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Cowboys stay mobile
von | 4/6/2011

It’s imperative to sit firmly in the saddle. Yet always staying mobile and looking good are considered going the extra mile. With the chair “Chassis”, which he developed for office furniture manufacturer Wilkhahn in around five years, Stefan Diez should have no problem achieving that. The chair, presented in October at Orgatec in Cologne as a pilot series, will go on display next week in Milan as a mass-produced item of furniture ready for delivery, complemented by novel, interchangeable seat shells with various fabric covers that enable users to change the image of the “universal chair”. Whereas we might have previously thought this was a fully developed, light, stable, extremely elegant office chair produced using novel technology, now we are in for a surprise. Not only has “Chassis” had a makeover; it is now virtually the nucleus of an extendable modular system that can be adapted to different requirements and contexts. Thus this “quadruped” could become the first step on the way to a whole series of novel products that combine living and working completely naturally. The chair does not overtly display its functionality, ergonomics or technicity. Instead, the solid understatement of a chair developed according to office furniture standards engenders a subtle and natural form of valence.

Thomas Wagner met the designer Stefan Diez, Managing Director of Wilkhahn Jochen Hahne, and Burkhard Remmers, responsible for international communication at Wilkhahn, in Hanover. They spoke about functionality, ergonomics, sustainability, design and the additional possibilities the “Chassis” modular system could offer.

Thomas Wagner: Gentlemen, what sets Wilkhahn apart from other manufacturers in the office furniture sector?

Burkhard Remmers: When we launch a new product on the market, we want people to say: “That is a typical Wilkhahn product.”

Stefan Diez: Hitherto, Wilkhahn has not focused first and foremost on design, but on the function and on making the function more aesthetic. They seek to make something useable, and attach great importance to ergonomics and environmental considerations.

Is Wilkhahn trying to develop in the direction of a wider, process-like understanding of design with “Chassis”? I think that today, function and design can no longer be separated.

Remmers: The controversial debate which flared up from the late 1970s was of course also a question of the reception of the Modernism. For us, design has always been composed of form, function and quality. It is above all that which sets us apart from other manufacturers: We want solutions for the long term – as regards function, quality and formal language. That is what we seek to develop further. Let me put it this way: Other design-oriented manufacturers show what is possible. That leads to a very wide product range, where “design” is the common denominator. Wilkhahn, in contrast, continues to be guided by the concept of usefulness. In this way, we are very Prussian, in a positive sense. We consider many of today’s products too modish, ephemeral and overbearing. Which is why design consistency plays a key role at Wilkhahn.

Diez: I consider that a blessing – and one of the reasons I work for Wilkhahn. There is nothing more difficult for a designer than having to work in what is already an eclectic environment and having to add something striking to it. At Wilkhahn, where design takes its cue from classical Modernism and there are clear ideas on function and usability, it is easier to clarify why we make chairs like “Chassis”. In our collaboration we seek to develop this fascination from more than just what we can do and are familiar with – for instance ergonomics or the stereotypical playful use of materials. Thus the question was, how to grasp qualities that do not easily fit into existing patterns.

Remmers: Take our office chair “FS”. It too has a special quality that goes beyond its functionality and ergonomics. For products like these, we coined the phrase “sensory objectivity”. What is important is that a red thread remains discernible, linking all product lines with one another. This ensures that users can combine products designed in different decades. For all their differences, “FS” and “Chassis” share a common “code”.

Diez: The important point is that both products limit themselves precisely to that which they can do and want to do. If we consider the history of the office chair over the last 30 years, for me the “FS” is probably the best office chair; it fulfils its functions and on top of that looks incredibly elegant. Wilkhahn achieved that because the “FS” was conceived as an integral element and not an addition.

In terms of forging a new connection between function and aesthetics, you have taken a big step forward with “Chassis”. How would you classify the chair yourselves?

Remmers: When developing “Chassis”, we were initially faced with the question: How must a chair be designed that stands for a new “work feeling” and can capture and express the zeitgeist? We had to find a design language – using form, the material and processing technology.

Diez: I think that the chair is not limited in application because it provides a very simple form of seating. It offers not a particular form, but universal seating possibilities. It can be used anywhere.

Is that why “Chassis” can fit into different contexts and adapt to different living or working atmospheres better than other chairs?

Diez: If chairs are selected as early as the planning phase of a building, it is helpful if the architect does not get an immutable product, but one he can configure himself, i.e., in terms of matching colors and materials. On the other hand, where chairs are added to existing interiors it is even more important to have a certain degree of flexibility. But that concerns only the “sensible” aspect. The fascination I mentioned earlier has other sources: Although the seat has a three-dimensional form, there is no visible join, and no screws either. There are clear lines and an interplay of freely-formed and geometric areas. This has a lot to do with precision, coupled with a certain nonchalance. The chair has cast off many constraints, including those that come from the production process.

Have you already exhausted all the possibilities? Or is this just the beginning?

Diez: We have a metal frame that we offer powder coated today, that, if we want, tomorrow we could offer hot-dip galvanized, galvanized or even gold-plated. Or, to give another example, we have been working for a while now on a seat shell made completely of renewable raw materials. Even the geometry of the frame can be changed. All this is possible within the “Chassis” concept. And to make it possible, the chair consists of a frame and an interchangeable seat. So the whole thing is “flexible” in very different ways.

When I hear that, the “Chassis” project – quite independent of all its other qualities – sounds like a laboratory, a tool to design and further develop different chairs and test them within a technical framework. And to provide conclusions for a future corporate strategy. So “Chassis” is a product that references the design and the company in various ways. Have I understood it correctly?

Jochen Hahne: Thank you for the summary …

Diez: We intentionally did not design a self-contained product, but one with various points to latch on to, which many people can work on, both internally at Wilkhahn and externally. But first, we have a chair with interchangeable seat shells. This too makes the product flexible and durable.

Are they not also aspects of a different understanding of functionality?

Diez: For sure. The frame has a modular structure. One day we will replace the legs with a cantilever construction, or add armrests. Thus it is not only aesthetically that “Chassis” follows an open concept. That said, the underlying technology is new for us. Which essentially makes it exciting to continue working on the technological possibilities. And so, over time, an enthusiasm has spread on both sides – and that is the most important thing: that we want to develop the system further.

Does the fascination, at least concerning the frame, also have something to do with the technology’s close links to car construction?

Diez: Essentially the process we use is also comparable to the traditional production of a wooden chair: You take pieces of wood, and glue them. What we have done, albeit on a far more complex level, is develop a chair that consists of a construction set. Only, we no longer glue the sections, but use a robot to weld them together. In principle, the underlying concept is also well known. Which is why it is more easily understood within the development process. Essentially, with “Chassis”, there is nothing to explain.

Are the precision and quality perception also a result of the automobile industry production standard?

Diez: In Germany, when we say “automobile industry” we think of an ultra-modern sector of industry. One that invests a great deal of money in products that are sold worldwide. We assume they do everything that is possible. It has been a long time since that was the case in the furniture industry. Here, many products simply lag behind the “classics”. But if the designer is only there to make “the thing” look somehow different, absurdly, our field of activities is limited, which in the end calls the work itself into question. So a product like “Chassis” also creates room for maneuver, which no-one can dispute and which doesn’t have to be shared. Here we can continue working on it in peace.

Remmers: Incidentally, the same applies in aesthetic terms – here too there is precision and coordination. Although the frame and seat are two components that have a different appearance, they are so precisely related to each other that they always appear to be one entity. That is a very important effect. For despite different colors and textiles, in our perception the chair does not disintegrate into individual components, but remains a single entity. At the same time, it does indeed look different, it changes its appearance.

What is special about the seat shell? What is the key element? Is it the connection, or the precision with which the components are made, or is it the transitions?

Diez: The detachable connection between the seat and frame was one of the cruxes during the development process. Wilkhahn took the matter entirely into its own hands and solved the problem. They developed a locking mechanism, which is now patented, that enables a seat to be fixed into a perforated sheet-metal structure. And it is very precise. Yet you don’t notice any of it when you look at or use the chair. That is generally a virtue of Wilkhahn products. The office chair “FS” too, with its automatic synchronization, does not overtly display its complexity. Were we to show too much of these things, they would become ordinary.

Does that also have something to do with the fact that we do not only perceive and experience chairs with our eyes, but also …

Diez: … our behinds …

… our spines, our entire bodies?

Diez: It has to do with politeness and respect. Products that take center stage and make bold statements are sometimes egotistical. Such attention-seeking egotism would not suit Wilkhahn – and it would also go against the use we envisage for “Chassis”. After all, we don’t want to talk about a “great chair” at a table all the time, but about the qualities of the overall situation. Just as I don’t notice every day the watch or belt I am wearing, a chair also requires a certain implicitness. We have tried to respect that. We also decided to go to Milan because we believe that the public there will be able to get to grips with our idea more than visitors to an office furniture trade fair like Orgatec. This is why our installation at “Spotti”, where we are presenting the “Chassis”, is based on the concept of taking the location as it is – everything that is there, just arranged differently. We plan to show 23 chairs in a number of variations. The idea is that, together with the materials and colors the chairs are painted, scenarios take shape that clearly show how the chair can change and become integrated into the whole. “Chassis” offers fantastic possibilities when it comes to setting the right tone.

How is “Chassis” important to the company and its strategy?

Hahne: The most important thing to note is that as a product, “Chassis” is not one-dimensional. On presenting a new product, you often hear: That is a new world. Wilkhahn is 104 years old, and we have lived through a number of worlds. For me as a businessman, the first question that arises at the start of a project is whether we can develop a fascination for the product. After all, at the beginning we don’t know the explanations that will transpire later on. Partly because they do not yet exist, partly because we don’t want to hear them. We see the chair and say: I think it’s great – or not. In this respect, for me “Chassis” has a great many fascinating facets. Take, for instance, the way the legs are “tied on”. It’s just great. It is very important for a company to be able to recognize that the design is a good one. A product simply has to have a certain eroticism about it, an attraction, something special. The second thing is, we have a very strong focus on the “office” segment. Now, with “Chassis”, we have a product that can brilliantly hold its own in other interiors, too. That opens up the brand.

A product that fascinates, that fits in with the “code” of the company and its history and philosophy, that helps open up new markets is all very well and good. Does “Chassis” not change more than that within the company? What about the “Chassis Laboratory”?

Hahne: Technologically speaking, it is clear: There are new suppliers, new technologies, even if you cannot yet really judge what changes these factors will precipitate in the end. Yet what is more important is that in a project like “Chassis”, what counts is suddenly no longer just making certain processes more effective or being able to produce components more cheaply. In this sense, it fundamentally changes the company.

Diez: That’s what’s important to me: Everyone involved in the project pushed themselves to their limits. That goes for me as designer, for management, the marketing department, product development. Thus “Chassis” is a joint product that many people can be proud of.

Hahne: Another key point is that “Chassis” reanimated and renewed the Wilkhahn brand essence. In this sense the product is something special. Now we can only hope that our dealers and customers will be just as enthusiastic as we are. I think the chances of that aren’t bad. As the office furniture segment is only part of the target group for “Chassis”, it will be interesting to see how people respond in Milan.

Diez: It is pretty amazing that most manufacturers still draw a strict line between “office” and “home” furniture. We, in contrast, have been observing for years how the two spheres are moving closer together in social terms. Consequently, many designers are trying to find suitable representations of this phenomenon. It only follows that Wilkhahn says: To be precise, work is also changing. In many fields of work it is no longer the case that people sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day as in a cockpit, which is why a great many requirements are made of this “ergonomics machine”. Rather, work is becoming a dynamic process, it is getting ever closer to life, becoming integrated in it. We don’t have a fixed workplace, we work wherever we are, in various patterns. This means that office furniture manufacturers have to develop products that satisfy such requirements. Home products cannot cut it here. Most home products wouldn’t even pass the tests the chair has to pass. This is why, with “Chassis”, we have a product that satisfies the high demands of an office chair, but doesn’t look like one.

Remmers: If you want other qualities – i.e., professionalization of the private sphere, on the one hand, and a greater degree of privatization and individualization in an office context, on the other – then you have to start in the office and make the product so professional that it really does have these qualities. It can’t possibly be an office chair that looks a little like a chair for a desk at home. I’m sure that we will continue to see cockpit workstations in future, but ever more frequently also others, ones that promote creativity and knowledge networking. We can promote inspiration with the right environment. Which is why a chair like “Chassis” also has a strong place in the minds of those active in the property market.

Does such a novel product also need a new aesthetic?

Diez: The changes we have to stay abreast of are actually more fundamental. I used to have to sit at my desk to be able to work. I had a telephone and a typewriter on it. Or I had to go to a library to research something. I had to make do with the furniture there. When I do research today, I sit where I like, in the chair I want to sit in, be it at home or at the office. I can work anywhere, because the information comes to me. When a company like Wilkhahn tries to find an answer to these changes, it also has the background to be able to develop suitable solutions. Therefore it is much more exciting for me to think in this direction rather than vice versa.

Hahne: The quality of being different has a great deal to do with functionality, with lightness. Office furniture has to satisfy far greater demands. Without it having to be a sitting machine.

Diez: An office chair must always go above and beyond the requirements made of it. We can live with compromises when it comes to a home chair. It is like comparing a sports car to a truck in terms of driving dynamics. After five years working on “Chassis”, we are a little exhausted at the moment. But there is a nucleus from which a great deal can evolve. Certainly within typologies too, which are part of Wilkhahn’s core competency to an even greater degree than a universal chair like “Chassis”. There is a lot more work to do in the office furniture segment to create space for new forms of expression beyond the usual.

All photos: Wilkhahn