Summer 2005

In the house

The new Vitra catalogue shows its classic furniture collection amid messy, real-life domesticity. Critique by Rick Poynor

Catalogues do not, as a rule, make for particularly exciting or original pieces of design. Their task is to show a product range and to give basic information and there are often hundreds of items to accommodate. To this end, they will combine photographs, most likely in a consistent, unexceptionable, descriptive style, with clear, well ordered typography. However stylish the execution of these elements might be, it is rare to come across a furniture catalogue that does anything the slightest bit out of the ordinary with the genre.

Cornel Windlin’s catalogue for Vitra’s new home collection is a notable exception. Without sacrificing its function in any way, it has the presence and interest level of a book. This is one catalogue I plan to keep on my shelf with other design titles. Of course, Windlin enjoys a natural advantage here. Vitra’s furniture range amounts to a museum’s worth of classic and new pieces by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Jean Prouvé, Isamu Noguchi, Verner Panton, Jasper Morrison, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and others. Simply turning the pages offers a lesson in design of the highest refinement.

The catalogue’s title, Select, Arrange, comes from the phrase ‘select & arrange’ originally coined, as the text explains, to describe the Eames’ approach to design. In their home, the designers created a collage of furniture, textiles, objects and plants built up over time, rather than the perfect presentation of their oeuvre that visitors expected. Far from being a precious, sterile design lab, their place looked lived in. It still comes as a surprise, though, to find that Vitra wants its immaculate pieces to be perceived in such a casual way. There is little sign of anything resembling ordinary life in most furniture catalogues. You see this so often that it is easy to assume there must actually be a caste of design hierophants that lives in this self-denying way, purging offensive clutter from their living spaces and refusing to permit mess-makers under eighteen through the door.

Windlin divides the catalogue into two separately bound sections – two books in effect – linked by a continuous cover that forms the back of one and the front of the other. The books can be folded together to make a single volume or opened out so that both can be consulted at once. Select contains the catalogue divided into pieces for living room, dining room and home office, plus accessories. Arrange shows the pieces in use.

It is here that the project takes its biggest risks. Windlin asked a team of photographers, including Nigel Shafran, Juergen Teller and Isabel Truniger, to photograph pieces such as the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, Nelson’s Sunburst clock, and Morrison’s Park sofa in people’s homes. Some of these shots could seem remarkably unflattering and you can imagine the chewed fingernails at Vitra’s HQ. Shafran captures the Eames DSR chair in front of a fire extinguisher; Prouvé’s Bahut sideboard almost disappears beneath someone’s wall-mounted collection of Volvo memorabilia; and in the catalogue’s most bracingly offhand moment, Panton’s Heart Cone chair shares the limelight with the poster for Spielberg’s Jaws.

A few pictures push their luck and become merely whimsical. How many people would store one of the Eames DSW chairs upside down on a wood pile? A note explains that some of the situations are presented as found, while in other cases Vitra products have been added. Mostly, though, the photos convey the message that these pieces are flexible enough to fit in with people’s lives, and the designers share this view. ‘We want to create furniture that adapts to people,’ say the Bouroullec brothers, ‘and not the other way round.’

What is so impressive about the catalogue is the unerring accuracy with which it strikes the right contemporary note. These are luxury objects conceived by some of the finest designers, manufactured to exacting standards and with price tags to match, but they don’t want to appear to be trying too hard, standing on ceremony, or making a fuss. Windlin commissioned artists’ impressions of Vitra pieces by illustrators and image-makers such as Reala, 100% Orange and Lizzie Finn, and he interleaves these with the photos, adding to the air of informal creativity. For good measure, a section on pale pink paper provides photographic and documentary sources. The catalogue is a highly designed object, right down to its original Futura medieval numerals which Windlin has redrawn, but like the furniture it showcases, it makes everything look effortless and light.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

First published in Eye no. 56 vol. 14 2005

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 and single issues.