Vitra is not so much a design brand as a design universe. Established in 1950 in the German town of Weil am Rhein, it has grown to become an international powerhouse: a producer of furniture for everything from private homes to public buildings, a champion of contemporary architecture, even a cultural institution – the Vitra Design Museum, opened in 1989, is respected around the world.
The brand, founded by the entrepreneur Willi Fehlbaum and his wife Erika in 1950, got its name from the shop display cases – or vitrines – it initially made. In 1953, Fehlbaum visited New York, where he fell in love with the work of Charles and Ray Eames, already darlings of the American Modernist movement with their plywood and fibreglass furniture. He began negotiations with Herman Miller, the couple’s US manufacturer, to allow him to produce their designs in Europe, securing the deal in 1957.
In 1967, Vitra launched its first independent product, a chair by Verner Panton. The first cantilevered plastic seat moulded in one piece, it brought fame to designer and manufacturer, and sealed the latter’s reputation for pushing boundaries.
Heritage and innovation are built into Vitra’s DNA. As well as continuing to champion its classics – which include pieces by Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard and Jean Prouvé – it has welcomed the world’s most forward-thinking designers into its fold. The ‘Soft Modular’ sofa by Jasper Morrison is one of its recent successes and, this year, the company is breathing new life into the classic Eames shell chair. Since the 1990s, the iconic seat has only been available in polypropylene, but new technology has enabled the re-creation of the original fibreglass version, in six of the Eames’ specified colours.
The Fehlbaums are still at the helm (Nora Fehlbaum recently took over from her father Rolf as CEO), making Vitra one of the most famous family brands. It’s also one of the most public facing – visitors are welcome at the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein. As a snapshot of design over the past century, it’s in a class of its own. vitra.com
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration December 2018