Culture

Vitra, profession: publisher of cult design furniture

Vitra is a name that design enthusiasts know. Founded in 1950, the Swiss manufacturer of designer furniture based in Weil-am-Rhein, on the French-German border (the head office is in Birsfelden, Switzerland), has become one of the leading publishers of contemporary furniture in just a few decades. Today, thethird generation of the Fehlbaum family is at the helm of the company and continues the family legacy of reissuing furniture by some of the most famous 20th century designers – Vitra holds a huge number of licenses for objects that have marked their era – and collaborating with internationally renowned contemporary designers. A look at the history of an extraordinary family success story.

View of the impressive collection of furniture produced by Vitra at its German production site. In the background, the Vitra Design Museum.
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The story begins in 1934, when the Swiss couple Erika and Willi Fehlbaum ran a small business specialising in commercial furniture. In 1950, they founded Vitra and set up manufacturing operations in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. The couple had already begun to take an interest in design, but it was in 1953 that the family saga really began. Willi Fehlbaum travelled to the USA and met Charles & Ray Eames, the legendary American design duo who had been designing chairs since the 1940s.

Willi Fehlbaum was particularly impressed by the Plastic Chair, a one-piece seat shell made of glass fibre reinforced polyester resin. The Swiss entrepreneur quickly saw the value of manufacturing and distributing the first mass-produced plastic chair. Since then, Fehlbaum has maintained a close relationship with the Eames. In 1957, Vitra signed a licensing agreement with Herman Miller, the Eames’ American manufacturer and publisher, and began producing the couple’s designs for Europe and the Middle East.

Designers Charles & Ray Eames surround Ericka and Willi Fehlbaum.
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From 1957 onwards, Vitra markets the Eames’ iconic pieces, such as the Dining Chair Wood (DCW).
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The legendary Lounge Chair Wood (LCW, created in 1945/1946) is one of the seats that belong to the Plywood Group, which Vitra also manufactures in metal: here the LCM (Lounge Chair Metal) models.
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The famous Eames Plastic Chairs range, edited by Vitra. Each chair has a shell that can be combined with a variety of different bases.
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Another seat published by Vitra in its catalogue that has become a cult item is the Organic Chair, designed in the early 1940s by Charles Eames in collaboration with the Finnish-American designer and architect Eero Saarinen, for the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition organised by MoMA.
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The Fehlbaums had a good nose for investing in design furniture, which was taking off in the post-war years. Thanks to the Eames, they began to build a flourishing business. Vitra manufactured chairs designed by the Eames couple, most of which became icons of vintage design. If Erika & Willi Fehlbaum maintained a warm relationship with the Eames, so did the De Pree family, owners of Herman Miller, who published the Eames’ models, as well as those of George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, and Alexander Girard (director of the textile division at Herman Miller).

It is therefore anything but a coincidence that, in 1984, Vitra negotiated to be able to continue producing the American brand’s furniture under its own name. And what’s more, the Swiss company was able to continue producing original furniture by dealing directly with Charles & Ray Eames, who were still alive. Vitra built up a veritable “war chest”, producing design classics from the 1950s over the years.

An icon of modern design: the sculptural Coffee Table, designed by Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi in 1944. Originally manufactured by Herman Miller, Vitra has been producing and marketing the model in Europe since 2002.
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Ball Clock, design George Nelson (1948-1960). George Nelson revolutionised the design of everyday domestic objects, including clocks. The Ball Clock has become an icon of fifties design. Vitra has been reissuing George Nelson’s “horological” creations since 1999.
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Another of George Nelson’s creations that has passed into posterity and is published today by Vitra (since 1988): The Coconut Chair (1955).
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In 2002, Vitra began to reissue designs by the famous French architect and designer Jean Prouvé in close collaboration with the family of the Nancy-based designer. Here, the Standard chair or Chair No. 4 (1934) finds its place in the Swiss publisher’s catalogue.
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1967 marks an important date in the history of Vitra. Three years earlier, the Danish designer Verner Panton was having trouble finding a manufacturer for one of his most daring projects: an S-shaped plastic chair moulded in one piece : the Panton Chair. Willi Fehlbaum believed in the visionary designer’s project and published the famous chair three years later. The gamble paid off, the Panton Chair was a hit and became one of the emblems of the “Pop” years. It is also proof of Fehlbaum’s know-how, as they love designers, join their audacity and industrialise a project that was initially a bit crazy…

The Panton Chair, designed by Verner Panton for Vitra, created in the 1960s. An absolute icon of sixties vintage design. The Panton Chair is one of the largest design collections in the world. According to the Swiss publisher: “It has only been possible to manufacture it according to its original design since 1999 – in durable, solution-dyed plastic with a matt finish.
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Verner Panton in discussion with the young Rolf Fehlbaum, son of Willi Fehlbaum.
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In 1976, Rolf Fehlbaum (1941) succeeded his father as head of Vitra. The Swiss company had already taken off, but the discreet Rolf would turn Vitra into an empire at the turn of the 21st century. The man, who is known for his modesty, has a flair for design and loves creative designers. When he was younger, he acted as a translator between his parents and the Eames couple, as well as with George Nelson! Like his father, he pursued innovative and fruitful collaborations with the best designers of the contemporary era: Ettore Sottsass, Shiro Kuramata, Frank Gehry, Ron Arad, Philippe Starck, and then with the new generation: Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, Hella Jongerius, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, …

Four years before Rolf Fehlbaum took over as head of Vitra, the Swiss publisher launched itsfirst collaboration with the American-Canadian architect Frank Gehry by publishing the Wiggle Side Chair, a tribute to Rietveld’s Zig-Zag chair (1934).
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How High The Moon” armchair, design Shiro Kuramata for Vitra, 1986. Armchair made of expanded nickel-plated steel mesh, formed and welded. A major figure in the international avant-garde, Shiro Kuramata created a piece for Vitra that conceptualises the design of the immaterial
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Louis 20 vintage chair, design by Philippe Starck for Vitra AG Switzerland, 1990. The chair is made of blue polypropylene.
Tom Vac” chair in plastic, design Ron Arad for Vitra, 2000.
Seaweed, design Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra, 2004. Algae are plastic elements that create semi-transparent surfaces that are both graphic and organic. Monochrome or coloured. The elements can be connected to decorate a wall, separate two spaces, or simply create marine arabesques suspended from the ceiling.
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Seaweed, decorative elements with an elegant look.
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Seaweed, elements that fit together to elegantly delimit a space…
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An unexpected event precipitated the history and image of Vitra. In 1981, a fire destroyed almost the entire production site in Weil-am-Rhein. Rolf Fehlbaum had the idea of entrusting the reconstruction of the factory to the promising British architect Nicolas Grimshaw. In 1989, Rolf Fehlbaum continued his architectural quest and asked Frank Gehry, the star of deconstructivism, to build a futuristic building that would house his personal collection of chairs (from 1850 to the present day), one of the finest in the world. The result was the Vitra Design Museum, which has since organised thematic exhibitions on design and published its own exhibition catalogues.

Production hall, architecture & design Nicolas Grimshaw, 1981. According to Vitra: “ Its clear structure and large glass surfaces are oriented towards the museum, where ramps and doors form a formal link with the museum building. In addition to production workshops, the hall houses a showroom, canteen, offices and the test centre, in which Vitra classics and new products are subjected to numerous load tests. »
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View of the manufacturing workshop, architecture & design Nicolas Grimshaw, 1981.
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Interior view of the manufacturing workshop, offices, architecture & design Nicolas Grimshaw, 1981.
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Vitra Design Museum, architecture & design: Frank Gehry, 1989. A 600 m2 building to house Rolf Fehlbaum’s fabulous chair collection. At the time, it was Frank Gehry’sfirst building in Europe.
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Another view of the Vitra Design Museum, architecture & design: Frank Gehry, 1989 ©
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But Rolf Fehlbaum did not stop there. In the years that followed, he commissioned promising young architects to build other architecturally spectacular buildings on the Weil-am-Rhein site: the construction of the Neuenburg factory building to Antonio Citterio in 1992, the Conference Pavilion to Tadao Ando in 1993, the fire station to the late Zaha Hadid in the same year, a manufacturing workshop to Alvaro Siza in 1994, and the Vitra showroom (VitraHaus) to Herzog & de Meuron in 2012.

Fire station at the Vitra site in Weil-am-Rhein, architecture & design: Zaha Hadid, 1993. This is one of the first projects by the Iraqi-British architect and urban planner.
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Aerial view of the VitraHaus, the Vitra brand showroom designed by the Basel architects Herzog & de Meuron.
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Aerial view of the Vitra Campus.
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In doing so, Rolf Fehlbaum, who leaves the management of Vitra in 2012 to his niece, Nohra Fehlbaum, has achieved what Charles & Ray Eames dedicated their lives to: a life devoted to the love of design that goes beyond the creation of furniture, since they were also architects and filmmakers. Above all, Rolf Fehlbaum, by transforming Weil-am-Rhein into an ideal showcase for contemporary architecture, built a strong cultural identity for Vitra around design. The site is known as Vitra Campus, a powerful marketing tool that has made the brand known throughout the world.

François Boutard