Amid the rolling hills of Niedersachsen in Northern Germany, the production facilities of Wilkhahn rise dramatically from yellow fields of rape. Home to the office-furniture company’s factory and headquarters, these buildings aren’t quite what you’d expect of a manufacturing plant. Instead, the structures hint at Wilkhahn’s history and rich association with iconic modernist design. Realized in 1959, the administration building is the work of Herbert Hirche. One of Braun’s original designers and a student of Wassily Kandinsky and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus, Hirche also designed a number of Wilkhahn furniture pieces.
German architect Thomas Herzog is responsible for the building that houses Wilkhahn’s production facilities, while the dramatic tentlike structures that accommodate the sewing and upholstery workshops were designed by 2015 Pritzker laureate Frei Otto. The white forms, reminiscent of Otto’s work for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, have won a number of awards and are considered exemplary of a human-centric approach to architecture.
Upon stepping inside you understand why, as all preconceptions of a factory setting are dispelled. Wilkhahn employees work industriously in a large, bright, airy environment. Otto’s spectacular timber ceiling sweeps dramatically upwards to skylights that provide workers with natural light and good ventilation. In the adjacent room, staff running the international customer service department enjoy similar surroundings, demonstrating the versatility of the complex.
While Wilkhahn’s production site is something of a crash course in design history, a tour of the premises also offers a solid introduction to its values as a company. Good design, sustainability and the wellbeing of its employees are paramount. This strong understanding of the staff’s needs – along with the central role played by the office environment in addressing such requirements – guides the design and production of Wilkhahn’s wares.
‘Design should integrate into its surroundings and be part of a whole,’ says Michael Englisch, head of design and development. ‘Good design fits in anywhere.’ This sensibility is exemplified by Occo and Metrik, two new chairs to be launched at Orgatec in October. Occo by Jehs+Laub has an explicit design language but offers a range of customized options in colour, upholstery and frame. Metrik, a cantilever chair by design studio WhiteID, has a striking form that references bodywork from the automotive industry.
While both are distinctive designs, their ability to integrate into a wide range of environments is key. That’s because context is central to Wilkhahn and its research. Despite two growing movements that suggest otherwise – co-working spaces, and business conducted anywhere but the office – Wilkhahn believes physical workspaces are still important. ‘From our research, we’ve deduced that people are still instinctively territory-orientated,’ says Burkhard Remmers, Wilkhahn’s head of international communication. ‘The chair, or the conferencing space, is a placeholder for a role. People need orientation. We need physical space to define our communities and social structures.’
Wilkhahn’s human-centric approach to design has led to a number of products – from the FS Line chair in 1980 to the 2015 IN chair – that tackle the health concerns of office employees by offering heightened mobility and flexibility. Current research shows that increasingly sedentary lifestyles are wreaking havoc on health (Frame 108, p. 154), but Englisch believes that ‘the problem in offices today is with regulations and norms, not with how people sit’. Remmers agrees: ‘The problem is not with sitting; it’s with not moving.’
Backed by years of experience in the industry, their comments reflect the importance Wilkhahn places on extensive research. ‘If you study evolution, you find that people are lazy by nature,’ says Remmers. ‘So how do you implement physical activity in the office? How do you stimulate people to try out something else – not just the comfortable way?’ The IN chair is the result of pragmatic thinking, combined with research conducted chiefly in collaboration with the German Sport University in Cologne. Wilkhahn has never been afraid to take its time in the research stages. Remmers recalls the first two years of ‘basic’ research that led to the designs of the acclaimed ON chair and of IN, which followed later. Both are by Michael Englisch and Wiege. ‘It wasn’t about a chair. It was about innovation and consideration: what would be important in the future?’
With the expertise gathered from research, the company developed its patented Trimension technology: a new concept that mimics the act of walking while seated. It enables a more dynamic way of sitting that encourages users to move. ‘Sitting in one position stresses the body very quickly,’ says Englisch. ‘It’s all about stimulation.’ Nestling into the IN chair, you realize that a whole range of movement is possible. A simple shift of the hips allows the chair to move with your weight, providing satisfying support. No more discomfort as you attempt to wriggle pins and needles out of your body after a long stint in a static office chair.
The focus on in-depth research highlights the company’s awareness of the need for constant innovation. ‘It’s one thing to understand what’s important now, but something entirely different to consider what sort of issues will occur in the future,’ says Englisch. Research on the IN chair began many years before it was launched on the market, as staff at Wilkhahn identified the health problems people would face as they became more desk-bound. ‘Research means evaluating the context,’ says Remmers, ‘in order to find the missing link.’
After the huge feat accomplished with the IN chair last year, you might expect Wilkhahn to pause for a while to enjoy its success. Yet in June of 2016, visitors to NeoCon – a design expo and conference for commercial interiors held in Chicago – bore witness to Wilkhahn’s next steps. At the company’s booth, visitors were invited to customize stools – adapting existing designs and altering colours – that were subsequently 3D-printed on site. The dynamic PrintStool, designed in conjunction with Thorsten Franck, prompts changes in posture. The stool is printed with lignin, a plant polymer that is organic, durable and biodegradable. Experimentation with new technologies and materials embodies Wilkhahn’s rigorous search for innovation in its production processes, as well as in its designs. Together with the company’s focus on human-centric products and sustainability, it’s an approach that’s rung true for over a century of production – and is even more visible today.
Photos Mark Groeneveld