Inexhaustibly design curious, open minded and tenacious. That’s what you need to work with Peter Schönhofen. Along with his partner Jürgen Reiter, Schönhofen is a world-galloping founder of KARE, a German fast-forward purveyor of edgy furniture and non-conformist accessories.
On his recent visit to Toronto, Schönhofen joined HF design editor poolside on the Bisha Hotel’s stunning rooftop. Here’s what he shared about KARE’s start up story and the duos enduring focus on creating bold, slightly crazy conversation starters for his boutiques.
HF: Is it true that you and your partner started KARE in 1981 when you were business students at university in Munich trying to pimp your own digs.
Schönhofen: Remarkably… that’s the truth. In our minds, status quo in the ‘design marketplace’ was less than imaginative. It was seriously conservative, too elite, and terribly dull and boring. (it still can be at times). Somehow the pair of us scraped together 5,000 euros and jumped in with both feet.
We were young, a little reckless and had nothing to lose. It’s been a fascinating journey that continues to day. Our mission was to build a reasonably priced collection of unique, design-forward pieces. People who were brave enough to want something bold, elegant, inspirational and a little bit different in their homes welcomed us with open arms.
HF: Your hiring strategy continues to be a little unusual because you look for talent rather than experience.
Schönhofen: If you have are curious, have a penchant for design, love the eclectic and are willing to dance with customers to learn more about their lives, their families and their homes, I can train you. You see, we’re not really selling furniture. We care about you and the ideas you have for your space. We come together with our customers to create a plan and look for alternatives for them. It’s a personal experience.
HF: Do you have an early product success story that is memorable?
Schönhofen: There are a few, but probably the best was our simple CD holder. CDs were in their early days and ours was much more practical than anything else on the market, it was more fun and it was more affordable. We had it in multiple bright colours and used it as a door-opener/loss leader to get people into the stores. Everyone wanted it. I still have one today as a keepsake.
HF: I’ve heard that early advertising for KARE was quite outrageous. Want to tell me about that?
Schönhofen: We like to surprise with our products and our marketing. When we started out, our mission was to be funny and somewhat offensive. We were young. Sometimes we got a little carried away and had to back off. For instance, after a few beers we invented one campaign where we focused on Gorbachov and suggested Russians needed a little more freedom. (It didn’t run). Early on we also did a photoshoot with a Christmas goose on one of our dining tables with the caption “He should have a good time over the holidays as well.”
HF: Perhaps you should bring the goose back… it might be fun! Nearly forty years, forty countries, two hundred outlets and two thousand trade customers around the world later, I’d say your non-conformist, somewhat eccentric gamble paid off.
Schönhofen: Yes. When we stepped into the market we had no idea that there would be so many individuals who would love the contemporary authenticity of what we were doing. Back then we didn’t worry about our limitations. We were passionate and it was full speed ahead, but I believe 90% of our success was simply hard work. Jurgen and I were old fashioned entrepreneurs. Development was strong and steady in Germany, France and Italy. These countries remain our largest markets but we’re also in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Cyprus, over 60 in all.
Europeans have an interior culture. They’ve grown up to have good taste and these day’s they tend to be quite adventurous with their décor. They’re willing to mix the modern glam with traditional, retro with classic and they’re quite fearless with colours, style and unusual and eclectic objects.
Other markets around the world seem keen to follow their lead.
HF: Did you feel competition or a threat from IKEA. After all, they had a modern, assemble it yourself, non-traditional concept.
Schönhofen: Actually, IKEA helped us. We’re not mass affordable like them, but they certain helped us blow the winds of change towards a different way of designing and buying furniture. In our minds not, everyone is the same so we have a different design philosophy that suggests that Interior Design is a very individual thing and should be customized. However, we appreciated what they were doing in our early years and it was good for us when we were starting off.
HF: A lot of us travel and appreciate some of KARE’s pieces that remind us of where we’ve been. Your unique travel themed furniture’s and fun statues might be just the ticket for a man cave or a family room.
Schönhofen: Have you traveled along the silk road route? If so, you’ll love our cozy living Gobi collection.
HF: Let’s talk about ethics and sustainability and a topic that’s on many people’s minds these days, like the environment. After all, you’re making and shipping things all over the world.
Schönhofen: Firstly, Jurgen and I don’t work with companies using child labour. Secondly, we believe in creating things that will last rather than trying to promote a “buy it and throw it” culture. We use sustainable woods with FSC certificates. Our policy is to ship by sea, not air and whenever possible, use rail rather than trucking. With our design planning and augmented reality service, our associates help clients order the right products and sizes the first time. Our goal is also to make sure energy isn’t wasted with return and redeliveries.
HF: Many of your pieces are quite daring and out there. Do people really buy things like the Brown Fur Rhino Stool or Big Red Scooter Wall Lamp?
Schönhofen: Believe it or not, lots of people are both fearless or fun loving. Many of our furnishings and accessories are designed to create whole statement rooms with large, interesting pieces that work well together. Our team makes wonderful things happen when we work with a client’s theme and measurements to pull things together.
But we also find that many interior designers and their clients will come looking for a statement or finishing piece that will create the WOW for an otherwise quite ordinary space. You’d be amazed at the fabulous conversations that have come about in people’s homes with some of our best-loved collections.
HF: More and more interesting pieces are sneaking into galleries and furniture marts but I’ve not seen anything like your Golden Dog. I hear he’s your favorite.
Schönhofen: You know, he is. He’s lovely and can sit almost anywhere as a stylish attention getter, a lobby ornament or on a table at the end of hallway. Most people give him a name and he develop a bit of a personality with the homeowner. Even better… you don’t really have to take him for a walk. Our XL deco dog figurines are also best sellers.
HF: The pieces that cracks me up are the mini animal series side and coffee tables. Who on earth thought those up?
Schönhofen: I can’t recall but you won’t believe how many we’ve sold. In multiple colours and sizes. It’s incredible. Ten to fifteen per cent of our pieces are limited edition pieces. We make a few just for the heck of it to give people something to talk about and see in our stores. Some are quite funny.
HF: And now you’ve come to Canada to liven us up? Think you can do it?
Schönhofen: We’re quite bullish actually. This is my first visit to Canada and it’s as I expected, only better. Look at this view … what an incredible city with such a beautiful lakefront! I’ve always had the impression that Canadians are young at heart, like to have a bit of fun and appreciate quality in design and manufacturing. Our store on Queen street has been open for a little while now and from what I have already seen, we’re quite confident that you’re ready for us here in Toronto and also in Vancouver.