Words by Aidan Walker
Father and son Mario and Claudio Bellini have wrought huge influence on the office landscape – both singly and together – collaborating with such brands as B&B Italia, Vitra and Yamaha. Here they discuss chairs, comfort and collaboration
RELATIONSHIPS: FATHER AND SON, ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
Claudio Bellini: Yes, I’m the son of Mario Bellini – even though I have another life I am still the son – everywhere I go, people I meet say, “Oh, this is the son of Mario”.
Mario Bellini: It has only ever happened to me once that someone said “Oh yes, you’re the father of Claudio”.
CB: I’m still waiting for that!
Aidan Walker: I’m interested in the way you work together and the expression of the relationship.
CB: When I was very young I used to go to my father’s office. I was really fascinated and a little afraid. My friends would say: “What is your father doing, playing with polystyrene and fabric and plastic all day?” I was embarrassed because it didn’t look like serious work. When I started my degree in architecture, I immediately wanted to do this kind of work – to work on objects – to play with my hands, cutting, shaping. It’s a really fast way. Designing a product, the time is shorter. You can see what you have done in one or two years.
MB: A few months. In architecture you might need ten years, maybe six. In furniture production, one or two. And you can see a chair or piece of furniture simulated with cheap and simple materials in just a few days. A maquette for architecture is only a metaphor. Until it’s actually built you don’t have the pleasure or possibility to walk through
a piece of architecture – you will never know what it means. We try never to confuse furniture and product design with architecture. Architecture will never be a big chair, a big table.
AW: Even though you talked about your office machines for Olivetti as architecture?
MB: Yes, but that is a metaphor. You don’t live in a machine. You establish a relationship with a table, which is between you as a human being and the object which allows you do what you have to do. As an architect I put a strong relationship between the object, the table, and myself in a room. That is an architectural perspective – but still a building is never a big typewriter. It’s so dangerous to lose this concept. What is important is your interior attitude.
CHAIRS: FORM AND FUNCTION
MB: Chairs have a lot to do with the human body – much more than a table or many other things. The chair is really a counterpart of the body and also has a sacred dimension. The Pope’s throne expresses his dignity, his majesty. When you design a chair for the office you will be wrong to think it’s just a question of function because it’s an office chair. You have to fulfil functional needs, but form is function in this case. A chair always has to express that it is linked to the body, to culture.
CB: A chair for the home could be uncomfortable but it could still be a great chair. In the office you cannot make this mistake. From the iconic point of view, if a chair isn’t at all comfortable, it’s not a problem – I buy it because I like it. A task chair has to be comfortable to sit in eight or nine hours.
AW: Should a task chair say “I am a comfortable chair” or “I am a chair to do things in”?
CB: The right choice for an office chair is to reach “harmonia”, able to express enough in terms of both comfort and technology for the right image.
MB: First it has to say “I am a chair but I am the right chair for what you are doing”. What I would hate is a chair that is so mechanically or ergonomically or physiologically perverse that it left you feeling ridiculous.
YPSILON, HEADLINE, CONCEPTS OF COMFORT
MB: With Ypsilon (2001), we went to Vitra and fought to demonstrate a need for a new chair with a high angle of lean. And with Headline (2006), no one asked us to do it. After Ypsilon we had to design at half the price, with an image that was “easier”, “essential”, “intelligent”, and “less expressive”.
AW: Was Ypsilon an answer to Aeron?
MB: In a way it was but not from an icon point of view. Aeron rung the bell to everyone, saying a chair is no longer this simple form – what I tried to tell Vitra. They didn’t like it, they had difficulty perceiving and receiving it from a cultural point of view. It was so American. So I had to find a totally different concept. Aeron is massive, heavy. Ypsilon is light. But the Headline chair is an answer to our own work. As I push there [centre of back] this [top of back and headrest] comes forward. It is like a spoon – extremely comfortable. [Demonstrates chair back’s flexibility, re-shaping itself in two curves as pressure is applied.] You don’t need to alter the height of the headrest – it doesn’t matter if this part of your neck is here or here or here. I don’t consider ergonomics to be a science. It’s a field of knowledge born out of military necessity. To transfer that to a chair is exaggerated. The Pharaoh’s throne 4,000 years ago was perfectly shaped to the human body. I prefer to study overall human attitude. Chairs are now about movement, not about posture.
CB: Ypsilon is designed to have movement in 3D. It gives the back support but is as flexible and free as the body.
MB: We want you to forget about the chair. It has to become a body which is supported, but still free.
CB: We didn’t want comfort like falling into a mountain of feathers. Ypsilon is a sprung frame with tension between that and the flexibility of a suspended membrane. You then make it harder and tighter with the frame. Headline does not need adjustment for head height, head position and screen attitude – only seat height. It’s “revenge” for Ypsilon, which because of bad economic timing couldn’t be exploited fully.
AW: Ypsilon is more comfortable than it looks. Maybe because it doesn’t look all that comfortable, people don’t see it as comfortable.
CB: It’s important to be able to form a language to communicate what things do for you. I personally like the idea of a shell, very light.
MB: We wanted to transmit the idea of comfort through lightness. Light shows through the back of the chair. Suspending the fabric with my fingers like a puppet, I will embrace you, support you – but I don’t touch you.
AW: That’s a very sophisticated idea.
MB: It depends on what idea of comfort you have.
AW: Comfort is being enveloped, is being held, enclosed.
MB: Yes, but not submerged. Comfort is not a prison. In the office market, you should communicate comfort with sophisticated elements, a bit “technologically sumptuous”. Headline is a simple shape. The movement is a simple pivot. Headline is a step further in movement but you are less involved in deciding. It’s kind of a “self happening” chair. It has visual comfort.
AW: Which goes back to aesthetics being a function.
MB: It’s a matter of visual rightness, appropriateness. You have to feel it’s right. Then you are at ease.
WORKING METHOD: FATHER, SON, DESIGNER, CLIENT
MB: My best experience was designing Ypsilon, but even more Headline – Claudio was helping me more. We would go to meetings in the Vitra workshop, they’d bring out the outcome of the previous meeting and we’d say “This is still not right, why don’t we …”
CB: It was exactly like two voices and two heads, but looking to the final goal, not pulling or pushing.
MB: Like two parts of the same design engineer. I found myself and Rolf Fehlbaum (Vitra owner and chairman) as the seniors, but sometimes what Claudio was saying was exactly the right thing at the right time. First you feel it’s so ugly, it’s not comfortable. You have to trust your ability to bring it to an end. For both of us there was the other’s supportive presence.
CB: In a way, because it is father and son there is no politeness, no formal respect. We can say something provocative that you would not be able to do with a client. I’m not keeping quiet just because my father is more famous.
MB: Vitra also works in the same way, Rolf and Egon Browning, the chief engineer for research and development. Sometimes none of us were in sync – Rolf was filtering our creative energy towards the engineer, telling him without telling, “Listen, they are the creatives, you have to solve it…” In the end you need one capability which is to understand when it’s right, when it’s done.
OFFICE ENVIRONMENTS AND MANAGEMENT PHILOSOPHIES
MB: Office of the future? I think this is a stupid question. 20 years ago I started thinking about the office environment because I was designing machines for Olivetti. Gradually we saw machines come in, we went through a peak of mechanism, first mechanical, then electrically powered, then electronic. Then came PCs, keyboards, printers … And most recently we might say our office can be just a table and chair. Screens became flat and small. When we had monsters, we were obliged to make a big surface, but all that is not needed now. No more wires, you can take a keyboard on your lap and be relaxed – and so we need a special chair less and less. At the extreme end of this process is the office becoming part of the house. We all talk about home working; it’s happening and not happening. We are social animals, we like to stay together. Of course we can communicate by phone and email but it’s sometimes necessary to look each other in the eye, speak face to face, go together to get coffee.
CB: We’re coming back to a simple chair and table, but we are also thinking about the different ways in which people are working. We try and find different typologies. Take a situation like this – a small room for meeting, rest and refreshment. We are maybe less focused on the product, the workstation, and more on how this piece of furniture can create opportunities to work together. There are so many different situations, cultures, backgrounds, clients working in different ways. For me this is the wrong question too. It’s less related to place.
MB: But there is another consideration. You can work where you like, but you need to have in mind your place, your office. I want my desk, my pictures of my kids, even if I only go there one day a year. We’re not going towards globalised homogeneity, we’re going towards more diversity.