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.

Oceania at the Antipodes

This year’s Oceania exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts has so far made quite an impression. Here’s The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones: “From a two-headed Tahitian god to a mourner’s costume made of pearl shells, this dazzling exhibition is like having the ocean roll under your canoe.” Five stars, he says.

But Oceania visiting the antipodes is not exactly new. Since 1945 there have been, as far as I can tell, at least ten major exhibitions of Oceanic and Pacific art in Europe and America. This time, the curation seems far more sensitive and detailed; perhaps the interest is greater, too (certainly the marketing budget is). Yet we shouldn’t forget the history of similar exhibitions to be staged—and by comparing them we might be able to glean the extent of changing attitudes, and scholarly progress, towards the art of Oceania.

Here’s a list of Oceanic/Pacific exhibitions overseas that I’m aware of, with catalogue links (when available) and descriptions from the host museums. Please get in touch if you’re aware of other exhibitions I could include in this list.

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1. 1945, City Art Museum of St. Louis: Oceanic Culture. (The entire exhibition grew out of the American experience in the Pacific during WWII, which is fascinating in itself. The catalogue is painful to read, though not unsurprising, for its stereotypes and views of cultural development).

“In the recent conflict in the Pacific, no area was of more vital importance to the ultimate victory of the Allies than Oceania, a vast region where the proportion of sea to that of land is awe-inspiringly large. Yet the myriad Pacific islands, many of them almost infinitesimal in size, were all-important to the execution of the brilliant strategy whereby with dramatic suddenness our enemy was overcome… It is important that we know more about the kind of people who gave us generous aid and among whom many of our own men found themselves living for months at a time under conditions of great hardship.”

2. 1946, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York: Arts of the South Seas. Catalogue here.

Arts of the South Seas was a singularly comprehensive exhibition of artwork from Oceanic cultures. Part of a series of non-Western, non-modern art exhibitions, it featured more than 400 works of art from Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Australia. In the accompanying catalogue, René d’Harnoncourt, the director of the Museum’s Department of Manual Industry, explained the impetus for the exhibition: although Oceanic art was relatively unknown in the West, there was great “kinship between arts of the South Seas and recent movements in modern art such as Expressionism and Surrealism.”

3. 1979, National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington, D.C.: Art of the Pacific Islands. Catalogue here. (This is the only other Oceanic art exhibition that I could see referenced anywhere in the RA’s Oceania catalogue).

“In spite of the wealth it has to offer, the art of the Pacific Islands remains perhaps the least known of the world’s art to the modern audience. Throughout this mass of islands there existed hundreds of cultures, many of them sustained by only a few hundred people. The cultures developed into richly disparate modes with elaborate social systems and highly refined systems of intellectual and religious life. Most striking of all, however, is that these cultures created an extraordinary range of art styles to express and serve their beliefs. The aim of the exhibition this catalog accompanied was to highlight objects that were made before or collected at the earliest contact by Westerners, and which therefore reflect the most pristine state of the cultures.”

4. 1984, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York: “Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinities of the Tribal and the Modern. (This well-discussed and controversial exhibition was not solely devoted to Pacific art, but included a large section of it. Interestingly neither a description or the English catalogue are available on MoMA’s website.)

5. 1984, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), New York: Te Maori. (Perhaps the most important exhibition for New Zealand to be staged overseas. The Met doesn’t include any information on the exhibition on its website, nor a digital version of the catalogue. The New Yorker’s article from the time gives a sense of the exhibition’s US reception; Hirini Moko Mead’s Art New Zealand article tells of the Maori response).

6. 2006, The British Museum, London: Power and Taboo: Sacred objects from the eastern Pacific.

“The exhibition will feature several famous examples of Polynesian material including the enigmatic A’a figure from the Austral Islands, the striking feather god head from Hawaii and an intricate nephrite tiki pendant from New Zealand. These objects have had a significant impact on the development of modernist art as they were studied and admired by artists such as Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso (who had a replica of the A’a sculpture in his studio). They also continue to inspire Polynesian artists, many of whom have produced work based upon this collection.”

7. 2006, Museum of Art and Archaeology, Cambridge: Pasifika Styles. 

“Pasifika Styles was an exhibition and festival celebrating contemporary art work inspired by Maori and Pacific Island culture and historic collections. Showcasing selected works from New Zealand’s top contemporary and emerging artists, the exhibition was presented in the Museum’s galleries alongside an unparalleled collection of historic Oceanic art.”

8. 2006, University of East Anglia: Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860. (I’m lacking online information about this exhibition, but this review deals with these last 3 exhibitions).

9. 2013, Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne: Made in Oceania: Tapa – Art and Daily Life. (Article here).

““Tapa” is the Polynesian word for fabrics made from a special type of tree bark which can be painted and used for variety of purposes. Oceania, in particular, has a rich, multifaceted tapa culture, which the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum presented for the first time in Germany in a special, large-scale exhibition. The exhibition featuring international loans (e.g. from New Zealand and Australia) and pieces from its own collection compared and contrasted contemporary works of tapa. The presentation focused on various aspects, such as gender, religion, identity, migration and diaspora, and examined these further in discussions with artists and in workshops.”

10. 2018, Royal Academy of Arts (RA), London: Oceania.

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If nothing else, the list dampens somewhat the RA’s marketing claims of the exhibition’s uniqueness. But some further questions, out of this brief survey: Did it take the American war experience in the Pacific to first spark any interest, however patronising, in Pacific art? What accounts for the subsequent intermittent interest—could these exhibitions be linked somehow to global events that put Oceania/the Pacific on Europe’s metaphorical map? And why did it take so much longer for any European exhibitions of Pacific art to be staged than in America; is this representative of the provincialism of European attitudes to art from anywhere else?

In light of that latter question, the Royal Academy’s Oceania seems not so much a marking of 250 years since Cook “discovered” the Pacific, but of perhaps a decade since Britain and Europe opened their artistic sights on the rest of the world. Oceania is a fitting beginning.

“What’s It To Me?”: Connecting The Dots Between Brexit And Jobs

Note: This post originally appeared on the Asian Trade Centre’s Talking Trade blog

Brexit has been described as an “act of self-harm” by commentators from the President of the European Commission to the Financial Times. The adverbs sometimes differ—grievous, in some instances, unnecessary or gratuitous in others—but economists and trade experts are nearly unanimous that British citizens will be worse off following a withdrawal from the European Union.

But ask those who voted for it, and Brexit seems nothing close to that. Indeed, the very people who would seem most at risk from Brexit are those who, even following the referendum result, are most insistent that their lives will be much improved. Why is it that those probably most insulated from Brexit’s risks are most concerned about it, while those on the “front lines” maintain a wholly positive view?

Sunderland, in north-east England, is one of those cities where residents might not have buffers that could protect workers from the effects of Brexit. With the second lowest GDP per capita of any city in the UK, and having only recently recovered from the 1988 shutdown of the last shipyard, Sunderland is in many ways a testament to economic decline and change.

The 61% pro-Brexit vote in Sunderland is what happens when cities fail to recognise the ways in which the global economy has changed, and when they fail to connect the dots between the global economy and individual livelihoods at home. Though proud residents might like to spin a narrative of independence, the reality is that workers here are literally standing on the front lines of an interconnected global economy.

Ask those in Sunderland, however, and you would think Brexit was far less important than Britain losing to Iceland in the Euro Cup. The New York Times carried an article featuring a variety of perspectives from Sunderland, summarised best, perhaps, by Ken Walker, a retired construction worker.

“I don’t have any money in the stock market,” Mr. Walker, 59, said as he drank a pint of beer in a pub. “So what’s it to me?”

It came as a blessing when in 1986—two years before Sunderland’s last shipyard was closed—a Japanese car maker came to the city to set up a production plant. Nissan, a giant of the car making world, has operated a successful plant ever since, employing just shy of 7000 in Sunderland alone, and up to a thousand more in two other offices in the UK. The Nissan plant in Sunderland also supports 27,000 jobs across the UK in its supply chain.

The plant regularly produces in excess of 500,000 vehicles per year. And given that many other vehicle manufacturers operate in Britain, it should be obvious that those 500,000 cars are not purchased by Britons alone. Depending on the year, between 80 and 85 percent of cars produced by Nissan in Sunderland are sent abroad.

Those vehicles are not all being exported to booming countries in Asia. Instead, almost 60% of these exports are sent to the European Union.  It is precisely because the UK receives preferential access to the EU markets that Nissan originally set up production in Sunderland.

It is figures like this that translate trade—a broad, often loaded term that invites misinformation and scaremongering—into effects on people’s lives. For when the UK does leave the EU, Nissan will face tariffs on all those exports to Europe, and will lose access to any EU-negotiated trade deals with the rest of the world.

One possible scenario is that in the event of Brexit, the UK will (at least in the short term) have to fall back on WTO trading rules and Most Favoured Nation (MFN) tariff rates into EU markets. For cars, these rates currently stand at 10%, and for trucks at 22%. Taxes and VAT rates in other countries can also be restrictive, dampening demand further even if Nissan is to gain from a reduced Pound.

Brexit is therefore not an abstract effect on businesses. For Nissan, it means under one likely optimistic scenario, an additional 10% cost to production of cars. In an industry already on the knife’s edge between profitability and loss, many firms operating in the UK will move in order to stay competitive.

And all that is if Nissan decides to put up with the uncertainty—on its own incredibly damaging to business—that will ensue perhaps for many years until the UK does formally leave. Why shouldn’t the company be proactive to protect its interests and begin shifting production to the continent—or to Asia?

Therein lies the irony. The surest way to “send jobs to China,” as the phrase goes, is not to open one’s borders, but to close them.

Nissan has already warned about the possible ramifications for its business post-Brexit. Carlos Ghosn, Nissan Chief Executive and Chairman, was quoted as saying “Our preference as a business is, of course, that the UK stays within Europe – it makes the most sense for jobs, trade and costs. For us, a position of stability is more positive than a collection of unknowns.”  The company has declined to comment since the election, but rumors are swirling on the production lines.

This follows similar warnings from other car manufacturers in the UK, including Toyota and Ford, which in 2012 closed two UK plants causing the loss of thousands of jobs. The industry was already reeling, facing slowing exports to China and Russia. In fact, it was a surge in demand from EU countries that allowed Nissan to weather recent economic storms. Whether it will continue to be able to manage slowing demand in Asia without free access to the EU is very much an open question.

For other pro-Brexiters in Sunderland, “The E.U. is a mystery…” “We’ve never heard about it up here”, the Times again quotes a resident as saying. Even those who seem aware of potential job losses were confident: “No, I can’t see them cutting off ties”, one resident was quoted as saying of Nissan. For yet another, “Give Brexit a chance. It can’t get worse than what’s been going on already.”

But it can. And of all places, Sunderland should know that it can. Its economic fortunes were in many ways saved in 1986 by a Japanese company that only exists in Sunderland to produce products to deliver offshore. By failing, once again, to connect the dots between the global economy and individual lives, Sunderland risks repeating the past. One hopes for those who commented to the Times that Mr. Cameron’s successor will not need to make a fated journey to the Nissan plant to announce its closure, as Mrs. Thatcher did at Sunderland shipyards three decades ago.

***This Talking Trade blog post was written by Michael Moore-Jones and Dr. Deborah Elms, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***