In February 1991 the grand doyen of Italian design Ettore Sottsass approached Vitra CEO Rolf Fehlbaum with a suggestion for a joint project looking at the nature and being of life and work in the office. The project wasn’t aimed at developing office furniture, simply exploring the microcosmos “Office” in its multifarious facets.
Rolf Fehlbaum willingly agreed and together with Michele de Lucchi, Andrea Branzi and James Irvine, Sottsass and Vitra set off an exploratory journey: researching, considering, inventing as they went.
The public result was “Citizen Office” an exhibition that opened in the Vitra Design Museum in April 1993 and an accompanying book explaining the journey taken and conclusions reached. But much more Citizen Office was a vision of how our future office world could, should – would? – look. A vision which in many ways has served as the foundation for Vitra’s office furniture philosophy over the past two decades.
In 1989 Vitra had already taken their first, tentative, steps into office systems development with the launch of “Metropol” from Mario Bellini. Subsequent years saw the start of long-term collaborations with designers as varied as Antonio Citterio or Werner Aisslinger while more recently the ideas and lessons from Citizen Office have been extended and enriched through the recruitment of designers such as Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec or Hella Jongerius, designers who have brought a more homely feel to the technic-dominated world of office furniture.
At Orgatec 2012 we spoke to Vitra’s Chief Design Officer Eckart Maise about the legacy of Citizen Office, developing new office systems, and saying “No” to designers…..
(smow)blog: Taking the Citizen Office project as the, de facto, start of Vitra’s association with office furniture. Is the work that Sottsass, de Lucchi, Brandi et al did back then still relevant or has it been superseded over the last two decades?
Eckart Maise: The Citizen Office project had several levels. One level, for example involved a cooperation with Siemens and envisaged all manner of futuristic objects such as mobile telephones and in such respects Citizen Office has clearly been overtaken by technological advances. However, the core of the project was essentially about the office as a social location, about the office as a room for interaction and engagement, about the office as a place where people work together and these things are still very relevant.
(smow)blog: And so can one say that the office environment has evolved as Citizen Office, maybe not predicted but certainly described?
Eckart Maise: In terms of individual elements, certainly. When one looks back at any project that deals with future developments one can always do so with rose coloured glasses that filter out those predictions that have been realised; however, many elements from Citizen Office have without question been defining for the office environment in the last 20 years.
(smow)blog: Looking back over these 20 years from Ad Hoc over Level 34 and onto Joyn et al, Vitra has developed ever new office furniture systems. Why is the “system” so important in Vitra’s office furniture philosophy rather than simply developing individual pieces of furniture?
Eckart Maise: When an architect plans an office project they initially look at the ground structure of the space and calculate how many people need to be accommodated, how do these people work, how they interact, what type of situations must the room accommodate, etc… And in that context furniture systems with tables, storage etc are very important elements. The chair, for example, comes later, initially they are just dots on a plan. Systems also offer us a lot of durable flexibility. Vitra as a company is well known through the design classics, and from them one learns that a product can be relevant for a long time; but also that products need to be actively looked after and occasionally adjusted as situations change or requirements change. And with the systems this need for change is an in-built feature of the design. A system is composed of individual elements and when situations change we can simply exchange the elements. Or improve them. But the basic idea and concept remain the same.
For example with Ad Hoc the central element is the bar under the table top and that has remained the same since 1993 and so all generations of Ad Hoc are compatible with one another.
(smow)blog: Which raises the obvious question who or what decides when a new system needs to be developed or an existing system needs to be further developed. Is that yourselves or the designers?
Eckart Maise: It’s a bit of both. Sometimes the initiative comes from us on the basis of an analysis we’ve undertaken, observations we’ve made or feedback from customers and sometimes the designers approach us with ideas and suggestions. Then of course there are regular changes in Norms or similar standards that need to be dealt with. It’s a on-going process but never something that happens without a reason.
(smow)blog: In terms of these changes, Orgatec takes place every two years, is that a sensible frequency for office furniture?
Eckart Maise: I think so yes. Orgatec isn’t the only fair at which we present new office objects but it does define to a certain extent the rhythm for our product development, similar to Milan for home furnishings. And certainly an annual event would be too much for office furniture.
(smow)blog: Vitra are well known for their long term cooperations with designers and the likes of Antonio Citterio or Alberto Meda have, more or less, grown up with Vitra. Can one say “No” to an Antonio Citterio or an Alberto Meda?
Eckart Maise: When one works on a project one must occasionally say no. Otherwise it’s a bit like if you commission an architect to build your house and then leave all decisions with them: the risk is that you’ll end up with a house you don’t want to live in. And so in the course of the dialogue both sides need to represent their positions and we as a company are on the one hand the manufacturer and on the other we represent the customers. And so yes sometimes comes a no. But not just from us, the designers also have their opinions and positions. However a “no” needn’t be definite or counter-productive, it’s all part of an open dialogue where discussions are an important process, but where one always finds a solution.
(smow)blog: And to end, our traditional Orgatec question, what does your own office look like?
Eckart Maise: I work standing up. My desk is 105cms high and my chair is a mock-up that we made a couple of years ago. I’ve, in effect, lived and to a certain extent championed, the “High Work” concept that we are presenting here at Orgatec.
(smow)blog: And why standing up?
Eckart Maise: I find it an excellent way to work: it’s dynamic, it’s active. During the day I’m constantly in meetings or other situations away from my desk and so as a general rule am never at my desk for more than one hour at a time. And during this time colleagues invariably come to me to discuss aspects of projects or ask questions. And through working in a raised position I can remain seated and remain at eye level with them, a situation which improves the efficiency and comfort.
- Workbay & Tyde Desk by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec together with the new chair Physix from Alberto Meda
- Vitra Orgatec 2012: Cork Desk by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec
- Vitra Orgatec 2012: Sphere Table by Hella Jongerius, here with a Tip Ton by Barber Osgerby
- Pivot Chair by Antonio Citterio for Vitra. Here with Workbays by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec
- MVS Chaise by Maarten van Severen. Wasn't part of the Vitra stand at Orgatec, but is an excellent study in multi-functional furniture.
- Vitra Orgatec 2012: Office Swing by Werner Aisslinger, here with the limited edition winter grey Eames RAR