It did not become a classic in the true sense of the word. But from the perspective of design history, the Vitramat office chair still merits lasting recognition. For one thing, it played an important role in the evolution of the modern task chair. For another, it marked Vitra’s entrance into the office furniture business.When Vitra launched an innovative family of office chairs called Vitramat exactly 40 years ago, it elicited a great deal of attention in the furniture industry and beyond. Reports on the new product group appeared not only in relevant trade journals, but also in national daily newspapers. It is highly unusual for an office chair to garner such notice. What was so special about the Vitramat chair?
During the 1970s, researchers in the field of occupational medicine had come to the conclusion that the previously prescribed norm of sitting still with ‘correct’ posture – however that might be defined – was contrary to the natural health requirements of the human body. Instead, experts recommended frequent changes in sitting positions and postures under the catchphrase ‘dynamic sitting’. They maintained that regular movement was beneficial to the musculoskeletal system, while also enhancing blood circulation and promoting (at least indirectly) concentration – an explanation that elegantly linked human well-being with economic advantages. Against this backdrop, Vitramat was presented as the ideal seating instrument.The first thing that was noteworthy and novel about this chair was its three-part seat shell. The rear upward slant of the seat surface, which – according to a Vitra advertisement – ‘prevents the pelvis from tilting backwards’, merged into a flexible lumbar support connecting the seat and backrest. The construction culminated in a ‘swivel-mounted backrest, which flexes in every direction to provide resilient support to the upper back’ – and unlike that of conventional task chairs, required no height adjustment mechanism.
Another widely acclaimed innovation was the chair’s ‘synchronised mechanism’. The purpose of this function was to ‘synchronously’ tilt the seat surface slightly backwards when the backrest was steeply reclined, thus providing a more comfortable and ergonomic seating angle for the sitter. Finally, the ingenious design of the chair included very simple, intuitive controls. Two levers for the adjustment of the seat’s height and angle were positioned directly underneath the seat pan.
Rolf Fehlbaum, who had taken over the furniture company’s management from his parents shortly before Vitramat was introduced, and who played an instrumental role in marketing the product, views the chair in retrospect as the result of a fortuitous coincidence: ‘The Vitramat chair united an interesting aesthetic concept by designer Wolfgang Müller-Deisig with an independently developed technical solution by Vitra’s longstanding head of R&D, Egon Bräuning.’ The synchronised mechanism, conceived by Bräuning and first used in the Vitramat chair, has long since established itself as a standard function of modern office chairs.The positive response to Vitramat, according to Rolf Fehlbaum, also stemmed from the propitious conditions of the 1970s. In the major European economies, particularly in Germany, the service sector was experiencing tremendous growth. The great increase in the number of office workstations generated a corresponding demand for suitable furnishings. Moreover, the ergonomic benefits of the Vitramat chair were a strong selling point in an era of social reforms – which aimed to ‘humanise the work environment’. Due to the introduction of quality and safety regulations for office furniture in Germany, which were likewise implemented in the 1970s, many large companies sought to remodel their entire office interiors.
The Vitramat chair made it possible for Vitra – then still a relatively small supplier – to compete for large contracts. In short, this chair enabled Vitra to successfully gain entry into the office furniture market, which at that time was dominated by just a few specialised companies. It was also a market that had previously attached very little significance to good design. But this was soon to change. As early as 1979, Rolf Fehlbaum established contact with the renowned Italian designer Mario Bellini. In 1984, Vitra launched two office chairs developed in collaboration with Bellini, Figura and Persona, which set new standards particularly in regard to design aesthetics.