A report from the Orgatec fair

Apart from a fondness for grained dark wood and a crop of beautiful chairs, this year’s Orgatec fair was dominated by two trends – a move to embrace the contract market and a Chinese presence, says Lynda Relph-Knight

If you want a dose of reality, then go to an office furniture show. There’s less of the glitz that you find at the Milan furniture fair or London’s 100% Design, say, but in terms of telling it like it is – in terms of the international economic scenario, ways of working and sustainability, for starters – there are few barometers as effective in design.

Orgatec has been the quintessential office show. Held on alternate years in Cologne’s huge Rhine-side exhibition complex, it brings together furniture designers, manufacturers and dealers from across the globe, is peppered with new launches and throws up the odd style trend.

This year was no exception, but it was an extremely pared-down version of what it once was, filling only a fraction of the space it previously occupied and with a different feel. There were ground-breaking designs, not least from creative stalwart Vitra, which always offers something to delight from a stable of designers including Alberto Meda, Jasper Morrison and Arik Levy.

Vitra has continued its successful partnership with the French brothers Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec to create the Playns desking system. Quite the opposite of the brothers’ elegant Joyn ‘table’ designed for sharing, Playns offers adjustable desk heights and protective screens to give the user privacy.

At the higher end of the market is the Ace executive workstation and AC4 chair by Italian design star Antonio Citterio, again continuing a highly productive partnership with the Swiss/German manufacturer. The elegant system comprises a beautifully detailed desk that can be linked to a sideboard.

Also from Germany, Walter Knoll brought in its own design heavyweights, including Norman Foster and Pearson Lloyd, adding ten contract products to its portfolio. Foster’s contribution was the Foster 510 club reception chair and Pearson Lloyd’s the Lox barstool.

German group Eoos had four ranges at Walter Knoll: the Threesixty flexible public seating system, the George cantilevered chair, the Living Landscape 730 sofa and Ameo lounge chair. So, perhaps prompted by the economic decline, Orgatec has broadened out from its office origins to embrace contract furniture in all its manifestations.

This certainly seemed to be the case at B&B Italia. The Italian manufacturer has extended its range of office furniture, featuring the heavily grained dark wood that appears to be this year’s trend for offices. But its star turn was the prototype Posa chair by British architect David Chipperfield. Exquisitely detailed, as you’d expect from the Chipperfield/B&B combo, the chair works brilliantly in soft leather. But as it is intended for public spaces, it also appeared with tacky PVC-based upholstery, which is far less inviting.

Eoos made other appearances, notably on the stand of Belgian company Bene with the Filo table – again in grained dark wood – designed to complement the Filo swivel chair. As this beautiful duo is aimed at the financial community, it will be interesting to chart the uptake.

Bene was also showing a great new chair, B_Move, designed in-house, and Herman Miller was literally flexing its muscles with its aesthetically displeasing but ergonomically sound Embody office chair, centrepiece on a stand offering the highly flexible Sense desking system and Cubix storage units, among other novelties.

Indeed, it was rather the battle of the chairs for two office specialists. Bene’s new model wins hands down on style, fun and easy function – you don’t have to read the handbook to make intuitive adjustments to the height of the chairs or move the arms, and the way the back responds to simple body pressure is a delight.

But you can’t ignore the more scientifically derived Embody, designed by Geoff Webber with input from the late Bill Stumpf, designer of Herman Miller’s seminal Aeron chair. You can adjust Embody in any direction – even the seat length can be controlled – but its skeletal back makes it appear more like a prototype than a finished chair. It is a triumph of engineering over style, but then so was the Aeron at its launch and it went on to define transparency in office chairs.

German big-hitters like Wilkhahn made an impact, not least with the Chassis chair by Stefan Diez, but the locals didn’t rule. The Scandinavians made a mark and the Spanish were there in force, though the furniture might have sat better in Cologne’s contract furniture fair Imm.

The strongest overseas contingent was from South East Asia, notably China. There was a slightly grubby feel to stands sporting lookalike lines, originally created by European manufacturers and patently appropriated at lower cost. Were they aiming to sell their wares or use these products to entice established companies and their designers to look East for manufacturing? It was probably both.

There’s a mixed feeling around the office furniture sector. ‘Named’ manufacturers are gung-ho about the future and maintain that interest is still there for their wares. But with the threat mounting from China and elsewhere it will be interesting to see how they fare in the downturn. Orgatec 2010 is where we will find out.

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