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When a chair appears to have sprouted naturally.

The story of a Vitra original

‘Can nature teach us anything about the making of objects, and can we infuse the pleasure that nature gives into an industrially made object?’ These questions were raised by Rolf Fehlbaum, Chairman Emeritus of Vitra. The brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec tackled this challenge over a lengthy period, developing the Vegetal chair in collaboration with Vitra – learning in the process that virtually nothing is as difficult as giving a product the organically shaped appearance of natural vegetation, while simultaneously incorporating the necessary safety, stability and sustainability to comply with modern-day standards.

Designers, architects and artists have always looked to nature as a source of inspiration, readily replicating its shapes and patterns, often for decorative purposes. Ronan and Erwan have a particular interest in the process of natural growth, and strive to create objects that transcend imitation and the ornamental. Their goal is ‘artificial nature’. In 2004 the French designer duo caused a sensation with Algues – branch-like plastic elements, which can be assembled together to create modular room dividers or decorative structures of different density, reminiscent of plants. The experience they acquired during the development of this Vitra product triggered the designers’ interest in producing an organically shaped chair that appears to have grown naturally.

The Bouroullecs intensified and expanded the research they had begun with Algues, and found similar approaches in Hector Guimard’s Parisian Metro motifs and Art Nouveau furniture, Antoni Gaudí’s chairs for the Casa Calvet, Alvar Aalto’s moulded plywood chairs from the 1930s and the Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. A direct analogy was also found in the work of Axel Erlandson. In the 1940s, the American gardener shaped the growth of trees into chair-like formations – nature became furniture.

The chair was – logically – to be suited for outdoor use. It was, therefore, clear that this reinterpretation of nature required a robust and freely mouldable material – a blend of elasticity and solidity that only plastic offers. The development phase began in 2004, extending into a four-year process. The first drawings by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec showed a mesh of thin branches that formed a basket-like shell. The challenge was then to find a way to create a structure that could be economically manufactured using a plastic injection moulding process. The major difficulty was building a mould with which the ‘basket’ and its ‘branches’ could be produced in one single step. In contrast to the injection moulding of a conventional shell chair, which is comparatively simple, here it was necessary to form each individual element of a complex three­dimensional structure in such a manner that the end product could easily be removed from the injection mould. To maintain the appearance of natural vegetation, its branch-like ribs are asymmetrically intertwined on three levels to form the seat shell, which is shaped as an irregular circle and supported by four legs that seem to sprout from the ground. The front legs are part of the shell, while the rear legs are attached separately.

‘Vegetal could not have existed without the technical sophistication of modern software, in the same way that it could not have moved on from the finesse intrinsic to the stages of design drawing by hand. It is the close association of these two processes that has been so special.’
Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec

Presented in 2008 under the name Vegetal, the chair’s natural organic shape is the product of hard work and long hours. Egon Bräuning, who had been in charge of product development at Vitra for decades at that time, even declared that Vegetal was the most technically challenging chair that Vitra had ever manufactured.

Publication date: 5.4.2019
Images: Florian Böhm, Studio Bouroullec, Marc Eggimann, Paul Tahon

Vitra originals and their stories in the Vitra Magazine
Invest in an original, for it will always retain its worth. An imitation will never be anything but a copy, a stolen idea. Appreciate the differences – not just the quality and more obvious variances but also the sensory and emotional appeal of the authentic product. An original is a lifelong companion and may well outlive you to be gratefully received by the next generation. But that’s a story for the future.
The Original is by Vitra