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Design is part of the furniture

When Vitsoe decided to build a new factory, MD Mark Adams got his pencil out as Dieter Rams observed carefully. Functionally-led furniture design translates seamlessly to factory, context intact

The great Dieter Rams (left) and Mark Adams, MD of Vitsoe, bond on site.
The great Dieter Rams (left) and Mark Adams, MD of Vitsoe, bond on site. Credit: Hugh Pearman

A factory has been built in the Midlands. Even today, that is not so remarkable, and this one is close to the manufacturing hub of Jaguar Land Rover. But architects, prick up your ears for this is not just any old factory. It is the new factory for Vitsoe, makers of the minimal-modernist shelving, cabinets and furniture long coveted by the profession. All of that – the 606 Universal Shelving System and 620 Chair Programme – are designed by legendary German designer Dieter Rams and have been since they first went into production in 1960. And I have come to the factory site in Royal Leamington Spa to meet Rams and Mark Adams, MD of Vitsoe.

I once took one of my Vitsoe metal shelves to a discussion with Rams at the V&A, together with a permanent marker pen so he could sign it. Which he did. And now, there he is again, at 85, sitting at a table in one corner of the new factory as it is being completed around him. He’s come over from home in Kronberg near Frankfurt to check it out. There is even some stock starting to arrive, ready for the next run of orders. Apart from needing a very designerly walking stick to get around these days (with a wooden loop handle, given to him years ago by its Danish designer Nanna Ditzel, he tells me), he seems unchanged. He mostly uses the stick to point at things. ‘Dieter’s observations are always spot on,’ says Adams.

And here they are in their customer-funded factory in Leamington.
And here they are in their customer-funded factory in Leamington. Credit: Hugh Pearman

But first, some background. Vitsoe is an understated British manufacturing and retail success story. Niels Vitsoe (1913-1995) was a Dane selling Danish furniture in Germany at first. With Rams – then chief designer for Braun, but working independently as well – he started in 1959 to design and produce the 606 system under his own name. Adams met them and set up Vitsoe UK in 1985, later becoming MD of the firm when Vitsoe retired. In 1995 Adams turned the company British and since then has steadily expanded it, refining and augmenting the system with Rams, moving from London factory to London factory as the business expanded, setting up shops to sell direct to the public in London, Munich, New York and soon Los Angeles, while selling online to much of the world.

He resisted the temptation to draw an elevation of what it might look like, he says. He did not want to get diverted from pure function

When in 2013 he judged the time was right to make a purpose-built factory, Adams typically avoided the usual sources of funding and instead offered bonds to his customer base, which came through with the required millions. Equally typically, he took an unconventional design route for the building, treating it as a furniture system in itself, an object assembled from components that – like the 606 system – could theoretically be taken to pieces and re-erected elsewhere. Courted by an active local MP keen to diversify the manufacturing base of his constituency, he plumped for the site close to the railway station in Leamington, on a busy road junction. This is because it is handy both for the other manufacturers in the Vitsoe supply chain – some of whom also work for the motor industry – but also for distribution to the ports. London, says Adams, had become increasingly frustrating as a place to get trucks in and out of.

  • Getting there - the factory was weathertight but unfinished the day I visited.
    Getting there - the factory was weathertight but unfinished the day I visited. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • The cream Eternit cladding is starting to appear at ground level…
    The cream Eternit cladding is starting to appear at ground level… Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • ..while the all-timber interior is receiving the finishing touches.
    ..while the all-timber interior is receiving the finishing touches. Credit: Hugh Pearman
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The design – totally functionalist as you would expect – started as a series of diagrams by Adams who worked with no site in mind at first, exploring efficient ways to increase production and the flow of goods. Later he found inspiration in the DIA:Beacon contemporary art gallery in upstate New York, housed in a 1929 packaging factory for cereal manufacturer Nabisco. In its top-lit, north-light wide-span way the DIA gallery is perfect, and perfectly plain. Adams then he added democracy into the mix – no management/work force split. The aim was ‘an environment that would thrive on incidental encounters, both within the building and without’, he says. Such as? ‘I have often observed that delivery drivers are the best source of frank information.’ But he resisted the temptation to draw an elevation of what it might look like, he says. He did not want to get diverted from pure function.

Rams likes the continuum between the products and building. ‘It’s part of the whole corporate identity, which becomes more and more important’

Next he sought advice from industrial designer Martin Francis, who had worked with Norman Foster early in his career, gone on to form Paris-based multi-discipline supergroup Rice Francis Ritchie, and later designed superyachts. Francis found a way – based on a study of parts of Paxton and Fox’s Crystal Palace – of building a strong yet economical sawtooth north-light building. This was to incorporate the new Velux skylight system recently developed with Foster’s. Engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan refined the structural concept which was now so efficient that Adams could afford nine more bays, making a 3,650m2 building. That’s much larger than he needs at present, but to build in one go was more cost-effective than bringing contractors back later for a second phase – and the spare space will be rented out to like-minded businesses.

Only at this point in October 2015 – nearing construction phase – did Adams appoint an executive architect. The factory is predominantly made of timber so Waugh Thistleton, with its expertise in this area, seemed a good fit, taking the project through to detailed completion. ‘They have been most generous deferring to the design of the building presented to them,’ says Adams. Indeed Andrew Waugh seems rather keen on the whole exercise because of the number of ‘firsts’ it represents, describing the project thus: ‘Product, process, engineering and architecture have come together to realise the client’s brief of a construction system applicable to multiple situations.’

  • The laminated beech beams slot neatly together.
    The laminated beech beams slot neatly together. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Northlights use the Foster-designed Velux skylight system.
    Northlights use the Foster-designed Velux skylight system. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Cutouts in support beams to side aisles are for future service runs.
    Cutouts in support beams to side aisles are for future service runs. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Even the insulation is made of wood fibre.
    Even the insulation is made of wood fibre. Credit: Hugh Pearman
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All this detailed research and refinement has led to a building that gives very little away aesthetically from the outside – the smooth cream Eternit cladding panels were just beginning to go on the battens the day I visited, though even then the unusual form of the external landscaping by Kim Wilkie – arranged in deep ridge-and-furrow inspired by the medieval fieldscapes nearby – hinted at something a bit different. The sawtooth roof provides visual interest, and it’s neat how photovoltaic panels on their south-facing upstands mirror the glazing on the north.

Inside is another story. There you are in a modern equivalent of a medieval tithe barn, 135m long by 25m wide by 6m high to the main beams. It is naturally ventilated as such barns are, with broad side openings – though on one side only, the other being at the top of a steep slope leading down to a road. It is arranged in a broad nave flanked by side-aisles. The columns separating the three spaces also act as supports for flanking mezzanine structures such as offices and a row of guest rooms – one for an onsite manager, two for visitors. These overlook the north end of the building where a large glazed elevation faces woodland screening the railway line.

It could be wattle and daub, almost. There are exposed slender steel members in the northlight structures, but local lad Shakespeare would recognise the basic system

The columns and beams are of beech laminate-veneer lumber (LVL). This is a relatively new product, and as a hardwood beech allows the laminated strips to be surprisingly thin. The frame is then infilled with cross-laminate timber (CLT) panels. It could be wattle and daub, almost. There are exposed slender steel members in the northlight structures, but local lad Shakespeare would recognise the basic system.

As we stroll round the building, Rams uses his stick to good effect. He stops to look at some bog-standard retail warehouses nearby. ‘Look at those – visual pollution, it’s too bad,’ he murmurs, adding: ‘Styling is never long-lived. Think of American cars. Their industry is dead.’ The key thing, he says, is to think long-term, improving rather than keep starting afresh. ‘It’s crazy to constantly come up with new things.’ Accordingly Adams has specified his factory for a 100-year design life, and to be very adaptable.

  • How designer Martin Francis worked up the concept.
    How designer Martin Francis worked up the concept.
  • And finally – working drawings by timber experts Waugh Thistleton. Elevations…
    And finally – working drawings by timber experts Waugh Thistleton. Elevations… Credit: Waugh Thistleton
  • …and plans. Simple!
    …and plans. Simple! Credit: Waugh Thistleton
  • Rams declares himself satisfied, and we stroll along the canal for lunch, then he’s off back to Cologne for his 85th birthday.
    Rams declares himself satisfied, and we stroll along the canal for lunch, then he’s off back to Cologne for his 85th birthday. Credit: Hugh Pearman
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Mostly Rams is delighted with the details and finishes of the interior: such as the way the big horizontal beams neatly slot together and the vertical columns have a nice chamfer detail on their corners. Above all, he likes the continuum between the products and the building. ‘It’s part of the whole corporate identity – not just products and then architecture. This identity becomes more and more important’. 

With that, we stroll off along the nearby Grand Union Canal for lunch in the waterside pub that is already a favoured rendezvous at the company. It’s a company that Adams wants to make into an employee-owned business on the model of Arup, John Lewis or Make; long-term thinking again. As for the building? Constant change, probably. ‘It is unlikely that it will ever be finished.’