Remaking the Modern Classic

In the heart of the meatpacking district in New York City, a simple glass storefront stands against its unheroic warehouse neighbors—the first in a series of juxtapositions from Vitra, the internationally renowned furniture manufacturer. Walk into the store and you see the second big juxtaposition: Vitra’s new HeadLine chair, the company’s fresh entrant into the office chair market, sitting side by side with a plywood Eames chair, one of the first designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s. The contrast defies expectations. The world has clearly changed a lot since the Eames classic; Vitra, however, seems to stay the same.

Vitra doesn’t play by the rules, and they’ve been winning for half a century, staying competitive through aesthetic and functional compatibility rather than coordinated corporate integration.

It’s been that way since 1950 when Willi Fehlbaum (father of the current chairman, Rolf Fehlbaum), discovered an Eames chair at a trade show in the U.S. Until then, Vitra had been known as a manufacturer of glass cabinets (vitrines, therefore Vitra). But with the start of Vitra’s relationship to the Eameses, design met mass manufacturing in a way that combined the Fehlbaums’s fanatical enthusiasm for chair design with an interest in reaching ever wider audiences lusting for classic design. Today, Vitra not only produces re-issues of modern classics by the Eameses, George Nelson, Jean Prouve, and Verner Panton, but continues to push the design envelope with a host of new classics (from Gehry, Citterio, Starck, Arad, etc.) and soon-to-be classics (Jakob Gebert, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, etc.).

None of these designers are unknowns. They seem to be chosen, as Dieter Rams, chairman of the German Design Council and former design head of Braun once wrote of Rolf Fehlbaum, “based on meanings…on an understanding of cultural and social values.” Where other design firms choose talent on style, Vitra selects designers who go beyond style. As Hanns-Peter Cohn, Vitra’s chief executive officer, explains: “It’s not about designers; it’s about auteurs.” Can this auteur philosophy (borrowed from film) define a successful furniture maker as well? In Vitra’s case, the answer appears to be yes—but there may be more to the story.

Take that Headline chair, for example. While the design process involved teams of ergonomists, engineers, and the designers Mario and Claudio Bellini, it also involved extensive work with R&D firms in New York, San Francisco, and L.A. Cohn will only reveal that the process “was extremely inspiring” and included many recommendations to improve the product.

What Cohn wants to talk about is the design process. While the designer maintains an identifiable imprint on a product, Vitra supplements their ingenuity with research and technical expertise, bringing together product managers, technicians, and R&D. But, says Cohn, it is the designer who leads. Always. “From Vitra’s point of view, the designer is always the hero.”

It sounds simple: Give a designer a job, get out of the way, and give them all the help they need, et voilà—a chair. But surely the company must produce products that don’t sell. How do they know who to sell HeadLine to? “With HeadLine, we are convinced that we are in the right market at the right time with the right product,” says Cohn. But there must be more. How do they determine if the market is right for a specific product? Cohn says they just know: “The U.S. market is always open to real innovative products.” Perhaps, as John Thackara has written, Vitra is successful because it knows how to “attract and keep the interest and attention of the architects who tend to specify office furniture for their clients. Fehlbaum enjoys the company of architects (his customers) and has genuine enthusiasm for innovation. His design patronage cleverly enables him to mix with architects on equal terms; he is a client more than a salesman.”

Or, perhaps, as Cohn seems to say, there is some special spicy sauce at work in the collaborative process. Even if a team has worked together before, the process must be made exciting each time. “In a long relationship where everyone knows one another, there is a real danger that the level of inspiration won’t be as high as in a new relationship. People are the key: they must bring inspiration to the discussion in terms of new materials, color, design language.” This is why, Cohn says, Vitra has invested so much in its amazing campus in Weil am Rhein with its gorgeous buildings by Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, and others, each a testimony to the lasting organic benefits of pursuing the cult of freshness and relevance so essential to good design.

Hence, the increasing importance of new collections such as Joyn, an open system for office furniture, bringing together 40 years of office research expertise along with the youthful spark of the brothers Bouroullec to create a system that is utterly relevant to the historical changes taking place in today’s workplace. Hence, too, HeadLine, a chair that may never attain the cult status of Herman Miller’s Aeron, but may create new headwinds for Vitra in the highly competitive office chair market.

Even Cohn admits as much. “We are always at risk of failure,” he says, “because we are creating new products yet trying to build this risk into our process.” Vitra’s audience—originally consumers of office products, and since 2005, home products, too—are among the world’s most sophisticated consumers of design, but the company still has to study patterns at work and home to get a sense of what works. Not that market research helps much. “You still can’t be sure that it won’t be a flop,” says Cohn. Every Vitra piece is tested before it goes to market. But even then, he says, “it is the user who knows how he wants to use it.”

By and large, Vitra’s confident approach has served them well. Just as a Hitchcock film is immediately recognizable, there is a tangible design sensibility that ties a designer’s line of products together. Interestingly, sometimes “classic” can appear too “modern.” A potential client might claim that a product is too modern, when it is, in fact, 50 years old. “It is hard to create a product with a long lifecycle intentionally,” says Cohn. “It always comes from the market and the market only. You can’t plan to create a classic product.” Nor do measures of success come quickly. It typically takes five to ten years before Vitra sees a product become timely. Forty or 50 years later, it might finally be deemed timeless.

An unquestionable classic, the Panton Chair, by Verner Panton, is a plastic chair produced from a single molding. When it went into mass production in 1967, it was considered a success. Then in the ’70s, ’80s, and even the ’90s, it fell out of favor. Thirty-four years later, Vitra found new materials and reissued the Panton Chair. Today, it’s an overwhelming success once again.

“We are not here to tell you how to be, we are here to show you the possibilities,” professes Vitra’s annual catalogue, Workspirit 9. In a world where work has merged into play and the office has merged into home, Vitra stands for its own merging of classic and modern. While this blend may be new to us, Vitra has been planning for it—designing for change—since its beginning. “Vitra creates new ideas and changes tastes,” reflects Cohn. “To foresee expectations is really of second importance. For us, the motivation and inspiration is to create new ideas, to surprise people with new ideas, to make things new again. Yes, that is the thing.”

Originally published in Samsung Magazine | View original