“You cannot decide to work with Vitra. It just happens.” So says Jakob Gebert, the young German designer who scooped a Design Week Award last month for the Taino plywood chair he created for the German/ Swiss furniture giant. Thirty five-year-old Gebert, a local boy based in Weil-am-Rhein, is in an enviable position. He caught the attention of Vitra boss Rolf Fehlbaum four years ago and has experienced Fehlbaum’s enlightened patronage first hand.
Until the breakthrough with Vitra, Gebert’s career followed a fairly conventional route for a furniture designer. He studied furniture and interiors at the school of design in Basle, Switzerland, which, he says, works like the Bauhaus school in Berlin, with an emphasis on materials and making – which has stood him in good stead for his eclectic approach to materials. On graduating he spent one week working in someone else’s design office – that of his former professor – which was enough to convince him that he wanted to work alone.
With no clients lined up, “I gave a job to myself,” he says. That job was to design a wall light for a restaurant run by his brother in France. From that point, luck – or the belief in self-promotion through entering competitions – took over and his career has quietly escalated ever since. He won his first competition with the wall light, organised by manufacturer Belux. A few competitions later and he found himself winning three prizes, with Fehlbaum on the jury. I found his methodical approach so coherent and the person himself so credible that I proposed that we work together,” says Fehlbaum.
Gebert was meanwhile working on small projects and designing exhibitions for cultural institutions such as Basle’s design museum and a local theatre company. Set design, he says, “is like furniture for the stage”. Though he has no burning desire to get into interiors work per se, he worked for about 18 months from his studio at Weil-am-Rhein, advising pharmaceuticals giant Boehringer Ingelheim France on furniture for its Paris office and creating one-off pieces.
But a chance meeting with Fehlbaum at an event at the celebrated Vitra Design Museum was too good an opportunity to miss. So Gebert, who comes across as modest and reserved, introduced himself, reminding Fehlbaum of his competition work. But it was a year before the Vitra boss visited Gebert’s studio and they started working together.
“We spoke about everything. We spoke about a chair by Arne Jacobsen, of moulded plywood with metal legs,” says Gebert of that meeting. It was three days later that he realised that conversation was a subtle offer of work, such is Fehlbaum’s way, with the plywood chair as a challenge. “He didn’t actually offer it to me,” says Gebert, but this was the start of the Taino.
“I had recognised the Jacobsen chair well before I met Fehlbaum and had one in my office,” says Gebert. “It is charming, until you turn it upside down.” His challenge was therefore to make a chair that looks good whichever way you view it. “I like to look behind things,” he explains. “In more than one meaning, I like to turn them upside down. I’m also interested in connections, where two materials meet.”
The Taino answers all these needs. The body of the stacking chair comprises two plywood shells, of five layers each, which are pressed together to contain the aluminium frame. “I put the metal between layers of plywood [in the first concept], which was the start,” says Gebert.
Knowing that Fehlbaum is more interested in an idea than a perfect presentation, Gebert took the plywood sandwich to him, more or less in that form. He explains that he works directly with materials a lot, describing it as “thinking with the hands” and “a way of drawing”.
That was three years ago. A complementary table for Vitra, “that doesn’t look like the chair”, has also been in development in Gebert’s studio for two years and there are other projects in the offing. “In no way does Fehlbaum put pressure on you,” he says. “He recognises that an idea has to grow.”
Working with Fehlbaum has spoiled Gebert for some other manufacturers. “Fehlbaum never comes up with a fixed idea,” he says. “He uses conversation to find ideas, not to tell you what to do. It’s hard to find a good company once you’ve worked for Vitra.”
He has managed to do so, nonetheless, and is also working, for example, with Bavarian domestic furniture manufacturer Moormann. But again the patronage is down to the vision of one man, the proprietor Niels Moormann.
And then there is exhibition work for the Wilheilm Wagenfeld Foundation, set up to honour the work of the eponymous prolific Bauhaus protegÃ©, who over his 90-year life created something like 1200 everyday objects. “In the 1960s every home had his stuff, though he was not well known,” says Gebert.
Gebert’s work is equally divided between exhibition design and furniture, but his output is relatively small. He works alone, though he collaborates sometimes with other designers, architects and clients like Fehlbaum and regularly bounces ideas off his wife, a graphic designer. He also teaches.
As the Taino experience shows, materials are important to Gebert, not just as an end in themselves, but as a way of finding ideas. He also works with a computer, but largely to explain his physical models more fully. The Taino chair involved about six months of computer work to adapt the concept for production, he says, but that was carried out by an expert at Vitra.
For Gebert, design is a very personal thing and success has a lot to do with respect between designer, manufacturer and others involved in the process. That is what he has found with Vitra and Moormann. “Fehlbaum is interested in my point of view,” he says, in final tribute to his patron. “That is to do with respect.”