"A Masterstroke"

Interview with Rolf Fehlbaum

The Landi Chair was missing in the chair collection. Now Vitra has relaunched it. Rolf Fehlbaum talks about the risks and enjoyment of a symbol of modernism.

Why are you relaunching the Landi, a chair which is obviously so difficult to manufacture?

The Landi Chair has been on my mind for a long time. There is a photo of my father with Charles Eames taken in the late 50s. The Landi Chair is standing in the background. The Eames family furnished the interior of their home with their own furniture, but they did not have anything suitable for outdoors. Many years later, Ray Eames asked me to get him a Landi Chair because theirs had been stolen. People like me who collect and produce chairs like to compile their dream collection. Hans Coray’s Landi Chair has a place in that collection. In addition, the masterstroke comes from Switzerland and represents something eminently Swiss. Since good producers make sure their products are available to people all around the world, I had been aware for some time that the chair was in the wrong hands. Naturally, I thought the Landi Chair would be just right for us.

When did you make the first real moves to include the Landi Chair in the collection?

Almost thirty years ago, at the end of 1985, I sat down to discuss how to improve production methods for the chair with Hans Coray, his wife Henriette and our Head of Development at the time, Egon Brauning. However, we realised that owing to conditions at that time the project could never be successful. Discussions took place with Henriette Coray in 2002 concerning tooling issues and whether Vitra could market the chair at a reasonable price. We were unable to find any solution at that point in time.

What do you consider to be a reasonable price ? How much can a chair cost?

When the “Landi” was designed, there were hardly any other chairs which could be used outdoors. In the meantime, there are hundreds of cheaper models. The “Landi” does not look complicated but its production is anything but simple, and aluminium is a high-grade material. So, it will never be in the same price category as a plastic chair. But, unlike plastic chairs, it is completely recyclable and durable. So, even leaving aside the concept of value – the properties of aluminium make it far superior to plastic for exterior use. As the chair is considerably more costly to produce, it follows that it is also more expensive than a plastic one, but it will be on sale for a good deal less than 950 Swiss francs, its previous market price in Switzerland. That was the prerequisite for making major investments and for fulfilling Henriette Coray’s and the public’s expectations.

What makes production viable now, thirty years later?

We work closely with a manufacturer who has the technical capabilities to produce the chair so that it completely fulfils our requirements. And at a reasonable price because, among other reasons, the company uses robotics in certain process steps of the chair’s manufacture. Thanks to robotic welding systems, producing certain designs by Jean Prouve has once again become feasible. Manual production processes would make them impossibly expensive in the current times.

Has the design only now found its justification thanks to new production processes?

No, not at all. It is incredible to think that they managed to produce 1500 chairs for the National Exhibition, that was a major achievement for the manufacturer Blattmann. And, at that time, the chair had a different significance. With the threat of Nazi Germany looming, there was a search for Swiss identity at the National Exhibition. The reaction could have been a step back or a step forward, but at the exhibition, conservative and modernist worlds joined forces and appeared side by side. An important factor was the chair’s obvious power in winning many Swiss hearts for modernism. People liked the chair; contemporary comments described it as charming, light and pleasant – it radiated the spirit of modernism. That was the chair’s most important moment.

A stroke of luck?

Being able to create the chair, designed by a young man who had never before made a piece of furniture, in such a short space of time was nothing short of miraculous. The same applies to the company Blattmann, which was not a furniture manufacturer. The chair also marked the beginning of a new chair type, the shell chair, which Charles and Ray Eames later perfected in plastic. The idea of perforating the metal, was on the other hand, not new. It was essential in order to achieve lightness and to stabilise the thin aluminium sheet. But the concept of designing a three-dimensional shell form seat - that is a great, innovative design achievement.

Does the chair also represent a new type of seating?

The shell form was new, not the type of seating. The use of aluminium was unusual, but Breuer had already used this metal some years previously. However, proposing a three dimensional shell form in aluminium sheet was revolutionary. And the material is the special Swiss element of the chair. The first aluminium facilities in Europe were at the Rhine Waterfalls. In this respect, aluminium was a modern, Swiss material. And it was ideal for outdoor use. It does not rust, it is light, the chair is stackable – everything added up: a masterstroke.
"I really like its directness, its light-heartedness, yes, even a certain awkwardness in some of the details. The chair is not a meticulously planned design object; it is a masterstroke."

Is the chair still as contemporary today as it used to be?

Unlike antiques, by that I mean objects from another era designed for that era, a classic is still contemporary, even when it comes from a different era. A classic is strong enough to remain relevant throughout the years.

What makes the Landi Chair a classic?

Initially, it did not have to penetrate the market and then establish its position because it was not created in a commercial environment. But later series faced fierce competition from plastic models which adopted the perforated shell. Nevertheless, people with aesthetic taste recognised that models which apparently provided the same article at a lower price could not compete with the Landi Chair’s lightness, its exclusively aluminium structure and its design quality. The Landi has a decisive advantage in terms of sustainability and durability. Its status as the people’s chair has evolved into a connoisseurs’ object over the years. Many other classics have undergone a similar revaluation processes. One of Jean Prouve’s chairs was very cheap when it first came on the market, but later on new process techniques and materials proved to be a major challenge. If a design is strong, such products undergo revaluation: they might previously have been used in a school or a factory, but people recognise and appreciate the timeless quality of the design, now the chair may well stand in chic interior settings or in restaurants.

Are you referring to cultural added value?

This added value is certainly not accessible or relevant for everyone. In our opinion, another justification for the Landi Chair is a testimony of another era, and because it stands for values which we admire.

The significance the chair once had as a symbol of modernism, we now see as a historic reference. But what significance does it convey now in the post-post-modern era?

It combines sober and simple design with something vibrant. Even its decorative aspects are functional. I really like its directness, its light-heartedness, yes, even a certain awkwardness in some of the details. The chair is not a meticulously planned design object; it is a masterstroke. It is an outstanding expression of modernist demands for a new beginning. Even now, it is still an example for contemporaries. It is Jasper Morrison’s favourite chair; it represents what he stands for.

Does the chair still have a place in our era?

For as long as the spirit of modernism has an impact and a shaping influence on our era, the chair will be an object of our times. If you showed the chair to someone who does not know much about furniture but who is aesthetically aware and asked how old it is, the answer would certainly not be 75 years.

Technology and design are mutually dependent. Did implementing robotic systems alter the design?

Of course, design is influenced by the production capabilities of the time. There are processes which stay the same over a long period of time, such as welding. But new technologies mean new options become viable. So, nowadays, we can use glue where we used to have to weld. That simplifies production, as does the use of robotic systems which can carry out exactly the same work as humans – except automated systems are quicker and more accurate. We have not changed the design very much; it was the result of the synthesis of different production versions, which we analysed and evaluated along with Henriette Coray. Her experience was important in this process. We consulted with her at every step along the way. Minor changes were made in response to modern day standards and taking into account the fact that people are on average larger nowadays. But the chair’s character has not altered at all.
"A classic is still contemporary, even when it comes from a different era. A classic is strong enough to remain relevant throughout the years."

Would a new chair be manufactured in the same way as the Landi Chair?

Probably not, but that is the exciting thing about the design. Some of the elements which complicate production of the chair are also advantages, above all the material uniformity. Today you might ask: What is the best material and best construction for the base and for the shell, and what is the best way of joining them together? A whole string of requirements would emerge such as row-linking systems and seat numbering. Probably a well-designed product would result, but not a true masterstroke. So the wonderful material uniformity still makes sense. There are many reasons for producing the Landi Chair chair. But we are not doing so just for the sake of it. We also want to make it available to the general public.

Publication Date: 25.2.2016 / Hochparterre Special Issue, May 2014
Author: Meret Ernst
Images: Hans Baumgartner / Fotostiftung Schweiz, Roland Beck, Florian Böhm / AKFB, Marc Eggimann, Véronique Hoegger, Bettina Matthiessen

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