Furniture and Philosophy — On Vitsoe

This was a feature article published in HOME Magazine New Zealand, July 2019.

Vitsoe New Zealand
Vitsoe’s headquarters in Leamington Spa. Photography by Dirk Lindner.

Open your iPhone’s calculator and you’re looking at a version of the calculator that German designers Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs designed for Braun in 1980. It’s a modern classic: held in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, the functional, clear and even beautiful design is so difficult to improve on that Apple’s designers were left simply paying homage. But what irony, then, that our iPhones will barely last three years while Braun’s calculators are still going strong almost 40 years later. Apple’s designers borrowed Rams’ aesthetic, but not his ethic.

At least one company is still committed to both. Vitsœ (pronounced “vit-soo”) is a somewhat paradoxical company. Its key product—one of only three that it makes—is a flexible shelving system so understated that it exists merely to highlight the objects placed on it. Vitsœ is a company that doesn’t mind being invisible, like its shelves; but then again, you’ve probably seen these shelves many times without realising it. Called the “606 Universal Shelving System”, they’re the ones that house your architect friend’s books and ceramics, and which adorn the walls of so many Instagrammable mid-century modern houses.

It’s a “system” rather than a shelf because every part is interchangeable. You buy some vertical brackets that attach directly to the wall. Between these, you then fit the thin metal shelves or cabinetry. You can start with a small shelving unit and then add to it as required; you can replace individual parts if they wear out; and you can pack them and take them with you when you move—all of this is Vitsœ’s sales pitch. Because of their flexibility, I’ve heard it said sardonically that Vitsœ’s shelves are the most divorce-friendly in the world.

All three products Vitsœ makes—the shelves, plus the 620 Chair and the latest addition, the 621 Table—are designed by Dieter Rams, the man behind so many of Braun’s twentieth century designs. Clocks, shavers, coffee machines and toasters: Rams designed them all with a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and with the belief that if made well enough, consumer products could improve the world. Planned obsolescence was anathema to Rams. If a product is good, it should last. This was the ethos with which Niels Vitsœ began selling Rams’ home furniture designs from the late 1950s. 

What the shelves are is environmentally friendly, though you won’t see Vitsœ explaining this. The most the company emphasises is that “Recycling is defeat,” in the words of Mark Adams, the eloquent and elegant managing director of Vitsœ who brought the company from Germany to England in the mid-1990s. Adams was just 24 when he quit a lucrative office job to join a furniture store that happened to sell some of Vitsœ’s products. And for him, Vitsœ is far more than a furniture company—as he puts it, Vitsœ is a “service business that just happens to make some products.” He’d never say it (the company’s understated philosophy, and a dose of English reserve would prevent him), but the measure of success for Vitsœ seems to be more about how far it can spread its philosophy of “Living better, with less, that lasts longer”, than how many products it sells. 

Vitsœ is not the only company producing long-lasting, flexible shelves. Swedish company Lundia has a wood-based system that has been sold through an NZ-owned subsidiary for many years. It’s slightly less flexible, but the use of natural materials has long spoken to NZ-Scandinavian design affinities. One significant difference between the two companies is that Vitsœ only sells directly to the consumer through their website: you can’t go in to a store to pick up any shelves, though Vitsœ’s “planners” will design shelving combinations for you after you send them a photo of your wall. The direct-to-consumer approach has further helped Vitsœ reduce wastage since it controls the whole process, down to reusable packaging materials.

As I walked around Vitsœ’s beautiful factory (usually an oxymoron) my thoughts turned unexpectedly to New Zealand. I recognised something in Vitsœ’s honest and direct use of materials—the building is just exposed timber, glass, metal and concrete, without a single brushstroke of paint. There is something of the Elegant Shed and Number Eight Wire and Colin McCahon’s use of unstretched jute canvas to Vitsœ: a transparency and honesty, both in its building and in its philosophy. The normal corporate facade doesn’t wear off no matter how hard you go looking—in fact, there is no facade. With Vitsœ and its shelves, what you see is what there is. Much like a Group Architects house in Auckland, I want to say.

I found myself wondering: what if we were to double down on these values, making “living better, with less, that lasts longer” a kind of national design mantra? We seem to already have the foundations built for us by our twentieth century architects and designers. What Vitsœ shows us is that those values are not necessarily synonymous with “local business”—that you can in fact lead the world with them, and turn a good profit at the same time.

Now, just two years after the company completed the move from London to its new bespoke-designed headquarters, Vitsœ seems to be entering a new and exciting chapter in its history. For those who have followed the company for many years this is unsurprising. Vitsœ has always done things differently, always rejected trends and fashions. And at a time when the implications of a century or more of wasteful, throwaway design culture are more than clear, Vitsœ’s understated, long-term, slow-but-steady philosophy offers a lesson for us all. The philosophy comes free—beautiful, long-lasting furniture is an optional extra.