August 20, 2012

Classic comfort

Niels and Nancy Bendtsen’s home is a reflection of their love of contemporary design combined with informal ease.

Photos Gerry Kahrmann / PNG

Niels and Nancy Bendtsen

“If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change very much,” says Niels Bendtsen of his West Vancouver house, which he designed nearly 20 years ago with architect Bill Fisher. “Really, it’s been a joy to live in.”

The house is a classic Bendtsen design: modern, timeless and functional. Like his 1975 Ribbon chair, which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. And his Bensen furniture, available through Inform Interiors in Vancouver, the chic home furnishings stores he owns with his wife, Nancy. One of his latest pieces, the contemporary wingback Park chair, was a finalist in Azure magazine’s recent AZ Awards, chosen from more than 600 entries from top international designers. The Park chair is just starting to be produced in large numbers. “It’s been a while to get it going because it’s a complicated chair even though it looks really simple,” says Bendtsen. “It’s very tricky because it’s very precise.”

Much thought goes into each of his designs. “It takes me a long time to do things, but when I do I think they’ve been considered a lot,” says Niels. “There’s things that always surprise you that work even better than you thought, and I think in our case the kitchen is one of them.” With plentiful storage and counter space plus a layout that allows people to circulate freely, it functions well both for cooking and entertaining. Nancy agrees. When their three daughters plus a nanny still lived there, “we’d sometimes have four of us cooking. We often do even when our friends come over because we do these crazy potluck dinners and everyone comes in and they’re trying to get their appies ready and their dessert ready and everything and everybody just sort of dives in and claims three feet of counter space and goes.”

Although Nancy studied architecture in Paris and Toronto, Niels had the last word on the design of the house “because I think you can’t have two captains,” she says. They went through a couple of plans, but Niels knew from the start that he didn’t want the garage door to be visible from the street – it is tucked under the house off the side of the driveway. He kept the interior simple, for example using pot lights instead of a chandelier in the dining room and reveals where the drywall meets the ceiling, floor and columns. “If you don’t do that, then you have problems painting and things never looking nice,” he explains.

The living room is truly lived in, with a home office on one side and on the other an enormous patio with an unobstructed view of the water and city beyond. “It’s not a thing that’s hidden away,” says Niels. “It’s really a living room.” Nancy adds that unlike “a lot of houses I see where people live in just 50 per cent of it, it’s all meant to be used.” Built relatively inexpensively, it is a modest size by today’s standards, just 2,500 square feet plus the garage.

The patio, which has been expanded several times, is an extension of the living room. A low wall acts as seating around a huge steel fire bowl. “We can be a whole bunch of people and it actually keeps us all warm,” says Niels. “He’s a Viking,” says Nancy. She likes to soak up heat from the sun. “I love the heat,” she says. “I grew up in Ontario and I miss it.” She insists on having breakfast on the patio every morning.

From the back garden, you can see right through the house because of the windows front and back. Almost every room has a view. Although the windows run from floor to ceiling, they are stacked horizontally, echoing the lines of the metal cladding on the exterior of the house. “Even in the wintertime the light is so beautiful because of the windows,” says Niels, and in the summertime when it’s hot you can feel the draft” through the open windows. “It’s actually warmer inside the house in the early part of the year when the sun’s lower on the horizon.”

The downside to the copious windows is lack of space to hang art. A huge Graham Gillmore painting leans against a wall, waiting to be packed up and stored because the sunlight was damaging it. In front of it leans another large painting, by Douglas Coupland. A Gordon Smith painting hangs over the fireplace, and in the dining room is a Stan Douglas photograph of MacLeod’s bookstore.

In a corner of the living room sits a curvy Ax chair, designed in 1947 and the first Danish chair made with a seat and back of laminated wood. “I’m quite crazy about old Danish chairs,” says Niels, who moved to Canada from Denmark with his parents in 1951, then returned in the ’70s to design furniture for various manufacturers. Down the hall, a rare teak and leather Metropolitan chair from the late 1950s “is his love,” says Nancy.

The Edward sofas in the living room, on the other hand, are Bensen designs inspired by the 1950s sofas by American designer Edward Wormley. Brand new, they replaced two identical pieces purchased 20 years ago. “People come in who know us don’t even notice that we don’t have our old broken sofas,” says Nancy.

There are plans for a few other fixes, including a new Boffi kitchen, but true to form, not much will change. “The configuration will stay the same. It would just be a matter of updating the materials and everything,” says Nancy. “It’s just like our sofas. The old sofas look just like the new sofas, and when we do a new kitchen, no one will know the difference.”

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