Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #13

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Vitra was founded in 1950 by Willi and Erika Fehlbaum in Weil am Rhein, Germany as a shop-fitting company. Business flourished when in 1957 Herman Miller Inc.* assigned Vitra the license to produce and sell the products of Charles & Ray Eames and George Nelson in Germany and Switzerland. The influence of Charles & Ray Eames was fundamental to the development of the company. *As far as the partnerships that Herman Miller had in Europe back in the 1950’s, there were originally 4 companies: Vitra in Switzerland, Hille in the UK (which I already discussed in my previous post), ICF in Italy and Mobilier International in France; nowadays only Vitra retains a license from Herman Miller Inc.

In the 1970’s Vitra’s growing reputation for high-quality designs combined with a dynamic corporate identity was further enhanced by Rolf Fehlbaum who commissioned company buildings by highly innovative designers, including factory buildings by British architect Nicholas Grimshaw (1981) and Italian Antonio Citterio (1992), a conference building by Japanese architect Tadao Ando (1992), and the world-famous Vitra Design Museum by Frank O. Gehry, completed in 1989. The Vitra Design Museum maintains one of the largest collections of modern furniture design in the world with objects representing all of the major eras and stylistic periods from the beginning of the 19th century to the present. Special areas of the collection include early industrial bentwood furniture, turn-of-the-century designs by Viennese architects, Gerrit Rietveld’s experiments, tubular steel furniture from the 1920´s and 1930´s, key objects of Scandinavian Design from 1930 to 1960, Italian Design and contemporary developments. A further area of special interest is American Design, ranging from Shaker pieces to the postmodern seating of Robert Venturi. The Museum Collection also holds several prominent estates, including those of Charles Eames, Verner Panton, Anton Lorenz and Alexander Girard. The Collection is complemented by an extensive archive and research library. When the Barrágan papers in Mexico were in danger of dissolving into dust, Vitra rescued them. Vitra’s work with the Barrágan and Eames archives have allowed the Museum to celebrate established reputations and to throw new light on them, as well as in some cases, to overcome unjustified neglect.

In the closing decades of the 20th century Vitra became widely known as a fashionable manufacturer of furniture; it was precisely during the 1980’s that the “Vitra Editions” initiative was launched, commissioning experimental designs from a range of designers including Ron Arad, Frank O. Gehry, Shiro Kuramata, Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass, Borek Sípek and Philippe Starck. We can recall as the most successful chairs in this experiment to have been: Kuramata’s “How High the Moon” Armchair in nickel-plated steel mesh (1986), Sípek’s Ota Otanek Chair (1988), Philippe Starck’s Louix XX Stacking Chair (1992) and Frank Gehry’s “Grandpa Chair” (re-issued in 1993).

Today Vitra’s product line consists of designer furniture for use in offices, homes and public areas. Apart from the company’s own designs, it also manufactures and distributes the works of great names such as Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson, Verner Panton, Antonio Citterio, Sori Yanagi, Philippe Starck, Mario Bellini, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Greg Lynn, Hella Jongerius, Glen Oliver Löw, Dieter Thiel, Jasper Morrison, Alberto Meda, Ron Arad, Maarten Van Severen and Jean Prouvé among other leading designers.

The close collaboration in the early 1960´s with Danish designer Verner Panton played an important role in Vitra´s success story, when the company decided to develop what became Panton´s  best-known design: the “Panton Chair”, introduced in 1967. The “Stacking Chair” or “S Chair” became Panton´s most famous and mass-produced design. Sleek, sexy and a technical first, the “Panton” was the chair of the era.



A good eye for targeting production rights for the right furniture designs was also a key to Vitra´s success:

  • Sori Yanagi´s iconic “Butterfly Stool” was originally produced only by Japanese Tendo Mokko Corp. An example of Vitra´s timing (being in the right place at the right time) they own the production rights for the “Butterfly Stool” in Europe, North & South America & Africa.
  • In 2002 Vitra obtained the rights from Prouvé´s family to re-edit Jean Prouvé´s famous designs with the “Jean Prouvé Collection”. Furthermore, in 2011 Prouvé´s original designs have been updated with ideas from G-Star & Vitra giving birth to the “Prouvé RAW”, a collection of furniture classics from this French designer and artisan, newly interpreted. Mainly focused on chairs, lamps, tables, a chaise longue and others that were updated in new materials and colors while leaving the structure of the pieces largely unchanged.

OK. If you think that the last paragraph is redundant you are right, but it is exactly the way most consumers feel at this moment after 20 something years of re-introductions, re-issues, re-launches, revivals, re-interpretations, reproductions, re-editions of rediscovered design classics have become very fashionable AND PROFITABLE with a proven formula so they are currently marketed at rather high prices by the many renowned furniture manufacturers around the world, becoming a very important part of the bottom line for the furniture business. The question is: will the industry ever see farther than its comfort zone? Is the new talent dead? How many design students are there in the universities in the world? I hope that there are only 2 or 3 and that they are aware that the leading companies of the industry rather be in their comfort zone than offering opportunities to new-comer designers. Of course, re-copycats and cheap re-imitations have flooded the markets. Do you re-understand that we are tired of the re-formula? This re-marketing is extremely dangerous to the point of re-tiring consumers in the long run.


…to be continued in part # 14

Copyright © 2010-2017 Karin Goyer. All Rights Reserved.


Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #12

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The Hille furniture company was established in 1906 in London by Salamon Hille, a Russian emigrant, to renovate and reproduce 18th century furniture. By the 1930’s the company had already an international reputation, supplying products all over the world. Then in 1948, the MoMa in New York held the “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design” where British designers Robin Day and Clive Latimer won a 1st prize with a plywood storage system they designed together, this called Hille´s attention. Hille was eager to modernize and its owners decided to engage Robin Day in 1949 to design and produce their low-priced furniture that could be manufactured on a large scale; in the years to follow Day became Hille´s head designer. Well known furniture pieces designed by Robin Day for Hille include the “Hillestak” (1950), a chair with a beech wood frame, seat & back of laminated wood with walnut veneer, and a simple armchair for the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1951. Whereas pre-war furniture was solid and ponderous, Day’s designs were pared down and seemed to float above the ground, as with his 1952 “Reclining Chair”. After 5 years of collaboration with Hille, Robin had been instrumental in transforming the company from a small cabinet making firm into a producer of innovative and modern furniture; Hille became Herman Miller´s partner in the UK. An interesting coincidence: Robin Day and his wife Lucienne where Britain’s most celebrated post-war designer couple and they have often been compared to their US contemporaries, Charles and Ray Eames.



In 1962-63 Robin Day designed for Hille “Polyprop”, a stackable chair inspired by the Charles and Ray Eames “Plastic Shell” chairs. Polypropylene had been invented in 1954 and by the end of that decade Shell Chemicals produced the material in various formulations. Day realized that polypropylene would be perfect for a low cost mass produced chair. Manufactured by the injection blow  molding process, the plastic was inexpensive, light, and very durable. Moreover, the plastic could be stained in all colors. With this chair Robin Day hit on a very reasonably priced chair, so successful that it has been a long-term bestseller. Durable, stylish and cheap, it was bought in bulk by airports, canteens, hospitals and restaurants. To put the success of Day’s polyprop chair designs into  context: an estimate of 500,000 units a year are currently being sold. A worldwide hit, produced in the millions, which of course, has also spawned innumerable copies. Robin went on to create a  whole ‘Polyprop’ family – the 1967 Polypropylene Armchair, the 1971 Series E school chairs and the 1972 indoor/outdoor Polo Chair.

Robin Day had the highest profile of all of Hille´s designers, but their scholarship scheme (set up in 1967) and their willingness to work with designers to offer prototyping and small production runs brought other dividends. One of which was the collaboration with Fred Scott, known for his “Supporto Office Chair”designed for Hille. The company´s focus on affordable innovative designs continues, as we can see with the new SE Ergonomic Chair, a project with designers Richard Snell and David Rowe, Birmingham City University, Hille and BKF Plastics. The posture theory behind the chair was the result of 2 years of research. From launching the first polypropylene education chair range in 1971, Hille has used its experience to develop further affordable ranges to compliment any classroom environment. Designers that have worked for Hille include Robin Day, Fred Scott, Richard Snell and David Rowe.

Robin Day and his textile designer wife Lucienne transformed British design after World War II by pioneering a new modern idiom. He experimented with new materials in inexpensive furniture for manufacturers like Hille and she revitalized textile design with vibrant patterns. Whereas the Eames designed as a team, the Days mostly worked independently in separate fields. When Hille commissioned Robin to design their low-priced furniture for a large scale production, he changed the company´s future and for sure, he will be best remembered for his polypropylene molded stacking chairs which have sold around 50 million units since the launch of the “Polyside” chair in 1963 – the ultimate mass produced chair.


…to be continued in part # 13

Copyright © 2010-2017 Karin Goyer. All Rights Reserved.