The word “legacy" carries heavy implications. The history, past success and present pressure, the cumbersome weight that comes with high expectations. Some might shy away, but the father-son and father-daughter duos interviewed here confronted their storied family heritage on their own terms—to further achievement and accolades. Their concepts of legacy have defined their lives and shaped who they are. And although each parent discouraged their child from devoting entire lives to the family craft, ultimately it was the lure of the craft itself and the depth of their interest that drew them in, and kept it going—for another generation at least.
Christopher and Emily Johnson of 1882
135 years after their family revolutionized the art of ceramic dinnerware in Stoke-on-Trent, England, father-daughter duo Christopher and Emily Johnson are creating a transformation of their own. Steeped in the family’s tradition of craftsmanship, 1882 (named for the year their namesake company, Johnson Pottery was established) takes a decidedly contemporary, design-driven approach to the delicate, ornate ceramics of ages past.
Ayesha Khan: What does legacy mean to you, particularly being from a storied English family?
Emily Johnson: Legacy is very simple for me—it's simply the joy of carrying on with the wonderful heritage of my forefathers.
AK: Did you feel pressure to join the family business since five generations have preserved the Johnson name, or was it truly your own choice?
EJ: None at all. Dad, in many ways, went out of his way to discourage rather than encourage. Johnsons are tricky customers—we are all rather stubborn, so if you tell us to do something the outcome isn't always favorable. My parents were fantastic in encouraging us all to be our own, independent people. That’s why 1882 Ltd. is even more precious—it is heartfelt.
AK: How do you feel that 1882 differs from (or surpasses) other companies who also have a storied tradition, but are now entering the realm of contemporary design?
EJ: I feel we are different because we try to focus on the changing needs of the market and move away from what has been considered the norm. We are collaborating with designers who bring with them a breathe of fresh air, but where we are really fortunate is the legacy of manufacturing knowledge behind us. Dad, with over fifty years of experience, is fully intimate with production and has an incredible understanding of what can be done, and yet he always manages to look at things with fresh eyes. As a team we have the manufacturing wing fully on board, as well as the desire to innovate. We are prepared to deviate, we are prepared to test the bounds of the material and we are prepared to have fun!
AK: What are some of your earliest memories of working with your father and family?
EJ: The ceramics industry is a real passion to all that work in it, so that—combined with Dad being a self-admitted workaholic—meant that he was always in the factories, including on weekends. I would often go with him and really get involved in the processes and always enjoyed talking to everyone about what they did, and how they did it.
AK: How was the family craft taught to you? Did you naturally show an interest in it as a child?
EJ: I think you had better ask Dad that one!
Christopher Johnson: Emily was always a free spirit and she often came round the factories—more at the beginning to escape homework, much to her mother’s fury. But there is no doubt that she fell in love with the ‘pots’.
AK: What does legacy mean to you? Did you feel pressure to have your children continue with the family craft?
CJ: Legacy is one of the most marvelous things any human being can have. I felt no pressure because things had changed—the family company had been taken over by Josiah Wedgwood, which was a great sadness to me as a fourth generation Johnson. I would have loved for it to remain independent. However, Wedgwood was a real joy to work for, and I had 40 magical years running their factories.
AK: At the same time, was it important not to pressure your children to work for the family business and find their own career path?
CJ: Yes, because I am a firm believer that everyone should choose their own destiny.
AK: Do you have any fun anecdotes about Emily as a child and her involvement with Johnson Pottery?
CJ: Emily did produce an interesting ceramic animal-like creature that has still survived in part—badly made, badly decorated, but the thought was there. This, I will add, was when she was at primary school. Emily's education depended on a stream of tea sets given to headmistresses to ensure that she was allowed return to school and continue. It was an expensive exercise.
Klaus and Klaus Nienkämper (Sr. and Jr.), Nienkämper
The Nienkämpers are something of Canadian design royalty, calling everyone from the Duke of Windsor to the Canadian Prime Minister loyal patrons and admirers of their unique pieces. Founded in 1968, their eponymous company has collaborated with a veritable who’s who of design world luminaries to create iconic furniture for both commercial and residential purposes. Today Klaus Sr. and his beloved son, Klaus Jr. run both parts of the business.
Ayesha Khan: What does legacy mean to you, particularly with Nienkämper being a proudly Canadian company and an integral part of the design fabric of the country?
Klaus Nienkämper Sr.: In a sense legacy means to me leaving an indelible mark, whether it’s in design or in business. I did not however, set out to create a legacy when I first started. My goal was to bring the best of contemporary furniture design to Canada in the 60s. We began manufacturing under license and adding Canadian and American designers to the fold, and then developing our own designs which themselves have become enduring classics. Many are still in production today.
AK: When did Klaus Jr. join the company? Was it his choice or did you encourage him in the direction of the family business?
KS: I never encouraged my children to join the family business and I left Klaus Jr. to decide what he wanted to do, but he has a keen eye for good design. I think the retail brand was a natural fit for him.
AK: What has been a source of friendly tension between the two of you, which could possibly be attributed to a 'generation gap' perhaps how one family member sees the business versus how the other does?
KS: There is definitely a generation gap. While I prefer a more classic style going back to the Bauhaus, Florence and Hans Knoll, Klaus 2 is much more of a free spirit and willing to experiment.
AK: What are your earliest memories of little Klaus being involved in the business, even if at first maybe more of a menace, than a productive part of the company?
KS: In the early years we had to put in a lot of hours, sometimes on weekends [my wife] Beatrix and I would be at the office. The children would stay busy by making up the catalogs. There would be a long table with cut sheets laid out, and they would scoot around the table on task chairs assembling the sheets into binders for the A&D offices. They looked to be having great fun doing it.
AK: It is a challenge working within a family business to determine offerings?
KS: There can be tension sometimes because one has to offer what clients want and the business has to be profitable as well. It is difficult sometimes to strike that balance. The business will be 50 years old next year and we want to make sure it will survive for many more years.
AK: What are your hopes for the company and how do you think it will evolve under Klaus' eventual leadership and in this age of internet and social media?
KS: With the introduction of manufacturing in Canada, Klaus Jr. decided to return to importing from Europe in addition to promoting Nienkämper designs to the retail market.
AK: Were you always keen to be part of your father's business? What about it attracted (or didn't attract) you?
Klaus Jr.: I think initially at a very young age, I felt that going into the family business was a natural thing to do. Only after a couple of years working for the company in an entry-level capacity did I begin to understand our place within the industry.
AK: Do you have a fun anecdote about making a silly mistake that upset your father and made you feel that you had disappointed him (but can laugh about now)?
KJ: As a teenager I had been hired to maintain the property around our production facility, I had done a very poor job and left early one day for a friend’s cottage a few hours away. This was long before cell phones. He somehow managed to track me down and ordered me back to finish the job properly. I returned as instructed. Lesson learned.
AK: Would you want your children to carry on the legacy, especially since the company is such an important part of the fabric of Canadian design?
KJ: Unfortunately no, I would not want them to carry on in this field, but they’re only five so a lot can happen between now and then. While I love what I do and am really fortunate to be in an industry surrounded by works that combine form, function and beauty, there is an immense challenge to bring this to market. To get your product placed into certain environments, specified into particular projects, the fight to remain current, it can be overwhelming. Skills that are transferable, pick up and do it anywhere, to be less tied down and more mobile, those are things that I miss and feel could be had by sons with the right education.
AK: What was it like seeing your parents attend so many elegant occasions, meeting and being commissioned by the Prime Minister of Canada, the embassies of Canada and the Prince and Princess of Wales?
KJ: I remember being very aware that my parents were attending higher profile events than some of my friends’ parents. We were raised with an elevated sense of design, I don’t believe that I ever took that for granted, or bragged about it with others, or even made mention of how our surroundings might be more contemporary compared to the very traditional homes of my peers. Our furnishings seemed glamorous and modern, as did my parents.
AK: What would you say are the younger insights or ventures you've brought to the company to ensure its longevity into the 21st century and Internet Age?
KJ: Well, we really do have two separate and distinctive companies and have made a concerted effort to let people know that. We address two different parts of the market, and bring in imported collections from abroad: Stellar Works from Shanghai, Rolf Benz, Cor, e15—all German brands that we offer for both residential and contract markets. People come to KLAUS and know it’s been there for almost 50 years in one way or another. I have made a big effort to uphold offering new design to the market, as did my father 45 years ago, just in different times.
Jean-Georges and Cedric Vongerichten, Chefs and Restaurateurs
Although Jean-Georges Vongerichten has won every imaginable culinary honour, the real star in the Michelin-starred chef’s life is his son, Cedric. Instead of grooming a young scion and insisting he join the family business, Jean-Georges did everything possible to deter Cedric from restaurant life. When the young teen showed an interest in carrying on his father’s legacy, Jean-Georges swiftly threw down the gauntlet, challenging his son to move through the ranks in order to earn his current role as Chef de Cuisine of New York’s Perry Street, and soon, two other international outposts in his father’s 35-flag restaurant fleet.
Ayesha Khan: What does the word legacy mean to you?
My father had taken over his family business of supplying coal because he was the eldest boy. I was the eldest in my family, so my father sent me to study engineering in hopes that I would take over his businesses. I hated it—the school threw me out after six months. My father was mad at me for me not continuing the business—I really blew his legacy for him. Hospitality was always my thing—from when I was six years old everyone would call me to organize birthday parties, so I decided to follow my passion.
AK: Did Cedric always want to join the family business, or was it at your urging?
JGV: On the contrary, I tried to push him away because a chef’s life is not easy. I really tried to discourage it, and when he was 18 and told me he wanted to join the business, I sent him the Hong Kong, to the Bahamas, to do unpleasant things like fillet fish. I wanted him to start at the bottom as an apprentice for two years, but he kept bouncing back and insisting this is what he wanted to do.
AK: You didn’t want your son to rush into anything, or not be prepared, that’s understandable.
JGV: Yes, and I wanted to make sure he got an education. I didn’t want him to do what I did—go back to school at 35 after dropping out at 16, so I sent him to the Culinary Institute of America for four years.
AK: And now that Cedric has proven that he can do it, how do you feel? Are you confident that he will carry on the Vongerichten legacy?
JGV: I’m very proud of him and what he’s become. He’s opening his own restaurant in Jakarta. Parallel to me he’s going to open a couple of places and eventually he’s going to take over the whole thing. He loves cooking and being in one place, but I always tell him, if you want to follow in my footsteps, your head is going to have to be everywhere.
AK: Cedric, what does legacy mean to you, especially now that you have your own children?
Cedric Vongerichten: Legacy to me is all about sharing your passion with your kids. I definitely hope one of my two sons will follow in my footsteps. Even though my father told me when I was 14 not to follow him, I knew he secretly wanted me to, but didn’t want it to be forced. It’s not just about following your parent and ten years down the road feeling like what they do, it’s not for you.
AK: What’s your earliest memory of being with your father in the kitchen?
CV: I was six years old and we were living at the Drake Hotel in New York. I’d come home, and before doing my homework or anything I would go straight to the kitchen—if the hotel was my home, the kitchen was my playground. It was mostly pastry because a six-year-old would never be allowed near the hot line. I remember making little carrots out of marzipan for the carrot cakes and thinking I wanted to be a pastry chef.
AK: How did you come to work with your father?
CV: I worked for other chefs in France because my father wanted to discourage me from working for him. I was a rebellious teenager so I said, “Fine, I’ll just work for someone else.” Eventually when I turned 18 he did allow me to come work for him. It was a test for him to open up my mind. I remember in the Bahamas I was butchering fish—live fish. London was all about fusion. In Hong Kong I was back to filleting the live fish, and cooking in the Asian style. After all those tests my father still wasn’t convinced and said, “Ok, now you have to go back to school to learn about the business aspects of the profession.”
AK: Can you remember a time when you made a mistake or did something to upset your father in the kitchen? Does his approval still mean a lot to you?
CV: I overcooked a big batch of duck. He wasn’t upset, but with parents sometimes just a look is more than any yelling. His approval means a lot to me. When I was starting out, every time I put a dish on the menu I would ask him to come and taste it. I now change the menu often and don’t feel I need that approval constantly. He will come in and have a bite and give some feedback. Now it’s more about opening new restaurants and getting his thoughts on new spaces and concepts.
AK: What’s a little known fact about your dad?
CV: He’s so detail oriented that he’ll notice even the smallest things like a thumbprint on a light bulb. He’s very particular, not just about the food, but about the service as well. That and he must eat a piece of chocolate before going to bed every night, no matter where we are in the world.
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