By Dr Jana Scholze,
associate professor at Kingston School of Art, London.
“It’s been a tough journey, all the way…” With those words Dieter Rams summarised to Vitsœ’s managing director, Mark Adams, the 60 years since the founding of Vitsœ on 4 September 1959.
Rams stressed, “It has never been easy trying to do something that has not been done before” thereby emphasising the demanding daily challenge of being ahead of, or different to, the prevailing thinking. For Vitsœ, this battle has had to be fought through the design of furniture, its method of working with its suppliers and, most of all, its way of dealing directly with its customers globally. Vitsœ offers an idea of design that encompasses and defines the way we live our lives in – and with – the world around us.
However Vitsœ is not promoting a totalitarian view of good design nor a lifestyle choice. To understand its furniture as purely form and function misses the fundamental importance of ethics, which has been central to the company since its beginnings. Even if today Vitsœ is known for manufacturing shelves designed by the eminent German designer Dieter Rams, Vitsœ has never been defined solely as a furniture manufacturer. Nor has it been interested in a business model focussed on the increase of sales purely for financial benefit.
In response to criticism that Vitsœ (and previously Braun, too) favour totalitarianism and the ‘individual genius’ through their shared lead designer Dieter Rams, the design historian, Peter Kapos argues: “…we might think of it instead as a moment within the unfolding of a collective project … intended as an alternative model of freedom.”*
This position and its challenge in the market can best be understood if we return to the late 1950s, particularly in West Germany where Vitsœ was founded. In the aftermath of World War II the determination to build a new country showed the first signs of the forthcoming economic miracle. Design and technology had witnessed intense development during the war and were now being applied to transform domestic and public environments. The level of war destruction in Germany, and indeed in most European countries, had created a demand for the new in all areas of life, from buildings and roads, to furniture and devices. While the 1950s was mainly focussed on clearing the rubble and ensuring safety and security for its citizens, the 1960s was firmly dedicated to build the present and future. Citizens became customers, and nations became markets.
Promoted by the United States through the Marshall Plan, American design became the favoured model for a new way of life. This was characterised by improvements to housework through new appliances ie, the washing machine and vacuum cleaner; an immediate level of exchanging information through new media ie, radio and television; and faster movement through new means of transport ie, cars and aeroplanes. The war, however, had also heightened an awareness of the power of design to destroy, or heal, and the significance of ethics for decisions regarding its application and distribution.
The Ulm School of Design, founded in 1953 – and often regarded as the Bauhaus of post-war Germany – promoted a holistic understanding of design that, in addition to a multidisciplinary offering, included subjects such as politics, economics, sociology and philosophy. This progressive approach emphasised that design is not only a question of aesthetics and technology but an understanding of its potential and effects on individuals, society and our world at large.
To include such system-thinking into its teaching, the school fostered close relationships to industry – with Braun as a famous example. Vitsœ did not collaborate with the Ulm school directly but its founder, Niels Vitsœ, was very familiar with the school’s work.
Echoes of the school’s approach lie in Vitsœ’s intent to always convey principles of clarity, order and truthfulness within the company’s products: the object must have an understanding of what it is, without disguise and confusion. It must achieve ease of use, while barely demanding attention for its own sake. Above all, the form and use of the furniture is always connected to the question: why do people need these objects in the first place, and how can they best be made?
These rational and functional principles have often been misinterpreted as clinical and minimalist. In his recent documentary ‘Rams’, the filmmaker Gary Hustwit clarifies that for Dieter Rams, “it’s about getting all these objects that we have to have in our lives and putting them in the background. All this stuff – like a radio or a bookshelf – it should blend into the scenery. It’s doing a job, so it’s very utilitarian and functional. For him it’s about prioritising nature above all this other stuff, trying to make all these other things as neutral and unobtrusive as possible. That’s a big part of his design.”
This neutrality emphasises the vital connection between form and function but, most importantly, it represents a responsibility that takes into account the effects of the product and its production on social systems, hierarchies and, importantly, ecology.
Such thinking connects Rams – and consequently Vitsœ – with a discourse that started in the 1960s when critics such as Viktor Papanek voiced concern about design being understood purely as a tool to stimulate and increase consumption – and the effect of such mass production on the world. Papanek identified in his seminal book ‘Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change’ that design practice seemed to have been dwarfed by the manipulation of style while its potential to improve life was ignored.
This title could not be closer in line with Vitsœ’s fundamental principles, advocating Rams’s suggestion of ‘Less but better’ while taking responsibility for the effects of its production and consumption on individuals, community and the wider world. It has been a battle for 60 years to stick to these principles, fighting against a dominant economic system and consequential social behaviours.
Mark Adams tells the story how, on occasion, his colleagues feel under pressure from “instant-gratification customers” who want it all now without any investment in the planning and consideration of their shelving but then demand their freedom to send the product back whenever they change their mind. Adams is adamant not to accommodate such quick-buy and -reject behaviour, even under pressure from competitors, as it is exactly here where the ethics behind Vitsœ’s understanding of good design must be communicated.
Deciding what we want to surround ourselves with needs careful consideration, including the effect that every new object, its production, and use has on the world. At Vitsœ’s last company meeting Adams handed to every Vitsœ employee a copy of Greta Thunberg’s book ‘No one is too small to make a difference’. He later suggested that it could be used to support situations such as the one described above. Maybe now, 60 years on, more companies and customers – not consumers – are prepared to think and behave a little more like Vitsœ.
*’Braun+Vitsœ: Total Design’ curated by Peter Kapos, exhibition catalogue, 2018
Born in East Germany, Dr Jana Scholze is a curator specialising in contemporary design, curatorial practice and theory. After more than a decade at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Scholze is now associate professor and course director of the MA Curating Contemporary Design programme at Kingston School of Art in London.