Summer 1998

The chair man dances

This little red book is a capitalist keepsake – a testament to the corporate culture of a chair company with exotic picture research.

The culture of design, some critics would argue, was invented in Italy, where manufacturers of furniture and household goods such as Zanotta, Driade, Cassina, and Alessi have for years created memorable catalogues, exhibitions, and keepsakes to lend a flair to their products and convey an image of corporate liveliness. Now, outside Italy, we have Rolf Fehlbaum, CEO of Vitra, whose company manufactures innovative office furniture and who built a remarkable museum in Switzerland to showcase the history of chairs. Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum forms part of an architectural complex that includes Vitra buildings by Zaha Hadid, Nicholas Grimshaw, and Tadao Ando. Fehlbaum also sponsored the production of 100 classic chairs, all in miniature, which are currently touring the world as a delightful exhibition.

Last year the German Design Council (Rat für Formgebung) gave Fehlbaum its Federal Award for Design Leadership to recognise his successful career as a design entrepreneur and promoter. Tibor Kalman’s book Chairman: Rolf Fehlbaum was jointly published by the council and Lars Müller to commemorate this occasion. Although it is a bulky aggregate of pages (recalling thinkbook, the gargantuan tome by Irma Boom and Johan Pijnappel and Bruce Mau’s similarly huge S, M, L, XL) it consists almost entirely of pictures, and functions more as a keepsake than an informative volume.

Kalman began to work seriously with visual sequences when he was the editor of Benetton’s Colors. There he often treated the theme of cultural identity with a light touch. He continues to exercise his considerable wit in Chairman: Rolf Fehlbaum, but his one-liners are sometimes inappropriate or unfunny. Though Kalman has perfected the art of the visual gag he sometimes ends up with a superficial response to a subject that demands more depth. His reference to Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s “little red book,” which dictates the title, scale, and red cover of the Fehlbaum volume, provides a laugh as long as one does not push the analogy too far. When one does, it simply falls apart: surely Kalman is not suggesting that Fehlbaum has created a set of slogans to dictate furniture design comparable to those Mao invented to prescribe political behaviour?

Kalman begins the book with a whimsical history of seating that mixes historic and ethnographic photographs with scenes from films as well as images of wheelchairs, lawn furniture, and even an electric chair – the only instance, it may be noted, where there is no associated image confronted with it: this time it’s just a black page. He follows the strategy he employed at Colors by forging images from cultures around the world into sequences that suggest shared values beneath the appearance of difference. Kalman’s anthropological approach is hardly scholarly, yet it establishes sitting as a cultural activity and sets the stage for a history of Fehlbaum’s career at Vitra.

In the early 1950s Fehlbaum’s father began to produce furniture by Charles and Ray Eames in Europe. Kalman presents a generous selection of photographs that depict the designers and their chairs. This leads into the story of how young Rolf began to work with his father and then took over the family business with his brother Raymond. Through a clever selection of images, Kalman affectionately conveys Fehlbaum’s passion for chairs and establishes him as a man who loves to travel. His refreshing presentation of the Vitra CEO gives the reader a sense of him as a person. This provides a helpful context for the remainder of the book – more than half of the 590 pages – which depicts images and projects of the many designers from whom Fehlbaum has commissioned chairs or buildings.

From the time he founded M&Co. in New York, Tibor Kalman has taken an irreverent and frequently unexpected approach to his projects. His strength is not in the making of the images themselves but in generating the ideas behind them. Kalman’s best work provokes a rethinking of a particular idea or genre but his decision to work extremely reductively has at times ended in superficial results. While Colors was in many ways a celebration of a common humanity shared by young people around the world, it was also criticised during Kalman’s tenure for overlooking many of the complexities of cultural identity.

The story of Fehlbaum’s career is hardly as complicated as the cultural relations among the world’s multifarious social groups, but we might have learned more about Fehlbaum from a volume that did not rely so heavily on pictures or gags. While this volume is a worthy means to commemorate Fehlbaum’s award, by its presentation as a book for sale in the Lars Müller catalogue, it also promises more than it delivers.

The disparity between expectations and content is less of a concern in the two issues of workspirit, the Vitra magazine with which Kalman was involved as designer or conceptualiser. These publications, which function both as catalogues and annual reports, rank among the best examples of corporate house organs. Here the minimal text works to the designers’ advantage, since the images of Vitra’s office furniture, designers, and cultural projects are self-evident. Here, too, Kalman’s witty forays into exotic picture research are balanced by the pragmatic intent of the publication.

While his overall contribution to Vitra’s corporate culture is not as intellectually stimulating as is, for example, Alessandro Mendini’s to the culture of Alessi, Kalman has done much to show us Rolf Fehlbaum as a thoughtful and dedicated human being while also representing Vitra as a vital corporate enterprise with a deep commitment to enriching our culture.

First published in Eye no. 28 vol. 7, Summer 1998.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.

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