Reborn in Bangkok: Antique Dealers Become Furniture Designers
Pieter Compernol and his architect wife Stephanie Grusenmeyer had visited Thailand many times as antique dealers before starting new lives in Bangkok as bespoke furniture designers at the helm of their own company P. Tendercool.
“Stephanie and I have always worked as a team, we do everything together. It’s a real partnership. First in Antwerp as antique dealers we would travel together and source antiques for our store. Stephanie always dreamt of living in the east some day and then one day we made that decision,” said Pieter.
Some 15 years ago the Belgian couple renovated an old shop-house in Chinatown, partly because it was close to the antiques trove of River City shopping complex and partly because the neighborhood felt authentic. A dinner guest, also in the antiques business, took such a shine to their quirky yet funky shop-house that he gave them carte blanche to renovate his condo near New York’s Central Park.
Even though they had never done interior design before, they readily agreed to take on the project and spread their creative wings.
In the launching of every successful expat venture in Asia, serendipity plays a starring role. Looking to source design materials in Hanoi, the biggest bastion of traditional Vietnamese arts and crafts in that country, the couple came upon a hole-in-the-wall antiques shop with some slabs of rustic hardwoods, which they instantly recognized as Jichimu or ‘chicken-wing wood’, the precious type of wood that classical Chinese furniture is made of.
“These huge pieces of wood – some 150 to 200 years old – were traditionally used by families as a platform to sit on to keep them off the damp floor of the jungle,” Pieter explained. “We asked the antique dealer if he could find some more. We rented a truck, went to all the villages and started buying everything we could find because we knew the supply was finite.” Before they knew it, they were in proud possession of over 60 pieces of massive wood slabs.
In theory, that was the catalyst for their new furniture design company called P. Tendercool.
In reality, it would take another three years of trial and error, with a series of different craftsmen, before their prototypes would move beyond the workshop and into their showroom.
One of the game-changers for the nascent furniture-makers was collaborating with the Italian bronze master Armando, who’s artistic CV includes casting sculptures for Salvador Dali. Turning 80 this year, he trained some of the Thai artisans to reanimate this moribund craft, while encouraging them to collaborate with the woodworkers. He also helped the Belgian entrepreneurs to rework and fine-tune their designs.
The resulting pieces are an elegant hybrid of bronze and hardwood that, in their use of natural materials and less-is-more aestheticism, bear a distinctive Japanese influence. As Pieter noted, “I’m a big admirer of Japanese aesthetics and their love of everything pure and natural. We let the wood speak for itself. That’s what we try to honor.”
All the items are built to last by a team of carefully handpicked craftsmen who create the pieces in a dedicated bronze foundry and workshop situated down the street from the main showroom. “We don’t sell furniture which will be outdated in a few years or breaks down. It’s very sturdy.”
That devotion to quality and durability has won P. Tendercool a loyal following of interior decorators in search of sui-generis items, as well as interior designers and boutique hoteliers hunting for one-off pieces.
Beyond the large, statement tables, P. Tendercool has expanded its range of furniture to include coffee tables, sofas, chairs and bookcases. On the drawing board is a prototype for a desk.
If the continual additions to their bespoke lines are new, the reliance on materials like reclaimed teakwood from old Thai houses remains the same. In Buddhist fashion, Pieter calls this rebirth of old materials “karma”.
Such a combination of new-wave designs amidst an old-school setting has also reinvigorated this part of Bangkok’s Chinatown around their warehouse. Just as they were ahead of the curve before, moving into a shop-house in what is now called the “Creative District,” they were pioneers in establishing their showroom in a historic warehouse. Located near the Chao Phraya River, the studio sports a Boho-meets-Soho vibe reminiscent of New York’s meatpacking district. Meanwhile they have a new neighbor – Warehouse 30, a popular community arts space with vendors, galleries, food and films.
“When we saw this warehouse, we recognized the potential of the area. This is the oldest part of Bangkok. This is Chinatown. So it's a very authentic part of the city, and it has a lot of history,” he said.
In the small lanes and alleyways along Charoenkrung and Yaowarat Roads, hipster bars with craft beer and oddball cocktails, live music venues, funky galleries and small restaurants with artisanal menus have been popping up. Another coup was that the Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC) moved into the Grand Postal Building on Charoenkrung Road, one of Bangkok’s last remaining art deco buildings, which is the epicenter of Bangkok Design Week, lastly held in January.
Both geographically and metaphorically, P. Tendercool is right in the thick of this revolution.
In keeping up with the high-tech times, however, they have started selling their creations on 1stDibs, an online platform which sells carefully curated, décor items sourced from the world's top dealers, finest boutiques and premier art galleries. Pieter reckons that about 50% of their clients now find them through this platform and their website and Instagram page.
Even though they have reinvented themselves professionally in Bangkok, the Belgian couple remains refreshingly down to earth. They don’t live large and they don’t drive around in fancy cars. As stylishly European as ever, they prefer getting around on their Vespa scooters. “But then we can get away with it because we are designers,” quipped Pieter.
What really drives them is their work.
“I don't think we have a lot of ego,” Pieter said. “Doing our very best is rewarding to us already. Without having a furniture-making background, we are proud of what we have achieved. That's for us the true value of what we absolutely love – that people appreciate what we do.”