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.
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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.”