Creative partnerships are often sparked by conflict. In the music world, tension-fuelled relationships are everywhere, occasionally used as a tool by hard-bitten promoters to sell their latest pop hopefuls to a jaded public. Inevitably, they burn with a comet’s intensity before fizzling out under the innocuous euphemism of “creative differences”. For German designers Markus Jehs and Jürgen Laub, the two halves of Jehs + Laub, “creative differences” are often the beginning rather than the end of a project. “We want to fight because it means there is something happening,” says Jehs. “First it is a feeling or intuition, and then you have to explain it. Maybe the man in the street cannot explain why he thinks something is stupid or not stupid, but our job is to explain why. This is where ideas are born.”
Although, to paraphrase Charles Eames, they take their fights seriously, there is nothing histrionic about the products spawned; far from it. In fact, the duo’s work is characterised by an accomplished mid-century modern sensibility as opposed to exotic concepts. It is in the detail and the finish where Jehs + Laub excel. onoffice tracked them down at Orgatec – an environment that goes hand in glove with their serious-minded nature – where they unveiled new work for Brunner and longtime collaborators Renz (Talk table system shown below), Cor and Wilkhahn. Of all the new launches, it was the A-chair for Brunner (left) that caught the eye. One well-respected British designer described it to me as a hidden gem, while another confessed they wished they had designed it. I relay the compliment, which confirms the pair’s belief that there was a gap in the market.
“There are many, many companies with many stacking chairs, but we felt there was nothing good,” says Laub. “With all of them you have the shell and the legs which you screw together with lots of parts. Put 300 of them in a room and it is very unquiet.” A-chair comprises two parts – a base and a shell, which can be combined in a variety of finishes: a wooden shell with plastic legs, or aluminium legs with a plastic shell. “This one chair can fit any room,” Laub concludes. When arranged in rows, as they are in the press photos, the chairs resemble a well-drilled battalion of men marching in unison. With its simple form, the A-chair would be easy to overlook. The industry’s big guns seemed to regard chairs and tables as passé this year, instead turning their focus toward reinventing the office cubicle. And while to many this appears a logical and indeed necessary step to claw back some of the privacy lost in open-plan offices, it fails to impress either designer. “This is a very attractive area for all the companies, because it is very hard to make money in the traditional arena. So they go in this direction. But in 500 years there are still going to be humans who need a chair and a table,” says Jehs. His compadre agrees, but goes further: “It is a fad. In two or four years you will not see any of this.”
With sentiments like these it is no revelation to find the pair sticking to the office’s set pieces – meeting tables, conference chairs and suchlike. I conduct our interview sat in one of their new products for Wikhahn, a sofa and chair combo called Asienta. Not only is it comfortable, but also looks inviting, thanks to a bulbous interior that bulges like the belly of an infant – contrasting agreeably with the outwardly cubic form. The thin die-cast aluminium legs and frame seem almost too weedy to hold the weight of Orgatec’s carb- and protein-fuelled demographic, but this is illusory. Asienta is aimed at the contract market and is correspondingly robust. “Maybe we live in an era of dematerialisation where everything is made from less material,” says Jehs. “It is not necessary to have all these seating machines to sit in at work. It just makes things confusing. The chair should fit you automatically.” It’s an ethos explored with Graph – an ultra-masculine boardroom chair that boasted none of the normal gadgetry save for flexible stem derived from car suspension – and Shrimp for Cor. With Shrimp, Jehs + Laub removed sections of the wooden one-piece back, creating a crustacean-like shell that gives a little when you sit in it.
Of the two, Jehs is the chattier. Laub seems happy to take a back seat, opening up only when a question is aimed directly at him. He is, according to Jehs, the grounding force behind the duo, the one who brings occasional flights of fancy back to down to earth. “I am a bit here, there and everywhere. I don’t like to take care of everyday business. He [Laub] is very straight.” Conversely, it is Jehs the dreamer that drives the duo to greater heights. “If he has an idea, sometimes I might say, ‘Yes, but that is not enough, it must be fantastic.’” For a dreamer, Jehs shows an impressive lack of sentimentality when it comes to his work, a ruthless streak that Jehs admires: “He designs something for months and one day he just says, ‘this is bullshit,’ and throws it out. It could be two days before a presentation.” Though they seem happy in their defined roles, the two know each other so well that they can slip into each other’s character to play devil’s advocate. “I am always sketching while I am talking and he is only talking while I am sketching,” says Laub. “At the beginning of a project this is how we work.” They are family men, meaning that, between work and home life, there is little time for anything else: “Having children keeps you from being a professional idiot.”
Physically they cut very different figures: Laub bespectacled and rangy, Jehs less so. Both speak in measured tones, their English coloured by the occasional idiosyncrasy. They explain how they met at the Schwäbisch Gmünd design school in 1988 where, sat alongside each other during the entrance exam, they marked each other out as the “danger man” on the course. So began a rivalry that eventually, at the suggestion of one of their professors, morphed (reluctantly at first) into a partnership and friendship that has endured for over 20 years. They interned in New York (catching a taxi was easier than in Palo Alto, they explain with faultless logic) and later pitched their first commercial venture, some luxury bathroom taps for Dornbracht. Unfortunately, the project coincided with the collapse of the communist GDR. With millions of their fellow countrymen on the breadline, Dornbracht sensitively shelved the project. Still, the advance provided the funds to help start the business.
From this stunted beginning Jehs + Laub gathered momentum, steadily racking up an enviable list of international clients. It is the Italian companies, such as Cassina and MDF Italia, with their predilection for risk-taking, that has the pair bubbling with enthusiasm. “Their first response to a new idea is always emotional. They say, ‘Let’s do it,’ and if it seems impossible then it is a challenge,” says Jehs. “Everyone involved – the craftsmen for example – is a designer. You do a sketch and you don’t see the product again until it’s finished.” To many designers, this approximates the sort of nightmare in which you wake up a screaming mess. For Jehs + Laub, it is a welcome collaborative effort. “A lot of the time they do something exactly how you would do it. It’s like they are reading your mind.”
They prefer to work with companies that have retained their factories and express dismay at manufacturing’s migratory flight from Europe to China (“If you buy something in the UK it should have something to do with that country”). Similarly, the duo believes that well-produced furniture is better for the environment than recyclable products. “An argument made is that you can buy a chair and after three years you can disassemble the whole thing and recycle it. But why take it apart?” says Jehs, who explains how longevity is more important, and that the way to achieve that is through good materials and quiet design. These two strands unite the vast majority of their clients.
Its safe to say there aren’t many misfires in the Jehs+Laub portfolio. Virtually all their work is purposeful and somewhat traditional, in the sense that their sofas look like sofas and tables look like tables. All that matters is the product. “At the end of the day, the company, the designer – they are not important. What is important is that you are a partner with the CEO of the company and the product comes good. Ego has nothing to do with the design process,” argues Laub. There are, however, moments of ingenuity, like the Stelton wall clock, whose minute hand is attached to a moving outer rim.
For the most part, though, wild experimentation is not on the agenda. “We are not crazy. Sometimes you like to be crazy, but whenever we tried it we realised it was not possible for us to do that,” Laub says almost apologetically. “And at the end of the day, there is always Jürgen,” says Jehs. “It can become experimental, but we have to go back down to the ground and think, ‘What can we use this for?’”
Like any huge trade show, Orgatec is great for doing a lot of business in a short time all under one roof – but it’s a hard slog. Miles of artificially lit exhibition halls are enough to drive anyone loopy. Luckily just over the road from the Koelnmesse exhibition centre is Design Post, a year-round showroom for cool design brands such as Moroso, Kvadrat, Moooi and Magis, and a welcome escape for more and more Orgatec visitors every year.
Originally constructed in 1913 for the German post office and used as the postal railway station until the 1990s, this listed industrial building was taken over by Paul van den Berg and Willem van Ast, owners of Dutch brands Montis and Arco respectively, and renovated in 2005 by OIII Architecten. “The owners saw the ruins and had the idea to create a design hub,” explains Agerta Bokking from Arco, “so they started to collect high-level brands to join them.” Arco is now one of many brands installed here; Bokking says the place is perfect because it combines both a permanent showroom and a presence during the fair. “Also we can create our own atmosphere here with light, which you can’t do at the exhibition centre,” she says. Made up of seven adjoining arches, the structure features skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the interior with natural light, resulting in an altogether more serene atmosphere than its neighbour.
Although Design Post is not officially linked to Koelnmesse, many of the brands here rather sensibly launch new products when shows like Orgatec and imm cologne are taking place, as they are aiming at the same clientele. Swedish brand Lammhults showed its new Comet Sport chair (a smaller, neater version of its Comet chair by Gunilla Allard); Arco unveiled its new Cable Sock, Cable Net and Cafe stool by Jonathan Prestwich, as well as a series of side tables named Utensils; Dutch furniture company Gelderland showed its new Noon sofa by Karel Boonzaaijer; even Moroso saved some new contract fabrics for the occasion. Many also hold special events and refurnish their showroom space to be more workplace-focused to align with Orgatec. So why aren’t they over at the fairground instead? Andreas Schäfer, an agent for Gelderland, can think of plenty of reasons, one being the promotion that Design Post itself does for its patrons, including mailouts and architect tours. “Every year there’s new interest, new contacts,” he says, “[Design Post] do a lot – it’s very well organised.” In addition to being a platform for new products during peak fair seasons, the brands also get a showroom for the rest of the year, which for many is their only location in Germany. This also works out pretty nicely in terms of economics, as Schäfer explains: “A year at Design Post is not much more expensive than one week at the fair.”
However there’s no doubt it’s a risky choice. On my visit I leave behind droves of visitors in the Koelnmesse and Design Post is noticeably quieter. Lots of people I speak to say things always pick up a little later on in the day – a sure sign of an artier crowd – and it even opens later to catch visitors on their way from Orgatec into town, luring them with drinks and ambience. Still, for 2012, Orgatec recorded around 50,000 visitors while Design Post estimates that 8,700 people visited during the same week. Though some would argue that those 8,700 people are a refined and more relevant crowd, these companies must have considered the possibility of losing out on new business. It seems that firms are not necessarily here for a vast footfall, but to be associated with the high standard of its residents.
“We used to exhibit at Orgatec but we made the decision to move a few years ago,” says Lars Malm, export area manager for Lammhults. “This show suits us better because the level of brand is higher. Plus, when you compare the costs of installation and paying for the stand just for one week with 52 weeks here…”
Moooi moved in earlier this year (making it the company’s only German monobrand showroom) and though there is apparently a long waiting list, it’s no wonder it has been given a prime location in the rafters at the centre of the building. Moooi’s Laura Ramos Bello-Kluit says it was important for the company to have a strong presence here, and this location came with many other benefits. “It’s a nice initiative. By joining forces with these other brands, we benefit from their audience too. Plus, the natural light shows off the products well. It’s a complete package.”
Norwegian furniture manufacturer RYBO and designer Peter Opsvik have created a new edition of Stokke’s Garden chair, presented at 100% Norway, part of the London Design Festival, and appearing at Anders Olssen’s stand for Moment at ORGATEC. The difference between RYBO’s new version of the chair and Stokke’s original is that the individual branches continue down to the floor and separate into roots, rather than joining a central stand. The Garden chair is primarily intended for public spaces such as airport meeting points, allowing the user to see over large crowds.
Lapalma present Brunch, a family of high tables that reinvent the traditional typology of tables. The fluidity of the overall design is strengthened by the wide curve made up of two wooden surfaces matched with a different radius to create just one honeycomb board that ensures continuity of the wood grain. The wider profile of the side leg becomes gradually thinner as it curves to form the top, while the other leg, made from aluminium, provides a contrasting, sober look. Visually light yet extremely stable, Brunch is available in blanched oak, walnut, black or white. Visit Lapalma during ORGATEC at hall 10.2, aisle R 030.
Swedish design company Lammhults launches another model in its Archal series during the ORGATEC fair in Cologne. Presenting an exclusive version of the chair, it has a recycled aluminium frame and is fully upholstered with a higher back for extreme comfort, aimed at conference rooms and meeting areas where the demands on comfort and design are very high. Designed by Johannes Foersom & Peter Hiort-Lorenzen, the Archal range is based on a new material for Lammhults.
Meanwhile at the fair, aside from perusing the latest products by 600 office interior suppliers at Orgatec, there are lots of other features to take in. The show’s Trend Forum talks and panel discussions will follow two themes this year: International Best Practice, looking at various successful office designs around the world, and Modern Working Concepts, focusing on global trends. At the Office and Architecture Night on 26 October, fair visitors and the general public can explore 15 offices in the city between 6pm and midnight.
Orgatec takes place in Cologne from 23-27 October 2012. See you there!
Designer Yves Behar explains the innovative thinking and construction of his budget task chair, Sayl, for US furniture giant Herman Miller.
Gotessons showcased their ScreenIT range during Orgatec this year. Breeze is a modern sound absorbing table screen can be personalized by combining colour fabric and zippers. It can be combined with two directional LED lights - one LED lamp compares to 15-20 halogen lights. It is 100 per cent recyclable, noise absorbing and fireproof classified. Watch this video to find out more.
onoffice caught up with designers Luke Pearson and Tom Lloyd at the Bene stand to talk about their impressions of Orgatec and the latest addition to their Parcs range.
Among the plethora of task chairs and workstations at the Orgatec furniture fair was this minimalist offering from Swedish design and architecture practice Broberg & Ridderstråle. LITE features a wide arched back with a thin profile. The chair can be fitted with accessories such as armrests, a foldable writing tablet and upholstery can be added to the back.
"Stackable chairs are often narrow and characterised by a slightly anxious expression. We wanted to create a chair with an inviting wide back that nevertheless could be placed close together," says Mats Broberg. The chair was produced for furniture manufacturer OFFECCT.