Isabelle de Ponfilly

Furniture on the wake of change

Micro-architecture office furniture, Vitra © Alexandra Cossette

Office furniture is an essential part of the workspace. Design editors must anticipate new uses, respond to business demands, and ensure good marketing. In branding, the Swiss publisher Vitra has developed relationships with prolific designers and architects Andrea Branzi, Arik Levy, and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. Between anticipation and brand strategy, design of office furniture systems offers adaptability and flexible configurations to meet the specifies of each society.

Isabelle de Ponfilly is the CEO of Vitra France.

Stream : What is the particular interest for Vitra as a furniture designer?

Isabelle de Ponfilly : Vitra, a Swiss family business, and manufacturer of furniture, creates environments which are healthy, intelligent, inspiring, productive, and sustainable for the office, the home, and public spaces.

Stream : What role does office furniture play?

Isabelle de Ponfilly  : We started our business in the manufacturing of office furniture in the 1950s. Naturally, with our interest in the work environment, we created the innovative office of Metropol in 1990– designed by Mario Bellini (a very innovative concept with the use of three levels, without limiting itself to the surface of the office desk). Then, the various office collections (WorKit – designed by Arik Levy, Ad Hoc – design by Antonio Citterio, Joyn – designed by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec), the ergonomic chair systems (ID Chair – designed by Antonio Citterio, Meda collection – designed by Alberto Meda), not to mention the classics (Aluminum Group chair systems – designed by Charles & Ray Eames) as well as the furniture from our Home collection (Alcove – designed by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Suita sofa – designed by Antonio Citterio, Hal – designed by Jasper Morrison) which are the building blocks of Vitra. Office furniture is still the largest share of our revenue.

Flexible environments

Stream : Are you able to identify trends in user needs and changing working conditions in changing times?

Isabelle de Ponfilly : During the twentieth century, employees were content mainly to perform clearly defined tasks. Their workstations evoked an image of the repetitive nature of their work, and the desktop environment was limited to a row of tables within compartmentalized spaces. Current office conditions are entirely different spaces. The computer predominantly does most repetitive tasks. The office of today and tomorrow has to be in harmony with a world that is much more complex.  The furniture must not hinder the rapid process of change, but rather, contribute to its vitality. The growing need for communication – formal and informal – constitutes the newest, and most important, aspect of organization. Individual work can be performed anywhere, but direct and personal exchanges are an important factor in finding solutions to complex problems. These exchanges allow the establishment of contacts, to be enriched, to associate, and to enter into competitions with one another. We spend long hours at the office. An ideal office environment is a place where everyone feels good. The concept written by Vitra is a new way to define the office: it is no longer a place solely devoted to work, but a place where people live – in the broadest sense of the term. It is with this objective that our concept incorporates aspects of inhabiting an office environment:  it combines the classic design of the twentieth century to the ergonomics of contemporary chair systems and tables while playing with colors and decorative elements. It assumes that work can be fun and creates an environment in which pleasure and satisfaction play an important role. How does one promote the intelligence and collective enthusiasm? By establishing an environment that promotes communication while respecting privacy, an environment creates a positive and enjoyable atmosphere. Our Citizen Office concept responds to these requirements. It creates workstations combining dynamism and inspiration by blending areas devoted to individual work, areas dedicated to collective work, and relaxation zones. public spaces.

Stream : How does Vitra conduct their research?

Isabelle de Ponfilly :  Since 1999, Vitra has tested their concepts with the offices of Weil am Rhein (Germany) and Birsfelden (Switzerland). Different product lines (Joyn, Workit, Ad Hoc) are integrated into different environments. Large benches sit alongside classic tables; nomadic workspaces complement fixed spaces for task completion (the percentage of mobile workspaces declined last year without any need to redesign or modify the furniture). Recreation areas, a café and a library, are in addition to areas of computer work, which hint at more familiar and comfortable spaces. Several times a year, offices are adapting to new conditions in an organic process that seems almost to perform by itself. Productivity and motivation increased significantly compared to previous periods and it is difficult to imagine how our time, synonymous with vitality, could be expressed in the rigidity of traditional concepts of offices of another time. At Vitra, this vision has already become a reality.

Stream : How do you organize your relationship with the designers you employ? Do you give them a set of specifications?

Isabelle de Ponfilly :  Rolf Fehlbaum (chairman of the Vitra Group) chooses the designers with whom he wishes to work. Some products have precise specifications some do not. This is above all a human endeavor where multiple paths are being explored. The results are unexpected and unpredictable. Design development is about two or three years, often with several dozen prototypes.

Mobilier Joyn, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Fidim, Los Angeles © VITRA

New visions

Stream : When you receive an assignment, what position does the company give you to explore the creativity of your work?

Isabelle de Ponfilly : The products and concepts of Vitra are the result of a design process, which starts with a deep interest in the needs at hand and combines engineering excellence from Vitra in collaboration with the creative genius of internationally renowned designers.

Stream : Does Vitra seek to promote research, or further development of its staff? If so, how?

Isabelle de Ponfilly : Yes, we have an internal training program, which aims to train experts in every field of the business.

Stream : What is the motivation behind having your buildings designed by great architects?

Isabelle de Ponfilly : Rolf Fehlbaum is an expert on architecture and is passionate about the subject. He selects each architect with whom he will travel on a very rewarding journey. Some architects have built their first building on our campus (Zaha Hadid), or their first building in Europe (Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando).

Stream : What are the consequences that you have observed (and/or benefits, inconveniences)?

Isabelle de Ponfilly : We are convinced of the benefits of quality architecture on the lives of everyone. Places can create a story, influencing each person by their given language. Initiatives, such as the architecture of the Vitra Campus, the Vitra Design Museum, the workshops, publications, collections, and archives, are all components of the Project Vitra. These initiatives enrich Vitra with perspective and a depth in its activities.

Stream : While working with designers who are not “specialized” in office furniture, is a new aesthetic or new usage born of their design work?

Isabelle de Ponfilly : Yes of course, it is important to be open to new worlds, and to absorb new cultures. Vitra still offers inspiring solutions that are incredibly varied and absolutely do not impose on a style.

Stream : What image can these non-specialized designers make?

Isabelle de Ponfilly : A fresh, intimate, and imaginary world of their own.

A different look. A different experience. A dream, each time a unique adventure. 

Stream : What are the proposals that were not successful? Why (cost? inadequacy to work environment? etc…)

Isabelle de Ponfilly : Swiss secret...!

(This article was published in Stream 02 in 2012.)