Graphic precision: Wilkhahn’s new conference range

Wilkhahn has always focused on durability and permanence, and its new „Graph“ conference programme is very much part of this tradition. With its innovative chair and accompanying table this German furniture manufacturer is restyling corporate conference facilities.

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The filigree design of the „Graph“ conference programme will enhance any interior

It takes backbone to go out on a limb (if you’ll excuse the mix of metaphors). As a design manufacturer, ploughing the more considered and strategic, long-term-oriented furrow, when many of your competitors jostle to occupy the limelight with products that modishly respond to more immediate (and more emphemeral) trends, is always somewhat of a gamble. There’s the risk your brand presence will be eclipsed by the buzz that nowness generates and enjoys, and, of course, the very real possibility that your turnover will take a hit.

All of this established German furniture producer Wilkhahn understands. And not only understands, but embraces. A company doesn’t chalk up over 100 years in business and still retain its status as a family-owned operation without appreciating a thing or two about longevity and the value of perspective. ‘Against the arbitrary’ runs the title of the foreword by Jochen Hahne, chairman and grandson of the brand’s co-founder Friedrich Hahne, to a recently published Wilkhahn catalogue; for this is a producer that has, since its outset, committed itself to a valued-added, coherent and sustainable approach to all of its activities – be they in relation to products, partnerships or its own people.

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The „Graph“ range consists of tables and chairs and has been designed especially for boardrooms and conference facilities

Given such a steadfast adherence to Doing Things Right, it’s little wonder that Wilkhahn’s recently launched Graph range of premium-end conference chairs and table articulates the same values of quality and consideration. Created specifically for use in corporate boardrooms as well as prestigious client-facing meeting rooms in such sectors as banking, wealth management and commercial law, these aren’t hastily developed, trend-following designs, but, rather, products that speak of the countless careful design decisions that went into their conception. A concert of impeccable ergonomics and supremely confident aesthetics, this is backbone-supporting stuff from a company with backbone. ‘Design is,’ as Jochen Hahne rightly puts it, ‘an expression of corporate mission, too.’

Wilkhahn is no stranger to producing chairs for working environments. It’s a significant part of what it does and does well. This year sees the twentieth anniversary of the launch of its Modus range of ergonomics-first, high-quality task chairs for the office, as well its variants developed for conference settings. In spite of the latter’s commercial success, there was always a sense that this was seating whose design roots lay in the office-chair typology. Taking, as it always does, the long view, Wilkhahn decided to address this, and in doing so to address what it correctly identified as a relative lack of products on the market that sit squarely (no pun intended) within the typology of the conference chair – at least in terms of premium-segment design and manufacturing. ‘Over the years,’ explains Wilkhahn Switzerland MD Walter Feuz, ‘the desire among clients for lightness of form, spareness increased. So we knew we had to create a specific, stand-alone iconic conference chair, as there wasn’t one in the Wilkhahn collection.’

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Wilkhahn’s challenge to the designer pair of Jehs+Laub was to rethink the conference chair

This they certainly did.

Commissioning Stuttgart-based, award-winning design duo Jehs+Laub, whose client list includes such grandees of the design industry as Cassina, Knoll International and Fritz Hansen, Wilkhahn set them the challenge of thinking anew the conference chair without recourse to the traditional idioms of office seating, where it would perform just as hard on an aesthetic level as on a utilitarian one. In addition, the brief demanded a configurable conference table, chair and table unified by a distinctive and harmonious design language. Big ambition. No small feat. ‘It’s always a challenge to transfer ideas and ideals into reality,’ says Markus Jehs. ‘With Graph, we had to deal with so many parameters, that it was even harder than usual and more necessary than ever to stick to the track we followed to achieve the result we did.’

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In the course of the design process Jehs+Laub deconstructed the conventional office chair, cutting through the seat shell along its horizontal and vertical axes and then reassembling it

Markus Jehs and design partner Jürgen Laub decided at the outset of what turned out to be a four-year project to tear up the rulebook. A game-changing series of designs was going to require a resolutely innovative approach that went way beyond the revisiting and finessing of existing chair models. Their methodology? To deconstruct the archetypal conference chair by cutting its seat shell along both horizontal and vertical axes and to think through how these constituent elements might be modified, before reconstructing them differently to provide a superior seating product, one characterised by fluency of line, visual lightness and, importantly, exceptional support. The result? Graph, where the clue is in the name, underscoring as it does the archly graphic quality of Jehs+Laub’s new chair – in both high- and low-backrest variants – and of its complementary table. The pared-down, yet expressive, appearance melds seamlessly with top-drawer construction. This is holistic design thinking made manifest.

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The „Graph“ conference chair makes a strong impact with its flowing lines and airy appearance. Its unadorned but expressive look is an ideal complement to the innovative design

The trick Jehs+Laub have performed is to condense uninterrupted line with functionality, where functional elements become the very architectural cornerstones of the designs, enabling sweeping contours. This is nowhere more apparent than in the way in which the Graphic conference chair’s polished, die-cast-aluminium armrests structurally connect the separately articulated backrest and seat element, delivering a continuous line from the top of the chair down to the base of the seat. The playful presence of absence that the open-sided, filigree armrests create and which serves to heighten the overall optical effect of levity, is redoubled by the aperture at the back of the seat base, while the chair’s angular, on-point feet also work to produce a sense of lightness.

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The filigree armrests and open sides playfully suggest the presence of absence, creating an overall visual impression of absolute transparency

The Graph conference table, meanwhile, with its ultra-slim top and angled aluminium legs, shares the same design idioms as the chair, defined as it is by an economy of material, unbroken lines, and a sense that the piece has been conceived of and cast as a whole. With a modular base that means customers can configure the table according to their needs, scaling it up or down, it also features tip-toe like feet, giving the impression of a kind of weightlessness.

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The programme is rounded off by a conference table which continues the formal idiom of the chair

The lightness that both the chair and table express has a clear aesthetic value, helping shape the interior-architectural spaces in which the products sit. But it also has a compelling added value – its rhetorical function. The Graph range, through its reduced formal language and quasi-transparency, speaks of the aspirational corporate culture of today, one of agility and openness. This is conference furniture, in short, that reflects both the spaces it inhabits and the behaviour of the people who use them.

And, yet, all of this expressive richness certainly doesn’t come at the expense of comfort. Taking their inspiration from automotive engineering, Jehs+Laub have developed a seat that is supported flexibly on an elasticity-providing Y-shaped bearer, with a leaf spring at the back. Combined with first-class upholstery – a choice of quality leathers and fabrics – the result is high-performance comfort without recourse to mechanical elements, and no moving parts means, of course, a longer lifespan. And if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the last few decades, it’s that product longevity is key to a fostering a culture of sustainability.

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The modular base with its angled feet and wide span gives the table an impression of weightlessness

It’s fair to say that Wilkhahn have pulled off somewhat of a coup. They’ve introduced a new aspirational benchmark for a product category that had been somewhat neglected by manufacturers for decades and in doing so have reinvigorated those most important of spaces in companies – the places where people come together and really talk. This is fitting perhaps for a company that positions people centre stage in terms of its corporate strategy. ‘Wilkhahn has to hold onto and promote the values of sustainability, honesty, accountability we’ve championed for so long if we’re to retain our difference,’ explains Walter Feuz. ‘That’s why people are so important to us. Our clients, our partners and our staff.’

Admirable stuff. But then again, a company that eschews fashionable short-termism in favour of a responsibility-focused modus operandi, and in doing so creates iconic, rather than derivative, products, will always take big and confident steps.

Let’s walk and talk, people.

 

www.wilkhahn.com

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