When R. Thomas "Tom" Gunkelman moved his interior design business from his native Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis 35 years ago, he brought his clean-lined classic style and Mies van der Rohe furniture with him.

"He loved those modern midcentury pieces; he was one of the first designers to introduce these communities to that aesthetic," said Karen McKay, an interior designer at Gunkelmans Interior Design.

Gunkelman told the Star Tribune in 2009 that he hadn't bought a new piece of furniture in 30 years. "I feel like I don't have to, because I bought quality," he said.

That classic, timeless approach was Gunkelman's hallmark, said Andrew Flesher, his former protégé and business partner, who left Gunkelmans a year ago to launch Andrew Flesher Design. "Interiors he did 20 years ago still look good today," Flesher said. "He was so succinct in his design, so edited, so good at streamlining."

Gunkelman, 81, who died May 21 in Minneapolis after a bout with pneumonia, was still actively involved in design, said Kari Solyntges, his business manager. "People would say, 'When's he going to retire?' He was never going to retire. Design was his life; it was in his blood."

He had taken an extended winter trip to Florida but had work waiting for his return, she said. "He'd say, 'I need to get better, to do that project.'"

Gunkelman, named to the Top 100 Designers in America listing three times by House Beautiful magazine and to the Top 50 Designers list by Elements of Living magazine, won numerous awards for his work and counted humorist Garrison Keillor among his clients. One home he designed for Keillor was showcased in Traditional Home magazine.

He treated his clients and his employees like family members, according to Solyntges. "That was one of the wonderful things about him. He'd come to your home for meals, for your kids' graduations." The firm will continue under his name, she said.

Gunkelman "loved teaching, mentoring and developing young designers," McKay said. "He wanted everyone else to succeed. His joke was that he should have opened a design school. You can't even count the people who came through his studios."

Maybe that's why he had trouble keeping their names straight, according to Solyntges. "Whenever a new intern or designer started, we'd always say, 'Don't be offended; he won't remember your name.' He had his own names for people -- Tasha became 'Tish-Tosh.' Rita and Martina were both 'Martini.' He'd bring me in and say, 'I want Jane to do this.' Afterwards, I'd have to ask, 'Who's he calling Jane? The new intern?'"

Gunkelman was fun-loving and down-to-earth, said textile artist Mary Ann Wise of Stockholm, Wis. "Tom made everything fun," she said. "What I appreciated was he was really accessible. Sometimes when people are working at his level in the design world, you have to work your way through layers of staff people to get to them. But Tom always took my phone calls and responded to my e-mails. He was very supportive. When I started my rug-weaving company in '78-79, Tom was one of the first designers to like my work, buy my work, even though I was young and had no track record. He taught me to focus and listen. He was a great teacher."

After Wise founded Cultural Cloth, a company that works with women in the developing world to produce home textiles, Gunkelman became a supporter and adviser, she said. "He encouraged us to go for the quality, make beautiful products that people really wanted to own -- not 'pity buys,'" she said. "He always had invaluable advice."

Gunkelman is survived by a brother, R.F. "Tod" Gunkelman Jr. of Fargo and Sun City, Ariz., as well as nieces, nephews, friends and associates.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. June 1 at Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis, followed by a reception celebrating his life at Le Meridien Chambers Hotel in the ART Gallery, 901 Hennepin Av. S., from 3 to 7 p.m.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784