Design fans with their ear to the ground will be well aware of Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile and know how influential this annual showcase has become. For more than half a century (the 55th edition takes place next April) it has provided a platform for global product launches. More subtly, it acts as a cultural barometer, with exhibited designs reflecting economic, social, political and material changes. Recently, the spotlight has shone on some of the world’s oldest furniture brands, which are finding new relevance through innovative collaborations with contemporary designers.
Take Thonet, whose roots stem back to 1842 when cabinetmaker Michael Thonet patented a revolutionary method of steam-bending wood. In 1853 he established a family business in Vienna with his five sons; it became so successful that by 1912 its production of bentwood chairs had topped 1.8m per annum. By 1930, more than 50m No 14 chairs – the iconic bentwood café style – had been sold worldwide. Today it operates as two independent companies that uphold Thonet’s core values while creating compelling new designs.
A refreshingly contemporary bentwood sofa (from £5,366), designed by Hamburg-based Christian Werner, was launched at Salone 2015 by Thonet GmbH. Thick seat-to-floor cushions and loose back and side cushions give it a casual sportiness, while a light, encompassing frame makes the view from behind equally appealing. Now a bentwood 808 armchair by Werner is in the pipeline. And earlier this year the company, based in Frankenberg, Germany, launched a fully adjustable lounge chair (from £3,400) with matching footstool (from £950), designed by Munich-based studio Formstelle, to great acclaim.
Meanwhile, Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, founded by an Austrian scion of the family in 1939 and now owned by Italian firm Moschini (and recently rebranded as Wiener GTV Design) also introduced contemporary sofas, armchairs, stools and tables, bubbling with classic Thonet design cues, at Salone 2015. Soaring woven-cane “wings” on the Hideout chair (€3,042) by Swedish design trio Front, and the sinuous woven-cane back and seat of Nigel Coates’s Bodystuhl chair (€872) with foot rest (€769) echo historic Thonet designs in engaging new ways. So too does the circular woven-cane screen forming an integral part of the Allegory desk (€2,180) and woven-cane decoration within the Targa sofa’s bent-beech frame (€4,428), both designed by GamFratesi (Danish-Italian duo Stine Gam and Enrico Fratesi).
London-based designer Martino Gamper re-energises Thonet’s bentwood by looping rings around his Cirque stool legs (from €653) in a playful echo of the seat’s profile, while Japanese studio Nendo distils bentwood’s pedigree into the sleek Single Curve collection (dining table, €4,855; coffee table, from €551; stools from €545). “Our designer collaborations are resulting in new typologies – chairs with low seats, more generous dimensions and the contemporary shapes required for more relaxed lifestyles,” says Weiner GTV co-creative design director Rudi von Wedel.
Simon Alderson, co-founder of influential London furniture shop TwentyTwentyOne, is strongly of the view that “long-established furniture producers remain relevant by endorsing progressive design. Young emerging talents represent a fresh perspective and, married with a desire for working with new technologies and materials, can push through forward-thinking designs.”
But redirecting a company’s design trajectory is no mean feat when it is as venerable as Fritz Hansen. Founded in Copenhagen in 1872 by the eponymous Danish carpenter, it has worked with all the Scandinavian “greats”, including Arne Jacobsen, Poul Kjaerholm, Børge Mogensen and Hans J Wegner. Design icons such as Jacobsen’s 1950s chairs – Ant, Series 7, Swan and Egg – are hard acts to follow. Yet contemporary designs, including Jaime Hayon’s curvaceous Favn sofa (£6,881); Piero Lissoni’s flexible, modular Alphabet sofa (£4,694); Hiromichi Konno’s futuristic RIN chair (£534) and Jehs+Laub’s Space lounge chair (£2,127), all reinvigorate the Republic of Fritz Hansen – as the company now brands itself – using new forms, materials and techniques.
Such design collaborations also broaden a heritage brand’s customer base. Fritz Hansen focused heavily on commercial spaces in the 1990s, but furniture for residential properties has received greater emphasis since the Republic’s dawn in 2000. Dutch company Artifort, founded by upholsterer Jules Wagemans in Maastricht in 1890, had a similar focus back in the 1960s on the international contract market, but the company now produces innovative domestic designs that uphold a brand name created in 1928 from the Latin for art (ars) and powerful (fortis).
Artifort’s dazzling relationship with the late French designer Pierre Paulin, which began in the 1950s, encouraged experimentation with new techniques and construction. Some of Paulin’s 1960s designs have been reintroduced, such as the ample, inviting Big Mushroom (from £1,762), playful Orange Slice (from £1,409) and enveloping Nest sofa (from £1,513) and armchair (from £1,463), but taking the baton forward are contemporary designers including Patrick Norguet, with his sweeping, circular Apollo armchair (£1,598); René Holten, whose shell‑like Low Lotus chair (from £1,748) is made from Cristalplant (a modern composite material); and Richard Hutten, with his cube-shaped Apps armchair (from £1,427) and cut-out Halo chair (£324).
“More than ever, demand is for quality of design, longevity and environmental awareness. By working with contemporary designers we implicitly try to answer these needs,” says Artifort’s art director Khodi Feiz. An eco-friendly version of Jasper Morrison’s 1997 Vega chair (from £401) was introduced this year, while carrying handles upgrade Patrick Norguet’s colourful Lilla stools (from £342). And Kalm (from £1,495) – Norguet’s new armchair – joins Anderssen & Voll’s Big Island sofa (from £2,670) and UN Studio’s wave-like, asymmetric Gemini armchair (from £1,482) as high-comfort pieces for contemporary interiors.
“External designers have the antennae for things to come – it’s important to have this outside view,” says Marianne Goebl, managing director of Artek (the Finnish company co-founded by Alvar Aalto in 1935 and acquired by Vitra-AG in 2013). Still, those invited to work with Artek share certain attitudes: “Their work is anchored in modernism and a democratic approach.” Architect Shigeru Ban and French siblings Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec are, says Goebl, “strong system thinkers, like Aalto”. Ban created a clever single component (£302) as a modular approach to building chairs and tables; the Bouroullecs came up with a systematic leg construction to support a desk (from £858), tables (from £816), shelves (from £204) and wall console (from £474) for the newly launched Kaari collection. Meanwhile, Konstantin Grcic’s Rival chairs (from £581) contemporise Artek traditions by concealing a swivel mechanism under the birch frame’s upholstered seat.
“Artek’s classics have lost none of their appeal and relevance because they’re based on a profoundly human approach to design,” continues Goebl. She acknowledges, however, that homeowners themselves have changed. “People are bigger and taller now, so we have adjusted some dimensions as well as updating colours, fabrics and finishes.” Dutch designer Hella Jongerius has reworked Aalto’s 1933 armchair 401 (from £1,855) and 1936 armchair 400 (£3,493) using colour-blocked upholstery, and she has recoloured the seats on Aalto’s 60 stool (£193) and E60 stool (£226) in purple, blue, orange, pink and turquoise. To celebrate Artek’s 80th anniversary, Jongerius has also recoloured Aalto’s 1936 tea trolley (£1,567), subtly emphasising its geometry.
High-quality natural materials and durability, coupled with a sculptural simplicity that blends functionalism with form, are also manifested in Ercol’s designs. And this British-based family-run company, founded in 1920 by Italian immigrant Lucian Ercolani, is similarly reinvigorating core designs while embracing new collaborations. Back in 2002, a project with fashion designer Margaret Howell to reissue archival designs blossomed into the Ercol Originals collection featuring several of Ercolani’s 1950s designs, including the Loveseat, Studio couch and Butterfly chair. Colours, finishes and fabrics continue to be updated: the Butterfly (from £505) and Stacking chair (from £325) appeared in new oceanic and chartreuse hues at Salone 2015. A black graded finish gave the Loveseat (from £795) a dip-dye effect, while turquoise Kvadrat upholstery and a black finish added drama to the Studio couch (from £2,495).
Subsequent award-winning design collaborations have raised Ercol’s international profile. Matthew Hilton’s Treviso desk (oak, £1,310; walnut, £1,795); Russell Pinch’s Holland Park chair (£435) and the Ercol Originals range have all received the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers’ coveted Guild Mark. Tomoko Azumi’s elegant Flow chair (£495) is a hot favourite for contemporary dining spaces, and Paola Navone’s deep-cushioned Nest sofas (small, £3,985; large, £5,395) with steam-bent beech frames, launched earlier this year, are also proving a hit. “Creating a piece like Nest is a long and intense process,” says Ercol chairman Edward Tadros. “The magic is in the marriage of contemporary design with the classic craft of bending solid beech.”
Italian manufacturers are past masters in collaborative achievements. Numerous architects and designers have worked with Cassina, founded in 1927 and now part of the Poltrona Frau group. Although the company acquired the rights to designs by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh between 1964 and 2004, far from relying on re-editions, its Cassina 1 Contemporanei collection has embraced diverse talents, including Mario Bellini, Gaetano Pesce, Rodolfo Dordoni, Philippe Starck and Piero Lissoni. This year it launched Jaime Hayon’s dreamy leather Vico sofa (£6,486), while his Réaction Poétique collection, including black-ash side tables (£1,068) commemorates the 50th anniversary of Le Corbusier’s death. “Designs need to reflect lifestyle changes, such as the desire for increasingly multifunctional rooms,” says Cassina’s brand director Gianluca Armento. “One example is Philippe Starck’s MyWorld sofa [from £5,034], with various accessories to let you relax, eat, work and charge electrical equipment from one comfortable spot, removing the traditional boundaries between personal and professional life.”
“People now want flexibility with multiple functions in a single product,” confirms Ligne Roset’s general manager Olivier Roset. The Lyon-based company, founded by Antoine Roset in 1860, initially made walking sticks but began manufacturing furniture in 1937. It has consistently collaborated with top designers, winning awards for Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s voluptuous Ploum sofa (from £2,897), Inga Sempe’s intricately stitched Ruché sofa (from £3,516) and Philippe Nigro’s puzzle-like Confluence seating (from £2,298). “Such designers add creativity, poetry and innovation to our design values – and offer really new alternatives in meeting clients’ needs. It is almost like an exercise in sociology,” says Roset.
As Benjamin Pardo, Knoll’s executive vice president, points out: “Classic pieces accented by new work can adjust scale and give new form to residential spaces.” Founded in New York in 1938, Knoll has progressed from a champion of modernism to a contemporary-design flag-bearer. It launched architect David Adjaye’s sculptural Washington collection (chair, £1,668) in 2013, Barber & Osgerby’s comfortably organic sofa collection (from £4,056) in 2014 and its elegant cantilevered Pilot lounge chair (from £1,548) in 2015. “Times have changed since Knoll’s early pieces, and these days we’re more focused on flexibility, customisation and logistics as integral design aspects,” says co-founder Jay Osgerby. “Our new Pilot chair responds to today’s needs, offering an innovative design for a different culture.” Informed input like this keeps a heritage brand relevant, no matter its age.