Online Extra: Vitra's CEO: "Design Is Not a Luxury"

Rolf Fehlbaum on high-style office furniture, big-name architects, and his influences, including Mickey Mouse

If you had to pick Rolf Fehlbaum out of a lineup, he's not the guy you would finger as a CEO. With his shaved head, arty black-rimmed glasses, and slightly rumpled black suit and white shirt (no tie, of course), Fehlbaum looks more like a leftist professor at the Sorbonne than chairman of Vitra, the Swiss maker of high-end office and residential furniture.

Fehlbaum's views on business are indeed unconventional -- though they have worked brilliantly for Vitra. With sales in 2003 of $254 million, the Birsfelden-based company, which has manufacturing operations in Weil am Rhein and Neuenburg, Germany, as well as Allentown, Pa., has grown 25-fold since Fehlbaum took over from his late father, Willi Fehlbaum, in 1977. In a recent interview with BusinessWeek Frankfurt Bureau Chief Jack Ewing, Fehlbaum explained how his iconoclastic approach has translated into business success. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

On chairs:

These are commercial goods, but they are primarily creations in which I could do exactly what I wanted to do anyway. I can work with the finest designers anywhere in the world. We have products we sell 10 times a year. But it's beautiful to have these objects in a show. It's memorable, it's iconic.

On being a family-owned businesses:

Family enterprises have the weakness that the boss is not challenged in the same way as at a public company. That's a dangerous thing -- that one is unchecked. On the other hand, not having these checks is an opportunity. You can do things a public company cannot do. You can take time to do things. I can work on a project for 40 years.

In many ways, we are a pre-capitalist enterprise. You can do things without an immediate rationale. That mix of culture and commercial interests has worked for Vitra.

On creating Vitra's corporate identity:

I never think about image. I don't know anything about corporate identity. If you have identity, you don't think about it. It comes naturally to you.

On hiring famous architects to build factory buildings:

If you do a factory with Frank Gehry, the cost difference is not that big.

On hiring Zaha Hadid, who did not yet have any realized projects, to build a firehouse in 1993 for the factory grounds [necessary because they were too far from the nearest municipal fire brigade to satisfy insurance companies]:

I was fond of her drawings. I just said let's try it. A controller would not have had an understanding of that at all.

On the business benefits of having buildings by famous architects:

We have very easy access to architects [who influence what furniture corporations buy]. We share their values. We are not copying their language, we are speaking it.

On napping on a reclining Eames "soft pad chaise" in the office:

Sometimes I sleep 10 or 20 minutes. Then I'm fresh. That's against the [conventional] idea of productivity. But a good work ethic would demand [occasional naps]. It's very productive to sleep for a little while.

On being profitable:

A design company has to be rational in a very disciplined way. You have to pay your bills. You have to have clear structures to be free to do things.

On being an entrepreneur:

You look at things in a different way when tomorrow you can change them. The entrepreneur sees more not because he has better eyes, but because he has empowered eyes. In your little universe you can change anything. It becomes a passion and a life -- and maybe an obsession. Maybe it's sick sometimes how much one is involved.

On his design influences:

I had the benefit of being exposed to these iconic figures like [California designers] Charles and Ray Eames. I was very stimulated by the Eames brothers [whom he first met during a trip to the U.S. in 1960]. Charles and Ray were great teachers.

I was a bit of snob and interested only in high culture. It was great to be confronted with people who were interested in everyday things. Charles insisted I go to Disneyland [which helped provoke an interest in pop art and culture]. Mickey Mouse was very influential on me.

On designing new products:

We always work with independent "authors." All products are created in cooperation with people we consider to be important designers. Every product has two authors -- Vitra and the designer himself. The designer is the leader of the process. My greatest kick every day is to run over to product development. But I would never think of designing a product. I have a good eye, but I don't have that gift. The designers who come to work at Vitra know that.

On spending money for high design:

Design is not a luxury. It's a better answer to people's needs than a chair that provides a certain sitting position [which is] just a technical answer. We have emotional needs, touch needs, aesthetic needs. Design is taking care of all of them.

The office environment is very important. It's a sign of appreciation of people. It's a great recruitment instrument. There is no stronger expression of culture than how you furnish your office.

On business focus:

We have a hard time focusing. We are interested in too many things. We always have too many products, too many product lines. If you have a marketing-driven business, you can be much more focused. Our spirit is more, "Here's a thing, let's find a slot," instead of, "Here's a slot, let's find a thing."

On naming a successor to Fehlbaum [who is 62]:

My father did a much better job [in arranging succession]. When my father was 65, he had it all settled. [I am at] an age when one should have started [planning for succession] many years ago. But at this stage I'm not so involved in many areas. There is a management committee. My brother [co-owner Raymond Fehlbaum] is seven years younger. I don't intend to give up at 65. I intend to stay a long time. The type of work I do, nudging the design culture, I can do for a long time.

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