Interview Rolf Fehlbaum

Interviews

DR: What do you think, is there still any future for companies like ours – more or less multi-brand, focused on a good, high level of design and service? Can we survive for another 20 years?

RF: I really don’t know. I mean, I don’t have much insight into that issue, because I myself have no idea how furniture will be sold in the future. I can imagine that the service aspect will be the most important one. I see this when I go to a Vitra Shop where I have employees. When I go to the local dealer, I interact ideally with the boss or the owner. It’s also an owner who comes and brings me something on a Saturday, or says: “Can I come by to measure your curtains? Just tell me when... I can come on Sunday if you like.” And this you don’t hear from an employee; this you hear from the boss. And I think – I mean if Switzerland is a good example – that this is something that works. People are prepared to pay more – of course in a rich society – when they get service and advice. I don’t know whether you know the German expression Geiz ist geil. It was an advertising slogan for one of those electronics stores – it means: “It’s attractive to be stingy.” Historically, people were too shy to ask for a discount, but the crisis encouraged them and they continue to ask for discounts anytime and anywhere. As a dealer, you have to be able to make them feel good. But I think – and maybe this is wishful thinking, because it supports our beliefs – that the product and the service are the issue. A poorly placed, poorly served product is not very interesting. If someone has the expertise to put things together well, to be an interior designer, if the dealer can offer good advice or experience, that’s a big role. But are you getting paid for this service? That’s the question. And I hear dealers telling me: “You know, people are here for three hours, then they know what they want and go to the shop that’s the cheapest.” I don’t know what the Czech or Slovak mentalities are... I mean, you have to be paid, and you’re only paid for a difference. If the product is no longer the real difference, then you have to find something else that you’re being paid for. And what else can you offer besides service? If no one pays for the service, however, then you can’t afford to provide it. I think it’s very, very difficult. With a product, everything will be online, everything will be available, and everything will be comparable. Honestly, this also depends on the mentality of your clientele. It’s about personal relationships, respect and trust.

DR: We were all suffering to a greater or lesser extent during the crisis (2008–2012), and discounts became an absolute imperative. And now, over the last few months or maybe a year, I sense a little bit of improvement; I feel more confident, and we are once again starting to have clients who are ready to listen. They think they know; they have information, but information is not knowledge. It’s still difficult to sit down with them and try to speak together.

RF: This is probably an old story of all dealers’ problems – first of all being good enough as an interior designer, because that’s not easy. I believe it’s one of the really difficult professions. I myself have not dealt so long with furniture, and I’m still nervous when I have to do my own apartment. I guess the most important thing is to have that expertise and to provide the client with something that causes them to get up saying: “Wow, I’ve got something from you that’s exactly right for me.” Can you build enough of these relationships? Can you earn people’s trust? Do you have access to the next generation? These are all questions that you have to deal with. It’s a very personal business.

DR: If you look into office interiors, my sense is that if any client is open to investing a bit more or to having something different, it’s more and more about providing a custom-made solution. This represents up to 50–60 % of the volume, and then some chairs and sofas. Is this future of the office furniture business?

RF: Yes, yes. We do this ourselves. When we do our own offices, we produce items that are unique for the space, and far from everything is standard production. You need to have your own relationships with the suppliers and the craftsmen who produce for you – in wood, metal and glass – where you offer original concepts. These are important. Most of our clients know little about furniture, because they do a project just once or from time to time. They furnish their homes maybe three or four times in their lives. You have to build that confidence so that they call you again and again, because they know you will help them. And it’s as important in office furnishings as it is in home furnishings. Unfortunately, you have companies that change management all the time, so you build up a relationship today and tomorrow you lose it because that person goes away. But these are the survival strategies. The other form is something like what Kartell does, I guess – to have a system where you’re still your own entrepreneur, but you’re in a system. That’s another possibility.

DR: Vitra Campus was something very strong already in the 1990s, and you’re certainly someone who has a respect or love for architecture. You have found a way to be in the furniture business but somehow stay close to the architects. Is it that you still follow architecture?

RF: I still follow architecture. I think I’m less able than I used to be to discern what is new or what is coming. You have a certain volume of information and a certain spectrum of understanding that comes easy to you. If there’s a paradigm shift, then it’s more difficult or impossible. I think I still like the same architects that I liked twenty or thirty years ago, which means that I’m probably fixated on that generation. This is what happens to most people. In that sense, I’m no longer as curious or excited as I used to be, but I’m still fascinated by it of course. You know we do exhibitions in the Vitra Design Museum – for instance, we did an exhibition on Kahn. I didn’t know Kahn well at all, and now I think about Kahn more, and admire him a lot. It’s an old story, of course, but a very exciting one nonetheless. Yes, I’m excited about great architecture just as I’ve always been. But can I pick the architect that will be the superstar in twenty years? I don’t think so.

BH: Was it your intention to build this really strong brand with architecture, or did it evolve somehow?

RF: I think it wasn’t really a deeply rooted intention. You know I was interested in architecture, although I’m not an architect. I had been working in architectural education for a couple of years at the Bavarian Chamber of Architects in Munich. I should have known more before I started, but I didn’t, so I had to learn quickly to do my job. I was in contact with architects, and thus when I took over the management of Vitra in 1977 or 1976, I had this knowledge. And my point was, and still is: “Every building is a superb opportunity, and every building that is not a good building is a missed opportunity.” In the end, when you do a good or a bad building, the price is the same, the cost is the same. You’re just doing it with less thought, less care, less love and less interest, because you want to be fast, or whatever. Or because you don’t understand anything about the subject, so you make the wrong choices. I was convinced of the power of architecture, although not necessarily for branding. I didn’t think much about branding initially. The idea was more like: “If you can build a new factory, why not build it with a very good architect?” Over time, it became something like branding, or at least it helped the branding. You should realise that Vitra was a completely unknown brand in the 1980s. We were working with the American company Herman Miller, and we were sort of the small name, while Herman Miller was the big name. We were the producer, but the real brand was Herman Miller. When we separated, Vitra had very nice products, but very little brand awareness. And even today, Vitra isn’t in everybody’s mind. It helped to do projects like the Vitra Design Museum and Campus. The most important thing was to get the right designers, and I started in 1979 with Mario Bellini. That was a shift to Italy, which at the time had a very strong national design culture – Bellini, later Citterio, and much later Meda. So there was the product world, and one part of this was the new office world and also things that were more experimental, like Editions. Then there was the architectural experiment. At that time, these architects weren’t stars yet; they were well-known, respected professionals. And at that time it was not yet commonplace for architects to build in other parts of the world. Of course Kahn had built in India, and Le Corbusier had built in India, but generally architecture was much more local, regional, or national at most. And so it was a strong sign to have Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, etc., who had not built in Europe – or had not built at all in Zaha’s case, and Ando had never built outside of Japan. So altogether it helped to build the brand. Architecture is one of the ways to build a brand, but it also expresses who you are; it builds your identity. Because the brand comes later; first you need an identity. And architecture – a building – is always like a promise. Maybe you’re not there yet, but it expresses what you’d like to be. And it’s a very important signal; you see that signal every day. That’s why I think it’s very, very important to follow architecture.

DR: Did you have moments in your business life when you had doubts, maybe a moment when you felt you lacked courage? Your business approach is about innovation, about courage and meeting expectations, so there’s a lot of risk and continuous struggle. Maybe it’s also related to age. I feel that I was more self-confident 20 years ago, and today people tell me: “It’s too risky, don’t do that, we can’t afford this.” I feel that I lack some of the courage I had before. How did you overcome your doubts?

RF: When I started in business, I was very insecure, because I really had no business training. It was more of an obligation than a choice, because I’d been working in another field, but my parents were getting old and they said: “Well, we don’t know how to deal with the company now.” They could have sold it, but it wasn’t a business with a management structure; it was just a mom-and-pop business, where both my parents were working very, very hard. And so my brother Raymond and I said: “Ok, let’s do it.” But my thought was always: “In a few years, I’ll do something else.” I was full of doubts about myself. Luckily, my brother Raymond is very be more intuitive with this important backing. We didn’t actually work together; Raymond was responsible for the Vitrashop business. But for all these financial and tax issues, contracts, etc., there was always someone with me, someone more knowledgeable than I, who made sure we weren’t going to make a mistake. Still, I always had the feeling that it was too good to be true, and that someday I’d wake up and realise: “Ah, we completely forgot this aspect and it’s a disaster.” But I have a lot of fun, I work mostly with friends, and I love what I do – it’s almost unfair that it even works as a business. So I believe in it – concentrating on doing what you believe in, working with people you appreciate or admire or both, working with people who are smarter than I am, or have greater insight or more vision. Respect for the designers ensured that they never felt like “here is some guy who wants to exploit my idea”, because my belief is that the designer never works for us; he works for herself or himself. If I manage our project and the designer’s project to sort of merge, then it works out for us as well. Charles Eames doesn’t work for a company; Charles Eames works for his own vision of the world. So this belief in design, in a better product, or just trying to make a more interesting product, a more relevant product, not looking around, not trying to please the client, not trying to flatter – all this together all the time gave me quite a lot of confidence that everything was OK. But you have to understand it well. We have good times, we have bad times. It is important not to grow too fast, not to be overly ambitious, to do what you are good at and not to get into races or activities where others will hunt you. It’s better to remain smaller, to remain modest, and to remain reasonable. I believe this should work.

 

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