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 #4

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In 2005 the leading group in the high-end furniture sector Poltrona Frau Group comprising Poltrona Frau, Cassina and Cappellini, as well as Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, Gufram and Nemo was established. Poltrona Frau Group, an international furniture manufacturing conglomerate which has a history that goes back to 1912 with the foundation of Poltrona Frau, followed by Cassina in 1927 and Cappellini in 1946.

With almost 100 years of history Poltrona Frau represents the design, elegance and perfection of Italian-made furniture. Among the designers represented we have Marco Zanuso, Gio Ponti, Andrèe Putman, Paolo Pininfarina, Paolo Rizzatto, Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Gehry and Partners Gehry and Partners, Piero Lissoni, Roberto Lazzeroni and many others. Poltrona Frau´s furniture designs are elegant, functional and classy.



In 2001 Poltrona Frau acquires Gebrüder Thonet Vienna. THONET has been producing furniture for more than 190 years. Design classics made of bentwood such as the legendary “Viennese café chair”, tubular steel furniture from the Bauhaus era including the “Cantilever Chair” and others have made this furniture manufacturer well known. I already discussed Thonet separately in my first post about these series. (“Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #1”)

In 2004 the contemporary Cappellini (founded in 1946) was sold to the more conservative brand Poltrona Frau, creating a fusion between modern and traditional furniture design companies. Cappellini might be most famous for its eye for emerging talent. It is common that once designers start working with Cappellini, they quickly become very successful and internationally recognized. Cappellini is synonymous for anything new, innovative and avant-garde in the furnishing industry. Cappellini works with designers from all over the world, different temperaments that do not create a real “Cappellini’s style”, but that compete to form a balanced and convincing collection. Today, its collections include the “Collezione”, “Sistemi” and “Progetto Oggetto”.


GUFRAM, a small Italian company based in Turin, Italy was acquired as well by Poltrona Frau in 2004. Founded in 1952 as an artisan firm and specialized in chair production under the direction of the Gugliermetto brothers Gufram took on its current name in 1966 and began producing design furnishings. Gufram is the antithesis of the Bauhaus philosophy which holds functionalism at its core. With an emphasis on creative freedom over the functional demands imposed by production, Gufram took part of the radical movements of ground breaking design with new materials. Gufram’s modern design objects show the many influences of pop art, conceptual art, illusionism, naturalism and modern art. The quality of Gufram’s history is epitomized by the “I Multipli” Collection: a series of modern sculptural pieces made from polyurethane foam. These modern sculptures capture the creative journey that started in the late 1960’s. Nowadays, Gufram continues to offer these furniture pieces under the “I Multipli” label.

The widely known Italian Cassina S.p.A. was acquired by Poltrona Frau in 2005. Established in 1927 in Meda (Milan) by Cesare & Umberto Cassina, this company has been designing furniture for over 80 years. Towards the end of the 1940’s Cassina opened up to collaboration with designers operating outside the firm. Cassina’s identity lies in an innovative fusion that closely links technological skill with traditional craftsmanship. Impartial experimentation on new materials and the development of new structural technology freed the company from the typical formal paradigms of furniture. In the mid-1950’s Cassina engaged the talents of architects such as Gio Ponti, Afra & Tobia Scarpa, Mario Bellini and Vico Magistretti for design collaboration. Cassina’s activity was firmly bound up with the creative genius of Gio Ponti. His model 646 chair, called the “Leggera”, represents the intermediary moment of that design process on the theme of a modern mass-produced chair which led  to the 699, the “Superleggera”, one of Italian design archetypes.

During the 1960’s Cassina discovered the capabilities of plastics and injected materials. In the second half of the 1960’s, radical design made its appearance in Cassina with the BracciodiFerro collection, a workshop of ideas in furniture design which gave substance to new instances and provocation from such designers as Alessandro Mendini and Gaetano Pesce. The introduction of new production technology was the occasion for the abandonment of traditional shapes and forms.

Also, in 1964, with the acquisition of reproduction rights of 4 items designed by Le Corbusier (who was still alive at this date) together with Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand – the LC1, the LC2 and LC3 armchairs and the LC4 chaise longue – saw the beginning of the collection called “Cassina I Maestri”, which evolved on the following years to gather together furniture by the most important names of 20th century design. The “Cassina I Maestri” collection profited with the acquisition from Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin of reproduction rights of some of the Bauhaus objects in 1968, of Gerrit T. Rietveld in 1971 (licensing agreement stipulated with the daughter Elisabeth Eskes-Rietveld) and of Charles R. Mackintosh in 1972 (licensing agreement undersigned with the Glasgow School of Art and the University of Glasgow). The “I Maestri” collection continues to grow with the re-issue in 1983 of furniture by E. Gunnar Asplund (among others, the Göteborg armchair designed in 1934-37), with the acquisition from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation of rights of reproduction (1986) of furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright, including the “Barrel” chair designed in 1937, and finally, in 2004 furniture by Charlotte Perriand (exclusive licensing agreement undersigned with her daughter Pernette Perriand Barsac).


Cassina´s “I Contemporanei Collection” reads like a brief history of design. From the pioneering work of Gio Ponti to the conceptually flamboyant designs of Philippe Starck. From sculptural shapes of Vico Magistretti and the humanistic industrial style of Mario Bellini to the innovative forms of Toshiyuki Kita and the artistic expression of Gaetano Pesce. Other designers like Francesco Binfaré, Andrea Branzi, Paolo Deganello, Piero Lissoni, Jorge Pensi, Hannes Wettstein, Patrick Jouin and Jean Marie Massaud epitomize Cassina’s commitment to the Italian design ideals of craftsmanship and quality.

With Gaetano Pesce, Cassina tried out the idea of the “individual unit in mass production”. Polyurethane foam gets used in a simpler way to make various pieces of a series, similar but not identical. Research into new materials and new technology leads on to “I Feltri” (1987) in which Pesce uses thick, heavy felt stiffened with thermo-setting resin. Today, a selected group of contemporary architects and designers continue the company’s commitment to produce new attractive models of modern furniture design.

Also part of the Poltrona Frau Group is Nemo Divisione Luci di Cassina S.p.A., founded in 1993, which produces lighting appliances. Designers from across the globe create sleek, modern designs for the company, with an eye to making light fixtures that are works of art. The team work with leading international architects, such as Carlo Forcolini, Markus Jehs and Jürgen Laub, Ilaria Marelli, Ikaru Mori, Karim Rashid and the pursuit of engineering excellence make Nemo’s products unique. Nemo is today the “official lighting provider” within the Poltrona Frau Group. NEMO´s catalog matches the “I Contemporanei Collection” with some 60’s and 70’s design icons

Furniture for every Lifestyle. The giant conglomerate Poltrona Frau Group has been able as of today to have under their umbrella almost every single style of furniture going from the beginnings of mass produced famous pieces like the “Viennese café chair”, to the acquisition of licenses and rights for the mass production of Charles R. Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gerrit T. Rietveld designs, Bauhaus inspired tubular steel furniture of Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand; Gio Ponti´s iconic “Superleggera”, and an homage to Salvador Dalí with the “Bocca” Sofa. Also, in the group we should underline the great eye to follow the trends of the avant-garde de la mode using new materials like polyurethane foam, resin and others which are overwhelmingly innovative for the furniture industry and are the basis for the production of the designs of Piero Gilardi, Gaetano Pesce, Ron Arad, Phillipe Starck, or Marc Newson, and as we list these names there is no other thought that can fill our minds than the great success that Poltrona Frau Group has achieved to mass produce furniture of almost every single style of design that has been available through the last 150 years. We should remark that scouting new talents like Tom Dixon, Paolo Rizzatto and Roberto Lazzeroti prove the effort of this group to keep the pace of the time.

As a result of this formula we can say that this Furniture Group epitomizes the mass-production era. No matter that we could find oxymoronic a mass produced Rennie Mackintosh “Hill House Chair” or a bespoke mass produced Gaetano Pesce “I Feltri”, but that is what it is all about in this business.

…to be continued in part # 5

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