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 #7

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Knoll was founded in 1938 by Hans G. Knoll, a German immigrant to the U.S., and son of one of Germany’s pioneer manufacturers of modern furniture. Educated in England and Switzerland, Hans Knoll was familiar with the Bauhaus and with many of the seminal figures in 20th century design and architecture, including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Starting from scratch, Knoll slowly built up a roster of respected designers and a catalog of impressive furniture designs. In 1943 Knoll furniture hired Florence Schust, a designer with bright ideas who had worked with European masters. In 1946, Florence Schust and Hans Knoll married and formed Knoll Associates. Their major breakthrough came shortly after they were married when they were hired to design the Rockefeller family offices in Rockefeller Plaza. The job was heralded as a benchmark for office designs of the day, and it became a springboard for Hans and Florence into other high-profile office design jobs. Since the beginning of their partnership, Florence played a critical role in the development and direction of the company. It was her concept to take a Bauhaus approach to furniture design: to offer objects that represented design excellence, technological innovation and mass production. Together, Hans and Florence Knoll searched for and nurtured talented designers; they believed strongly that designers should be credited by name and paid royalties for their work, a tradition which continues at Knoll today. With the extensive European and American design contacts of Florence and Hans, the company’s products took on an international flavor. They brought in architects Eero Saarinen and Franco Albini, and worked with artists such as Harry Bertoia, Jens Risom and Isamu Noguchi to develop a collection of furnishings that are now widely recognized as classics in the pantheon of modern design.

Knoll made a masterful move in 1953 when they came to an agreement with Mies van der Rohe for the exclusive manufacturing and sales rights to his furniture. His collection includes the Krefeld Collection, the MR Chaise Lounge, and the world famous Barcelona Chair. By 1968 another important event took place in Knoll´s history when Knoll International purchased The Gavina Group of Bologna. Founded in 1949 in Bologna, an Italian furniture production company established to manufacture and sell experimental works by local unknown designers, Gavina had won over the years the elite of Italian design, including the Castiglioni brothers, Vico Magistretti, Mario Bellini, Marco Zanuso and Luigi Caccia Dominioni. In 1968 however, its founder, Dino Gavina was forced to sell the company and Knoll International purchased it. With the takeover, all the Gavina glorious designs, Kazuhide Takahama and Tobia Scarpa’s sofas, Cini Boeri’s tables and the Marcel Breuer furniture (including the Wassily Chair) went into the Knoll catalogue.

After Hans Knoll’s death in 1955, Florence Knoll assumed the leadership of the company, until 1960. In 1965, she withdrew from the industry completely, leaving Knoll it in the hands of those she had trained and inspired. Since then Knoll has expanded both within the United States and internationally. The company that Florence Knoll Bassett started with her husband, Hans, in 1946, is still one of the most influential design houses in the world, and the 3rd largest manufacturer of custom furniture.

Knoll´s visionary management strategy to secure the exclusive production rights of most qualified and famous designers proved to be very successful. Knoll has the rights today to manufacture and sell products by Mies van der Rohe (the Barcelona collection), Harry Bertoia (the Bertoia wire chairs), Marcel Breuer (the Wassily chair), Eero Saarinen (the Tulip chair), Warren Platner (Lounge collection), Jens Risom (the Risom lounge chair) and many others.

Knoll introduced its successful KnollStudio collection in 1985. This line, which was designed for executive offices and residences, integrates classic icons of modern furniture by renowned designers like Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen and other reputable designers. Currently Knoll keeps a very long list of prominent designers that work or have worked for Knoll such as: Raul de Armas, Alvar Aalto, Paul Aferiat, Franco Albini, Don Albinson, Davis Allen, Emilio Ambasz, Gae Aulenti, Hans Bellman, Cini Boeri, Antonio Bonet, Achille Castiglioni, Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Pepe Cortès, Joseph D’Urso, Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy, Gianfranco Frattini, Frank Gehry, Hans Wegner, Robert Venturi, Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Iimari Tapiovaara, Kazuhide Takahama, Tobia Scarpa, Jens Risom, Ralph Rapson, Warren Platner, Gio Ponti, Don Petitt, Vico Magistretti, Donald R. Knorr, Pierre Jeanneret, Florence Knoll Bassett, Piero Lissoni, Isamu Noguchi, George Nakashima, Bill Stephens, Arne Jacobsen, Ettore Sottsass and many others…

With an all star roster with names like those mentioned above, with furniture icons like the ones all these geniuses designed and with the great moves like dealing in person with Mies van der Rohe the exclusive manufacturing and sales rights for his furniture and acquiring The Gavina Group profiting from their designers portfolio including the famous Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair I bet you that this is the Group that you would like to own for sure! The funny thing is that what started as a dream of a couple that by the way she is the one that pioneered the concept of a system in which she had long meetings with the clients to get feedback of their needs, expectations and so on (Marketing on the stage of what the client really demands..) and then producing furniture to fulfill all his dreams, coincidentally this is one of the reasons why she designed some pieces of furniture. He on the other hand, succeeded on his share of the dream giving credit by name and paid royalties the designers he hired for their masterpieces and remained focused on the manufacturing end of the business. But this fairy tale lasted profitable until the late 1970’s thanks to the introduction of the first open office furniture system in 1973, The Stephens System, designed by Bill Stephens; and then a number of new owners came and apparently none of them had the brain, imagination or knowledge of the industry, but there were lousy financial results for more than a decade to the point in which Westinghouse was not able to get rid of this Group that was losing tons of Dollars. This is an example of preeminent designs – the icon – to name it – that by far are more important than the brand that produced them, the copycats of the series like the Wassily, Barcelona, Tulip, Diamond, Platner Collection, etc. easily exceed the millions of each one. But this is no news, by the 1950’s Knoll stopped production of the B.K.F. Hardoy Sling chair because more than 5 million copies of the chair were estimated to have been produced by numerous manufacturers at the time.

The Knoll couple made great Marketing for their designs but apparently failed in educating customers to buy the brand that owns the rights. Unfortunately this is an endemic disease for human kind. Fortunately the only person that can admire an authentic KNOLL produced furniture piece and be overwhelmed by that is the one that knows that you own an underwhelming knockoff!

…to be continued in part # 8

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

Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #3

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American Furniture Company Herman Miller was founded by D.J. De Pree, who bought the “Michigan Star Furniture Company” in 1923 with his father-in-law, Herman Miller, and a small group of local businessmen. The company originated in 1905 as the “Star Furniture Company”. Initially they produced high quality furniture, especially bedroom suites, in historic revival styles. Hard pressed to stay in business during the Depression of the 30´s, D.J. De Pree gambled on contemporary furniture designed by Gilbert Rohde.

In 1945 D.J. De Pree convinced George Nelson to become Herman Miller’s Director of Design. That same year the first George Nelson produced Herman Miller Catalog started a collaboration that would result in some of the most famous home furnishings of the 20th century. Ray and Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz, Donald Knorr and Isamu Noguchi, all worked for Herman Miller. Although both Bertoia and Noguchi later expressed regrets about their involvement, it became a uniquely successful period for Herman Miller and for George Nelson.

George Nelson had already drawn popular attention since the 40’s with several innovative ideas. In his post-war book co-authored by Henry Wright “Tomorrow’s House”, he introduced the concept of the “family room” and the “storage wall”, which had caused a sensation in the furniture industry and had attracted D. J. De Pree´s attention. The nature of the contract that Nelson signed with Herman Miller allowed him the freedom to work outside of Herman Miller and the use of designs from numerous other architects he had worked with. From 1946 onwards Nelson also ran his own design office, creating numerous products that are now regarded as icons of mid-century modernism. Nelson founded George Nelson & Associates in 1955; the design office had a lot of design talent during its glory days. Designers who worked for the office included Irving Harper, Charles Pollack, Bill Cannan, George Mulhauser, Robert Brownjohn, Gordon Chadwick, Bill Renwick, Suzanne Sekey, Ernest Farmer, Tobias O’Mara, George Tscherney, Lance Wyman, John Pile and others. At one point Ettore Sottsass worked at his office, later he became an icon in his own right when he co-established the radical design movement “Memphis” in the early 1980’s.

George Nelson & Associates worked with Herman Miller for over 25 years. Among George Nelson´s best known designs are the Marshmallow sofa, the Coconut chair, the Catenary group, his clocks and many other products.

George Nelson together with the duo Charles and Ray Eames are among the most important American designers of the 20th century. Like many modernists, the Eames believed that affordable, mass-produced, well-designed furniture and objects for the home were tools that could bring about an environment ripe for social change and betterment. The Eameses brought new materials, new processes, and a new attitude to interior design.

In the early 40´s, when Charles Eames was working on MGM set designs, he and Ray were experimenting with wood- molding techniques that would have profound effects on the design world. Their discoveries led to a commission from the US Navy to develop plywood splints, stretchers, and glider shells, molded under heat and pressure that were used successfully in World War II. When the war was over, Charles and Ray applied the technology they had created to making affordable, high-quality chairs that could be mass-produced using dimensionally shaped surfaces instead of cushioned upholstery. In 1946, Evans Products began producing the Eameses Molded Plywood furniture. Their Molded Plywood Chair was called “the chair of the century”. Soon production was taken over by Herman Miller, Inc., who continues to produce the furniture in the United States to this day. Their collaboration with Herman Miller continued and extended to VITRA International, Herman Miller´s European partner.

After plywood, the Eames focused on equally zealous experiments with other materials by creating furniture in fiberglass, plastic and aluminum. The first mass-produced plastic chair was the Eames Molded Plastic Armchair with Rocker Base, an iconic piece of mid-century modern furniture, introduced in 1948. Herman Miller is still producing today the Eames Plastic Chair collection.

Among the first cabinet pieces to be mass- produced was the Eames Storage unit (ESU), introduced in 1950. Manufactured from 1950 to 1955 and re-issued by Herman Miller since 1998.

The Eames Lounge and Ottoman was the Eames’ first luxury chair. The Eames Lounge Chair is probably the most famous mass produced piece of American furniture. A classic of mid-century design and one of the most widely recognized designs by Charles & Ray Eames. At the time, Herman Miller used brilliant high-end marketing to create a feeling of exclusivity around it. Since its introduction, the Eames Lounge Chair has been in continuous production for over 5 decades by Herman Miller in America and by VITRA for the European market. Other furniture companies began to copy the chair’s design; some copies were direct knockoffs, while others were merely ‘influenced’ by the design. Through the web you may also find a large variety of inferior copies offered by some Chinese as well as European companies.

Isamu Noguchi began his collaboration with Herman Miller in 1947 when he joined with George Nelson, Paul László and Charles & Ray Eames to produce the Herman Miller Catalog containing what is often considered to be the most influential body of modern furniture ever produced, including the iconic Noguchi table. Originally issued in 1947, the Noguchi table became one of Herman Miller’s most iconic and successful designs. Production ceased in 1973, and the piece became an instant collectible. Herman Miller reissued it in 1980 in a limited edition of about 480 tables. The table was reintroduced again in 1984 for the “Herman Miller Classics” line, and has been in continual production ever since.

Currently Herman Miller, Inc. is one of the largest manufacturers of office furniture and owns the rights to reproduce many great American classics. What started with the idea of affordable, mass-produced, well-designed furniture for the post-war period, through the time looks like the whole essence of this ideal has been lost. All the series of re-issues, re-introductions and Modern Collections of these cheap and affordable designs (nowadays very expensive for a mass production article) prove that a comprehensive marketing and consumer education has been successful for Herman Miller, Inc. to the point that in order to avoid spending money in exotic precious woods that can be purchased in controlled and eco friendly engineered plantations, now they have come with the marketing propaganda of an “environmentally friendly company”.

According to the legend, one day Gilbert Rohde approached D.J. De Pree and told him that he was reproducing furniture stolen of earlier makers and concealing shoddy joinery and convinced him that that was dishonest.

I wonder why the designs of Gilbert Rohde have not been reproduced or brought to the “Modern Classics Collection” and I find that the list of materials used by Mr. Rohde looks like this: “the various woods he employed in his pieces, noted by Leslie Piña in her preface to a reprint of the 1939 Herman Miller Catalogue, gives a hint of Rohde’s prolific imagination: East India Rosewood, Brazilian Rosewood, Sequoia Burl, Walnut Burl, Mardou Burl, Quilted Maple, Macassar Ebony, Paldao with quilted Maple, Walnut with Bleached Maple, White Acer with Black Walnut, etc.”

As a result we can consider that it is always more comfortable for the company to have a low cost production and selling at high prices than re-issue furniture of the man who saved this company in the 1930´s. A self-taught furniture designer who visited in 1927 Paris and the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, came back to America and started producing furniture of great quality and design. He opened his own design firm and the stardom arrived when he was enrolled by D.J. De Pree. The numerous designs of extreme quality that he masterminded in more compact sizes accordingly to the household dimensions of the time, the use of the former list of materials and the inclusion of bronze, steel, Bakelite, leather, Plexiglas, Lucite, etc. turned the old-fashioned Herman Miller into the innovative and updated company that apparently forgot that Gilbert Rohde set the grounds to embrace the American modernism and that unfortunately he could not lead it through this new era due to his early departure at age 50. It is a pity that he has been under-appreciated, ignored and neglected.

But do not worry; you are a well educated consumer and power words like “exclusive”, “Limited Edition”, “Master´s Collection”, “Anniversary Issue”, etc. affects your behavior and maybe soon you will have available the very “last series” of a rosewood version of the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman that eventually in some years will be re-introduced into regular mass-production. A re-issue of Rohde´s furniture pieces, no way!! That is far beyond the comfort zone of Herman Miller.

…to be continued in part # 4

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