A to Z of Modern Living: future-proof design at furniture manufacturer Vitsœ's headquarters in Leamington Spa
Our revamped Directory is a sourcebook of industry-leading practices with which to design, build and furnish your space. In our new series, the ‘A to Z of Modern Living’, we’ll be meeting the architects, craftspeople, landscape designers, furniture makers and tradespeople who make up the Directory. Here, we go behind the scenes at Vitsœ’s headquarters in Leamington Spa.
Vitsœ was founded in 1959 to manufacture the designs of Dieter Rams, of Braun’s golden years’ fame, a luminary designer who’s championed functional, considered design for well over 60 years. The company is best known for its production of Rams’ 606 Universal Shelving System, a do-it-all, have-forever modular system that can take the form of a few shelves or host an entire inventory of a university library.
“I don’t regard this as a piece of architecture. I regard it as a way of thinking,” says Mark Adams, Vitsœ’s managing director, as he shows us around the firm’s Leamington Spa headquarters, which the company moved into in late 2017.
“We developed the design with academics for years before building anything,” he says, explaining that the plan was essentially finished before it was handed to architects only at the delivery stage. “That’s why this is a piece of thinking, not architecture. If you get Dieter and me together, it won’t be long before one of us says that design is a thinking process.”
Rams is a designer with a philosophy, and one that believes unequivocally that ‘good’ design can be quantified and explained. If Ram’s seminal manifesto on intelligent, simple design can be considered a religion – which, given it’s posited as a list of 10 commandments, is not unthinkable – Mark would appear to be a priest in a cathedral built with a pious dedication to its scripture.
“We’ll be self-sufficient for energy on a day like today, quite easily,” he says, with warranted pride. “If you look at my Vitsœ shelves there are tens of metres of reading research. People ask how long this building took to design, and I say, ‘about 30 years’… it really did.”
Vitsœ, a furniture company set up in Germany in 1959 to produce the designs of Rams’, was moved to the UK by Mark in 1995 and was based in “a nasty little tin” by Camden Lock until the move here.
At their new headquarters, Mark is fastidiously explaining elements of the building’s construction and evidence of those decades of work becomes apparent. With restrained enthusiasm he reels off details about the beech laminate veneer used for the building’s frame that he found in a German factory six years ago; about not building to conventional sustainable building standards, which he calls “box ticking exercises”; and he later gently explains how buildings are designed the wrong way around when it comes to thermal insulation.
“Ours is designed a bit like if it had a Gore-Tex jacket on: it can release moisture, but it stays insulated.” This, Mark says, is better for people’s wellbeing: “Being hotter in the summer and cooler in the winter is better for your immune system.”
That expenditure of time and consideration has resulted in a building in which not a single artificial light needs to be turned on during the day – the building’s party trick, if indeed it has one. Inside, daylight is utilised and amplified, pouring in through the overhead skylights in the sawtooth roof, illuminating the beech frame in splendid fashion.
The building, which amorphously combines manufacturing and office space, along with apartments for internationally-visiting staff, and a restaurant-quality canteen, is truly a mixed-use space. Looking down to the far end, it’s not uncommon for a member of Motionhouse contemporary dance troupe to launch into view above the workstations. “I think it’s completely logical that arts and commerce should be totally interwoven,” proclaims Mark.
At this point in our visit, the question of how all this thinking and innovation has impacted the people who use it is begging to be asked. “Don’t ask me,” Mark says, “ask our employees at lunch”. Shortly after a bell is rung from the kitchen and staff and dancers alike drop what they’re doing.
Over risotto, salad and bread baked using flour from a nearby mill, all prepared by the in-house chef, it becomes apparent that our conversation with Mark wasn’t the spiel of some out-of-touch MD.
“I feel inspired when I come in every morning. We all feel incredibly proud of it,” says Daniel Calderbank. As more people join us, we chat to employees about the blurring of domestic and commercial space, the need for good design in the workspace and sustainable consumption.
Mid-way into lunch, Mark interjects, inviting us to see how many phones we can spot. We look around and see no vacant faces staring at screens, but rather groups of people chatting and eating at communal tables, while outside a game of pétanque gets underway.
“We could build a building anywhere. We could make any site work. We couldn’t make the people work,” explains Mark, who visited the local community before viewing sites for the project. “We’re starting to think about employee ownership of the business and we had to think about who would end up owning Vitsœ; it’s a big responsibility, so we had to get it right.”
That’s not to say, of course, the location of the site wasn’t also carefully considered. Mark explains how the first thing he did when he found about the site was work out its positioning in relation to Vitsœ’s suppliers. “It’s bang in the middle,” he says.
Our tour takes us to a mini-exhibition of the building – surrounded by unpacked boxes of vintage Braun products that now form a sort of museum – and we pause over an aerial shot of the finished site. “We’ve incorporated the ridge and furrow tradition into the landscaping of the design, which references the undulation caused by medieval ploughing, typical of this area,” explains Mark.
Earlier, we were told that how the layout of the building – a central ‘nave’ flanked by two ‘aisles’ – would be recognisable to 13th-century monks, cathedral builders and Joseph Paxton, who designed Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851. It strikes us that a sense of history permeates the entire design and we ask Mark how this is compatible with a sense of Modernism.
“All design processes should be about looking back over hundreds of years and thinking about what we can do best for today. This is an unashamedly modern building, with 1000 years of history behind it,” he explains. “Modern isn’t a word about time. Modern is a word about attitude and approach. We tend to use the word ‘modern’ when talking about today, but that’s contemporary. Modern is something different,” he tells us.
Continuing around the shelves, we come to a photo of Mark and Dieter Rams touring the building shortly before it was opened. We ask him what Rams thought, and Mark tells us, “I had never heard him utter the word before, but he said, ‘Mark, what you have done here is truly exceptional.’ To get an ‘exceptional’ from Dieter is high praise indeed.”