When a sofa arrives just in time for the digital age.

Alcove Sofa
The story of a Vitra original

In 2006, Vitra launched an unusual sofa with extremely high side and back panels. In 2007, Apple released its iPhone, the first smartphone on the market. The changes in work habits that were emerging in connection with laptop computers now developed a dynamic which could hardly have been predicted – and the Alcove Sofa family was the product that best met these new demands. But let’s go back to the beginning.

Rolf Fehlbaum, Chairman Emeritus of Vitra, took notice of Ronan Bouroullec’s ‘Disintegrated Kitchen’ project back in 1998, and became personally acquainted with the French designer and his brother Erwan in Paris during autumn of the year 2000. Their early work already revealed the creative duo’s interest in design solutions that anticipate the user’s behaviour. Vitra, for its part, had explored the developments and changes in the world of work ever since the days of George Nelson’s ‘Action Office’, applying this knowledge to the development of new concepts and products.

Inspired by the large kitchen table in their parents’ home in Brittany, which was the centre of the family’s social life, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec developed the office desking system Joyn in 2002, whose spacious platform enables diverse forms of communication and teamwork. The intermingling of living and working, which found early expression in this concept, has been on the rise ever since. The new possibilities that are implicit in Joyn helped to break down entrenched working methods and hierarchical structures.
Shortly afterwards, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec paired up with Vitra to create the Soft Shell Sofa for the newly launched Vitra Home Collection. Firm side and back panels formed a basket-like structure to hold soft cushions, creating a sense of cosiness and security. The Alcove Sofa followed in 2006 as a logical further development of this concept: nearly one-metre-high panels gave even greater emphasis to the sofa’s interior space – and created a more pronounced boundary to its surroundings. Almost immediately after its launch, the Alcove Sofa met with great interest on the market – but surprisingly, mostly for use in office interiors.
Along with the accelerating pace and volume of communications in office settings, the need had arisen for private niches and places to hold informal conversations – and with its sheltering panels, the Alcove Sofa lent itself to such applications. Consequently, the product found its way from the home into the busy office. The decisive typological step that established Alcove as a new standard in the office landscape was the massive increase in the height of the panels. Corresponding prototypes revealed the potential of this idea: a sofa with extremely high side and back panels didn’t just suggest the idea of a ‘room in a room’. It became a room in a room.
‘Bringing the sofa into the office was like plugging in a Marshall amplifier in the middle of an empty stage.’
Erwan Bouroullec
Measuring 1.4 metres in height, Alcove Highback was presented in 2007. Its side and back panels are padded and covered with fabric – providing acoustic sound absorption, a casual ambience and excellent comfort. These characteristics made it an ideal solution for contemporary office concepts. With the launch of the first iPhone in the very same year, Apple permanently changed the way people communicate. What started to occur in 2007 has become a reality today: the delinking of communication and individual work tasks from a specific location. This development has caused the office to evolve into a social hub over the past years. Individual work can be performed anywhere – at home, in a café, in a co-working space or at the pool. In the digital age, we go to the office for a spontaneous exchange of ideas, for creative collaboration and a sense of community.
Over the course of ten years, the Alcove idea has become a standard component of modern office concepts. With a flexible structure that requires no permanent installations, it creates room-­like spaces, especially when two Alcove Highbacks are positioned opposite one another. People find pleasure in retreating into these cosy islands of serenity – for concentrated work, for meetings, or to answer the latest messages on their smartphone.

Publication date: 4.10.2018
Images: Florian Böhm, Marc Eggimann, Ola Rindal © Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec

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