for global clients seeking an expanded range of bespoke customised furniture created to the highest standards with respect for craftsmen, procedures and the environment."
A: "Parting Words of Wisdom?"
P: "Find your passion and give it your all."
A: "Thank you for inviting me into your creative world. It’s been a pleasure!"
S: "You’re welcome and please come to our next event; you’ll be so inspired!"
I certainly felt inspired by this dynamic duo and overwhelmed by their passion for life. I was tempted to ask if I could have a game of table tennis before I left but ping-pong just isn’t my forte!
Ptendercool contact info:
Phone/Fax: 66 (0)2 266 4344 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Address: 48-58 Charoenkrung 30, Charoenkrung Road Bangrak, Bangkok, Thailand 10500