FEATURE

The Tipping Point

London

27 January 2013

Tipton is the name of a city of around 47,000 inhabitants in the West Midlands, United Kingdom. It is also the name of a new chair designed by Barber Osgerby. 
This is why.

On that particular evening in May, getting lost at the Javits Center was easy. This was the second day of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) 2011 in New York, where the cold, fluorescent lighting of the trade centre was only matched in intensity by the rumble of conversations everywhere. Innumerable corridors of furniture, lighting, rugs, faucets and construction materials left both minds and feet exhausted. Reaching a crossroads under Frank Gehry’s diaphanous Cloud Lamps, I paused to consider left or right when a white chair tucked into a corner of booth 1826 caught my attention. It was all white, plastic, distinct but unassuming, and to my drained self, a beacon of hope onto which I eagerly collapsed. Five seconds later, I noticed the tilt, and while shifting positions back and forth, it occurred to me this chair was somewhere between a rocking chair and a monobloc, the ubiquitous plastic chair that dots the world from middle-class lawns to forgotten dictator palaces. It didn’t take me long to immortalise the moment with a fairly banal tweet (“Vitra’s Tip Ton chair is very comfortable indeed!”). The chair charmed me at first sight.

Designed by British design duo Barber Osgerby – Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby – for Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra, the Tip Ton chair had been introduced to the world earlier that year alongside its companion, the Map table, during the 2011 Salone del Mobile in Milan. And the two were strikingly different: the Map table was monotone, clunky and ordinary, the Tip Ton was vibrant, colourful, sculptural and odd. Yes, odd, mostly because of the nine-degree angle that caused the chair to tilt forward should you shift your weight forth.

“When you move forward and put your weight to the front, exactly what I want to do now with this chair, you go up with your spine,” Ekart Maise tells me over lunch, while unsuccessfully trying to tilt forward Ronan and Erwan Bourollec’s Vegetal chair at the VitraHaus café in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. “Your body moves up, you have a better posture at the table and better blood circulation. It’s better for concentration.” Maise is an amiable man in his forties who speaks in long, assertive sentences. He is the chief design officer at Vitra, and as such was involved at all stages of the creation of the Tip Ton. He can recite chair-related statistics with surprising ease, because chairs, and office chairs specifically, are at the core of Vitra’s business and Maise’s job. The company, which was founded in 1950, has been conducting research around the office environment for decades alongside top researchers and academic institutions, which allows it to constantly come up with innovative solutions for the office space and, of course, seating. Vitra is also responsible for defining the Citizen Office, a “planned” office space concept originated by the company’s 1992 project with Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi and Michele De Lucchi, where the office becomes “a living space” and workers are encouraged to exercise and interact with each other by walking around, changing seats and socialising in different areas. The Tip Ton chair’s “dynamic seating” was a by-product of this research, despite the fact that the Tip Ton isn’t anything near to an office chair. “The chair is an all-round chair,” Maise says. “A great chair for all kinds of situations, indoor, outdoor, dining, learning, working.” Maise now looks at the Tip Ton as a “universal chair”, but it wasn’t always so. The Tip Ton was originally conceived as a school chair.

Barber Osgerby deconstructed old Vitra chairs to achieve the right form.

Tipton, considered
Tipton is the name of a city of around 47,000 inhabitants in the West Midlands, United Kingdom. Part of a region that was largely industrialised in the wake of the 19th century, most of Tipton’s factories closed during the 1980s and the places where they stood were filled with housing estates. Despite the job losses, and assisted by government subsidies and welfare, the city has advanced to this day, and was chosen by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts and Sciences (RSA)5 for the instalment of its first Academy. Opened in September 2008, the Academy was structured around the RSA-encouraged principles of Opening Minds, presenting an innovative curriculum based around the development of five key competences: citizenship, learning, managing information, relating to people and managing situations. Such an innovative school required innovative facilities and installations, and the RSA consulted with designers and architects on how to best design the school. McAslan Architects6 designed the building; and for furniture evaluation, the RSA called on Royal Designers for the Industry: Barber Osgerby.

Barber and Osgerby meet me at their studio in Shoreditch, London. A blue Tip Ton chair sits on the table next to us, overseeing the conversation. “The RSA calls on Royal Designers for various tasks, and one of these tasks was to evaluate good furniture,” Barber recalls. “And they chose us because… I don’t know why. Because…” His voice trails off and Osgerby jokingly steps in. “Because we’re closest to remembering what education was like. We’re the youngest.” After looking at a catalogue of furniture options, Barber and Osgerby were confronted with a gap in the market. “We looked at the chairs we knew from the design world, which were obviously high priced and not really appropriate, and then we had the chairs chosen for education which were sit-up-straight, still chairs, you know, that cost £20,” Osgerby says. Not that the design-world chairs were wrong – “they were just too expensive,” Barber says, “and we were focusing on school furniture, and saying, ‘Surely there must be something better than this?’” The fact is, Osgerby notes, school furniture hasn’t evolved since Robin Day’s Polyprop chair from 1963. “You can see that the only criteria people have used with school furniture has been cost,” he adds.

For the generations of post-war children in Europe, Robin Day’s polypropylene chair, Karl Notholfer’s 1950 Skid chair, or a variation of these served as the archetypal school chair9. They stood for a concept of schooling and education that was static and rigid, where children would quietly sit, listen and learn. And if recent years have given rise to a number of school spaces that are spacious, minimalist and light-filled, the same attention hasn’t been devoted to school furniture. “It is striking how little consideration is given to the furniture of these spaces. Is this because we have come to accept mediocre furniture design in state schools?” Anniina Koivu wrote in a special report on schools for Abitare magazine in 2009. “Why has so little that is truly innovative happened in recent times? Do a handful of furniture producers hold the monopoly in outfitting schools? Should we point the finger at cost-saving measures and a lack of progressive public administrators? Probably.” But initiatives such the RSA Academy were the embodiment of the larger debate around education that took place around 2008 and 2009. “It was a moment for these big spending programmes for education,” Vitra’s Maise notes, which accompanied a discussion in recent years about new programmes and ways of teaching. “How children and young adults are taught these days is very different to how it was in the 1960s or 1970s, when the previous generation of furniture was developed,” Osgerby points out. “Now they work in project groups, sat more closely together, they might have an interactive whiteboard, or they might be using a laptop or tablet.” Barber agrees: “They are doing everything in groups, they’re moving around, not just sitting forward.”

As Barber Osgerby developed initial research around school furniture in the UK and Scandinavia, Germany, and Switzerland, this idea of movement in the classroom found a parallel in different types of seating. Knowing that Vitra had done their own research about movement in the office space, the designers approached the Swiss manufacturer. “We had been talking to Vitra for a few years before this,” Osgerby says, “and what we didn’t want to do was to start a relationship just designing another chair. We wanted to make something that was really significant.” Vitra’s size, excellence and vast distribution network didn’t hurt either. For Vitra, the issues being debated in the educational sphere mirrored the ones discussed in the office sphere, and the issues around them overlapped. “We had never done a product specifically for the educational market,” Maise tells me, but the educational market’s notions of “flexibility, changing, knowledge, economy, informally exchanging information and knowledge are also the definitions of knowledge in the office, where the information and the learning have changed. So, somehow the two fields came much closer together, and we thought it had a new relevance for us to do something in that field.” The collaboration that produced the Tip Ton had started, but it would take almost two years for the chair to see the light of day. And by then, Barber says, “We’d missed the opening of the Academy in Tipton.”

The completed Tip Ton as it was photographed for Disegno No.1

Making a memorable chair
The dialogue with Vitra started with the definition of specific criteria for the chair. A percentage of it should be made out of plastic, a sturdy, cheap material. It should come in bright colours, invigorating and ever-present in the contemporary school environment. It should be recyclable. Components should be minimised, “so there is nothing to fall apart”, Barber tells me. The chair “should answer the need for flexibility”, Maise points out, allowing “for the students to be able to move around in a dynamic type of seating.” Embodying Vitra and Barber Osberby’s fascination with movement at a larger scale both in the office and in the school environment, the idea of dynamic seating brought movement onto the chair itself. From there, “we really started in many different ways”, Barber says. “At that point, we didn’t care what it looked like. It was a three-dimensional diagram.” Filled with drawings and full-scale models, the Barber Osgerby office became the ground for explorations such as kangaroo-like cantilevers, different types of back perforations, and myriad leg configurations. Some of them now look like “horrible contraptions”, says Barber, but were necessary stages in the design process.

The first breakthrough came when the designers re-equated how the movement in the chair should occur. All the cantilevered experiments had an angle at the top which got “your fingers trapped when you went forward”, Osgerby says, “and then we simply swapped it over so the crank would go on the floor instead of under the seat.” But multiple components proved to be an issue. “If you have components like a metal leg and a plastic top or a wooden top and metal legs,” Barber says, “there is always a vibration between those pieces”, which would not be ideal in a heavy-use scenario. The real breakthrough ensued. The chair would be a one-piece, monobloc plastic chair with movement defined by the crank on its skids. “The moment they came with their little blue Styrofoam model,” Maise says, “it was pretty clear that was a different thing. All of a sudden, it had a sculptural value, it had a character, a personality, and a uniqueness.”

“Once we cracked it, ” Barber says, “we were like, ‘This is definitely the right move, in vitro. Let’s do 20 different options to make sure we get the right tilt and the right balance...’” Getting to the final nine-degree angle and tilt was “trial and error, really,” Barber says. Makeshift cranks and skids were created, attached to and tested with existing chairs. Trips to Vitra were constant, and fine-tuning the chair was a long process, which involved a team of “around 20 people, including the engineers,” says Osgerby, as well as a specific senior management meeting at Vitra. “We just put the prototypes of the Tip Ton chair around the table, and had everybody sit on them,” Maise says. “It was interesting to see that if people had a moment of irritation, it was very short and then they just started using [the chair].”

Despite its simplicity, the Tip Ton posed some technical challenges in its making. First, the chair’s shape had to be adjusted to the way the plastic flows in its production. And then, producing for an educational market meant the need to pass a battery of tests to correspond to a series of standards from the UK to Germany, the US and Japan. “There was the original concept, but it’s all a result of navigating the chair through all these waves of tests here and standards there, what can you do with injection moulding and so on,” Maise points out. “Every little part of the shape of every little muscle you can see in the chair has a reason. I think it all makes it memorable.” “It’s the most modern of chairs, in some ways,” Osgerby says, “It surprised our contemporaries when they saw that the chair was in plastic, that it passed all the tests and that it was light – both physically and visually. And it’s the latest technology that has enabled that to happen.” Today, the Tip Ton is produced in a factory just outside Milan, in eight colours and using a 20-tonne mould. The 4.5kg chair has a total injection time of four minutes, with an additional two minutes to apply and screw the transparent plastic glides that protect its skids.

Good design, not social design
Formally, the Tip Ton echoes an earlier Barber Osgerby design: the 2002 wooden Portsmouth bench, originally designed for the choir stalls of the Portsmouth cathedral. Despite the different materials, the same simple, gently curved lines inhabit the two, as if this was Barber Osgerby’s chair archetype. The designers see it as a matter of simplification. “It had to be a lightweight piece of furniture, so in the end we were doing the same thing, I suppose, in a different material,” Barber says. “We were quite conscious that we wanted the chair to feel like it referred to the average type of a school chair too,” Osgerby adds. “So it didn’t feel alien to the environment.” And when, in 2009, Anniina Koivu took the chair to the Casa del Sole school near Milan, as part of a follow-up feature on furniture design for schools at Abitare, the kids instantly got it. The feature proclaimed Barber Osgerby and Vitra were “about to remedy the dearth of choice in school furniture as they take the ‘good design’ of office chairs into the classroom.”

With such accolades being handed out it is surprising then that the context of the school has been stripped away completely in the way that the Tip Ton is promoted. The Tip Ton is now, as Maise put it, “more of a universal chair”, sold as part of the Vitra standard line as a multipurpose – and for adults, not for kids. Looking at the Tip Ton entry in the Vitra online catalogue, there’s a woman sitting at home, exemplifying the chair’s two positions. The only reference to schools comes at the end of the chair’s description. “Thanks to its striking appearance, Tip Ton is an outstanding dining table or home-office solution,” the Vitra website proclaims. “It is also ideal for use in restaurants, conference and meeting spaces and educational institutions.” So what about bringing “good design” into schools?

“I feel uncomfortable when people talk about Tip Ton as a social project, because it isn’t, really,” Osgerby says, “Not in the way that we now talk about social and ethical projects. It isn’t. It’s a commercial [project], with a benefit. And hopefully there’s a good enough idea behind it for it to be a commercial success.” As such, there won’t be a massive distribution of chairs in every school of the western world. As a Vitra chair, the Tip Ton will be sold and distributed within the Vitra network. “You can’t just start selling school furniture, because you have to be part of a system,” Barber says. “Vitra isn’t in that system yet. Over the next few years they will definitely move into that area.”

With the ideology that helped form the Tip Ton chair gone at this last stage of the process that started at the Academy in Tipton in 2008, it is difficult to look at the chair with the same sincerity that its creators are asking for. And if its merits are now different, then the Tip Ton sits within another system of chairs. Not as the next step in the evolution of seating for educational institutions, but as yet another chair that launched in the vast halls of the Fiera Milano in Rho, 2011. As such it faces entirely different competition, its unique characteristic being the nine-degree angle at the front of its skids, a design quirk that doesn’t speak of its origins in the dire landscape of educational furniture. However, if the original agenda was followed, the Tip Ton could be a game-changer for a generation.