When did you first start visiting Southeast Asia?
Stephanie: I first started visiting at age 12 as my parents were antique dealers who were dealing in Asian art and I used to travel with them. Later on I did a lot of backpacking trips to the region.
Pieter: When Stephanie and I first met I vividly remember her saying ‘One day I want to live in Asia’. I was originally a law student but Stephanie’s family introduced me the antique world and it changed everything for me. We opened our first antique shop in Antwerp when I was 24. The fun part about being an antiques dealer is you travel a lot and we could come to Bangkok three to four times per year.
Stephanie: I had always wanted to live here.
Pieter: We had been running our gallery for 12 years when two things happened. Our lease had ended and we had made a major sale to a U.S. client. I was on my way to sign a new lease where we always wanted to be in the best street and location in Antwerp then for some reason I picked up my phone and called Stephanie and said - ‘Darling, remember all those years ago you said you wanted to go to move to Asia, so why don’t we? We could go for a year and then come back and show our clients what we have done.’ She said ‘Okay’. So we held a big sale and within six months we were on our way. We arrived in December 2004. Stephanie’s Father was already living in Bangkok at the time in Talad Noi.
So what happened when you arrived?
Pieter: Things changed fast. A space became available at OP and it was a great space and no key money was required, so we took it. That was two weeks after we had arrived. Then Stephanie’s father said that we need somewhere to live and to store our items, he had a warehouse opposite Si Phraya and he said the place behind him was available, it was three abandoned and empty shophouses, so we took them and started to do some renovations. That is now the location of Speedy Grandma.
Stephanie: We decided that the ground ﬂoor would be for furniture and storage but we had two empty ﬂoors above so we decided we may as well live there temporarily until we find something in an area we want to live. But that temporary situation became five years.
Stephanie: There we no expats in this area. No little restaurants, no galleries.
Pieter: It was a very local area. Which we liked. For twenty years we had been visiting and this was our spot in Bangkok as we were always at River City and OP.
How did the idea for a bespoke, made-to-order luxury furniture brand come about?
Pieter: Well the renovated shophouse was a direct link. One night we had a client visiting from New York and we invited him to our home for dinner, he loved what we had done with our place. He said he had a condo in Central Park and asked if we could do something similar for him. Even though we are not interior designers we said - “Sure, no problem”. He gave us carte blanche for the interior and the antique collection. For that specific project we ended up in Vietnam browsing antique shops, in one of those shops we saw two slabs of wood, amazing hardwood, and as antique dealers we recognize nice wood, so we immediately bought those two pieces. Our next question to the shop owner was “Can you find us some more?” He said “Of course”. So we rented a little truck with him and we went wood shopping. So that was the start. Soon we had forty to fifty slabs.
Stephanie: Then I asked what are we going to do with all this wood? We trust our guts. We asked ourselves what shall we do with that? We had all these slabs lined up on the ground ﬂoor of shophouse. So one day we said maybe we can make tables?
Pieter: We said let’s make the most beautiful tables that we could think of. And somehow we thought with our knowledge of culture and furniture in Asia we were sure we could create something people would like. So that was the business plan.
So where did the name P. Tendercool come from?
Stephanie: Well, it is derived from two of our original clients. The aforementioned New York client who asked us to work on his Central Park condo, his name is Evan Cole, so the ‘cool’ in P. Tendercool comes from there. The ‘Tender’ comes from another U.S. client that we mentioned earlier we had made a major sale to just prior to our decision to leave Belgium, her name is Lorraine Letendre. The ‘P’ is for Pieter because when we were in Belgium our business was under my name ST Grusenmeyer due to my family being so well known in the business, so everyone thought Pieter was Mr.Grusenmeyer.
Pieter: The name is an homage to the two people who helped us start this journey and it is also a reference to ‘tenderfoot’ as we were new to this and just starting out.
When did you move into your current space, which is amazing I must say.
Pieter: We opened here almost 10 years ago. We fell in love with the space. A colleague of Stephanie’s father used to occupy this space and he mentioned he was moving out and asked if we were interested in moving in, to which we of course said - “Yes”.
Where do you source your wood?
Stephanie: We have a selection of about 200 planks. That includes wood from Vietnam and Thailand.
Pieter: We have collected those over 12 years. It’s a super rare collection, in fact I don’t know of anyone who has a collection like it. We travelled around and met with guys who buy up old rice barns, old houses, pillars and beams and depending on the social status of the families who occupied the properties you could find some amazing hardwoods. We
only work with reclaimed woods. We don’t kill trees. We make the effort every month or every two months to go and source beautiful woods.
Tell us about your connection to Salvador Dali.
Pieter: From the start we knew we wanted to work with bronze. As antique dealers we love the patina of bronze. We knew the technology existed in the region as it is part of the history here, just look at the Buddha statues. So we said bronze and wood, that will work. We needed to translate our ideas into actual creations. We spent the best part of two years looking for the right people who could help with the bronze work we needed done, many did not want to work with us as often we only needed two table legs cast at a time and most did not see the business in it, and then we met Armando through friends. He was in his late 60s, he’s a bronze master, he started out in Milano and did a lot of work for Salvador Dali. He saw our wood and said - “I will help you”. And he did. So for two years he worked with us on the designs, fine-tuning, defining what could be cast in bronze and what couldn’t.
Stephanie: He saw an opportunity to work on something different and he loved it. He loves a challenge. He’s 79 now and doesn’t want to retire.
Pieter: He understood about doing one-offs and limited editions. He is truly an old school master.
Stephanie: One day someone asked the question - “But what chairs do we put with your tables?” And we thought ‘hmmm, chairs’. That’s when we started making chairs.
Pieter: It was market driven.
Stephanie: Then we realized that once our clients bought a table and chairs they did not come back as they did not need to because they already have such a quality table that will last, so that is where the idea for sofas came along.
Pieter: Also, we love designing tables but to do one thing for the rest of our lives that’s not us. You learn as you go. We had already developed our wood expertise and then we asked ourselves what else can we do with our expertise and that is why two years ago we started making sofas.
You’ve recently opened PT Lab, can you tell us more about that?
Pieter: Armado suggested we find a space where we could do our own welding, construction, and more, beyond what was capable in our existing workshop. So last April we found an amazing space just five minutes’ walk from here and saw the possibilities, we renovated it for six months, we gutted the whole thing, it was an abandoned rice storage warehouse that sits right on a khlong. Armando helped us shop for and buy some good second-hand machines for welding. And then, for a couple of months Armando invited our people down to his factory in Rayong where he trained them. He transferred his knowledge to us. It was amazing. So now we can make what we need in-house and now that we have mastered the welding that will lead to even more designs. PT Lab will be a game changer for us.
Pieter: We started out with two brothers, Khun Sek and Khun Song, who were working in a factory two doors down from our original location and they started doing some work for us on the side on our wood and then soon were working for us fulltime. Then we brought in Eli who was our furniture restoration expert in Belgium. It was a great opportunity; our local Thai guys could teach him how they work with wood in Thailand and in turn he could teach them how he works with wood in Europe.
Stephanie: Khun Sek and Khun Song did not speak one word of English and Eli could not speak Thai, so that was a big challenge.
Pieter: But they all had a common love for wood. So there was some sign language going on. But they understood each other and that was amazing. But we did realize communication would become a problem and we offered to get Khun Sek and Khun Song private English teachers. Khun Sek was very open to it. He now speaks ﬂuent English. Plus, because he understood what we were making and our quality standards and he knows Thai woods I asked him to take-over buying the wood. He came back from his first trip and he had found the most amazing wood. And not only that, he told us how many pieces we could make with the wood he found.
Stephanie: He had already calculated in his head what could be done.
Pieter: Then I asked him to build his team to work with him, to find more people who he felt he could work with and who could do the job. He also does all the quality control, he is invaluable. So that was ten years ago and we still have the same team, a few had to leave due to family responsibilities, but that is the only reason they left. Khun Sek is now married, has a child, and owns his own house.
Stephanie: They all got to know how we work and understood why we are picky about quality with the work. They learned a lot along the way and then we gave them a lot of freedom and responsibility, because what comes around goes around. We don’t treat them as workers, and they see that. We are all the same level here. We don’t sit in separate rooms or offices we all sit together. When we created PT Lab it was super important that we created a space that everyone wanted to work in, hence why we opened it up, painted it all white, there is an abundance of natural light, plus a lot of greenery right outside and of course the khlong. It’s a beautiful space to work from.
Who buys your furniture? Is your market local, regional, or international?
Pieter: 80% would be local customers. For years we’ve been thinking how could we grow? Working with resellers is not our thing. And we saw that online would become more important. That is why we have our own photo studio area. From the beginning we made sure we always had great photographs of everything we make. 1st Dibs is a very interesting platform for us and online sales are getting more and more important.
Stephanie: If we do get a commission from a restaurant or hotel it is usually for a Chef’s table.
Pieter: We also do boardroom tables and the like. Plus, all our sofas can be made for outdoors as well which is important in this region.
What is the price range for your furniture?
Pieter: Well, the sofas can start at 150,000 Baht to say 500,000 Baht depending on the design and fabric. Clients can choose their own fabrics. As for tables, an eight-seater can also start at 150,000 Baht but that can go up to 1,000,000 Baht or more depending on the wood. A table made of very rare wood could cost 1,500,000 Baht. We’ve set up our showroom to be like a ‘Look Mommy what we can do’ room, to help us gauge what a client is looking for. I always ask a client what is your Plan A, don’t think about the price, if you could choose what would you like?
Pieter: We travel a lot. We keep an open eye. We see possibilities everywhere. We always want to try new things. That’s why we call our new space a lab. We don’t do fairs, but we do go to Milan every two to three years to see what is happening.
Stephanie: Now we are busy with shelves and bookcases, and we are also working on a chair with armrests, they are things we feel are missing.
You're also involved with art and hold exhibitions in your showroom. Is this something you do regularly?
Stephanie: We have been doing this for a few years now as we are in the Creative District. Every three months there is the gallery hopping nights, so since we don’t use the walls we thought it would be a nice combination. Plus having the art on the walls makes our showroom feel more like a living room.
Pieter: You may have noticed we have the words ‘Cross Cultural Creations’ on the wall. We put that up ten years ago as we do believe how important it is to learn from others, so we meet with artists, we hear about their visions, they hear about our work, and we see if we can work together or not.
You're part of the 'Creative District' and were in fact the first expat 'creativepreneurs' to move into the area, were you surprised to see how it has evolved?
Pieter: I’m not surprised because we believed in it from day one. We saw all these warehouses sitting along the river and we could see the potential. And what is happening now is just the start. There’s so much creativity here. We just rented out part of our old workshop, which is within Warehouse 30, to two Korean guys who worked on the First Class Suites for Air France. And you have guys like Thomas (Menard) who saw the potential of the area and started up his projects.
One of the charms of the Talad Noi area and surrounding areas is that it still retains an old Bangkok charm, is that something that is important to you and others who have made this area home?
Pieter: What we like so much about this area is that it is authentic. You still have the Mom & Pop shops that have been around for a hundred years. You still have all the motor mechanic workshops where they are cleaning up old car parts and reselling them. There are so many beautiful old shophouses and buildings. We really do love the authenticity.
What is ahead for P. Tendercool?
Pieter: Well of course we have
PT Lab, which is the first steps of something really nice. Because there we have enough space, we can grow with more people, but also more expertise, we would like to get someone in who works with leather and that could lead to many things, and as mentioned we have started selling on 1st Dibs, that is the only platform we are working with but there will be more in the future. We want to grow without compromising our values, quality or service.
So to wrap up, tell us, as expats, what do you love about life in
Stephanie: The diversity, the fact that you have choices in everything - from food, to clothing, and so much more. We can focus on what we love to do. The quality of life.
Pieter: The general acceptance, people don’t judge very fast here. It’s also such a safe place. Thailand is an amazing place. We could never have something like this in somewhere like Hong Kong. They say the grass is always greener on the other side, but I think it’s pretty green here. >>