A stack of boxes, waiting to be dispatched around the world, sits in the middle of Vitsoe’s building in Leamington Spa in the English West Midlands. They contain pieces of its 606 shelving system, created in 1960 by the influential German designer Dieter Rams, and are destined for homes in Bonn, Munich, Kyoto, Tokyo, Seoul, Denver, Los Angeles . . . the list goes on.
Vitsoe (pronounced Vit-sue) is a curiosity in all kinds of ways. A company founded by a Danish furniture maker that was set up in Frankfurt in 1959 but has been British since 1995; a maker of German designs that gets parts from suppliers ringed around a Regency spa town; a brand that has sold the same products for six decades, with only subtle refinements.
It is so improbable, and so out of step with business convention, that it has come close to failing before, notably in the declining years of Niels Vitsoe, the founder, whose death led to its transfer to the UK. But it has carried on evolving to satisfy its core customers, the 15,000 architects, designers, creatives and others (including many FT readers) who venerate 89-year-old Rams.
Rams’ original design was deceptively simple. Steel shelves in powder-coated neutral colours are suspended by pins from aluminium tracks that are fixed to walls (or stand on floors). As well as shelves for books, objects and records, the system includes desks, cabinets and hanging rails, which can be lowered and raised on the pins to create an array.
Vitsoe is only one of the modular products designed by mid-century Modernists. Others include String, a cheaper Swedish system created by Nisse and Kajsa Strinning in 1949, and 835 Infinito shelving designed by the Italian architect Franco Albini in 1956. But Vitsoe’s sturdiness and flexibility have helped it flourish, boosted by the move to homeworking in the pandemic.
“Rams [pioneered] design that is really useful and really lasts, and to achieve that is very simple,” says Ilse Crawford, founder of the design group Studioilse. “I’ve kept storage files and Dutch ceramics on our Vitsoe shelves, and everything looks great.” Modular furniture suits the rental generation that “wants to leave less stuck to the walls”, she argues.
“Vitsoe is such an elegant, flexible, and robust system. It is visually powerful and yet the shelves can almost disappear once you populate them,” says Simon Allford, co-founder of the architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. “My wife is sick to death of Vitsoe, but I love that you can always move it around. You never need to throw anything away.”
This recyclability is just as well, for Vitsoe is not cheap (I have some shelving that I bought in New York and moved to London). A set of eight shelves on two tracks for an alcove can cost about £1,000 with installation, and it competes more directly with bespoke built-in shelving than Ikea. It encourages customers to start small, but it is a big investment for many young renters.
The price of entry and a sense that Vitsoe is a club for the metropolitan cognoscenti has created an almost cult-like following among a certain design set. “I’m totally into it,” wrote the fashion designer Jenna Lyons on an Instagram post of the shelves in her New York apartment. When I put to Mark Adams, Vitsoe’s managing director and co-owner, that some of its customers are mildly obsessive, he replies cheerfully, “Oh yes, guilty as charged.”
The Vitsoe cult is growing. It is still a small company, employing 80 people, with a single building that combines head office and assembly operations, but sales have risen by about 50 per cent in two years, reaching £15mn in 2021. A decade ago, most were in the UK, but more than 70 per cent are now overseas, spanning 80 countries.
Adams has curtailed former ambitions to add 10 stores to its current five in London, New York, Los Angeles, Munich and Leamington. “I think eight [in total] is enough. You might come in for 20 minutes on your way to the airport, and form a relationship with us.” It will instead rely more on ecommerce, of which it was a pioneer, building software to plan layouts 20 years ago.
But he hopes to extend Vitsoe’s global presence in another way. Sales growth, along with Brexit bureaucracy and supply chain pressures since the pandemic, have made it harder to operate solely from the UK, and he wants to build two new factories overseas. He has not decided where, but sales are rising in the US and Asia, especially in South Korea.
Stretching itself out could weaken Vitsoe’s distinctive culture as well as managerial control, but Adams thinks that the long-lasting nature of its products means it has to keep on finding fans. “Our approach of, ‘Buy it once, look after it, repair it, hand it down to your kids’, is complete insanity as a business model,” he remarks. “It only works if you find enough [new] people.”
Vitsoe’s determination to go its own way is obvious as we step into the vast, high-ceilinged space that forms its head office and factory in Leamington Spa. It is almost entirely built of wood: laminated strips of beech made in Germany that not only form the walls, but the columns and beams.
It is a calm void that absorbs the noise from teams of workers screwing together cabinets and desks for delivery, and assembling the 620 system chairs designed by Rams in 1962. Adams compares it to a medieval barn, with a 135- metre-long central space and two aisles lit by north-facing roof windows that open to ventilate the building.
Instead of initially employing architects, Adams planned its form with Martin Francis, a designer who worked on the glass pyramid extension of the Louvre in Paris, and James O’Callaghan, a structural engineer. “Grown-up Vitsoe” is Adams’ description of the kit-like frame, delivered by the architects Waugh Thistleton and assembled in 23 days in 2017.
It enabled Vitsoe to move from a cramped building in Camden, north London, and was financed in an unusual manner. The company issued a £9mn bond at an interest rate of 6.06 per cent, after its 606 shelves, and invited customers to invest at least £5,000 each. It made them extremely committed: “Our main source of redemptions is when bondholders die,” Adams notes.
Adams, who is 61, is a talkative, inquisitive figure who often darts off at intellectual tangents, from the origins of the factory’s landscaping to the coconut coir that it used for padding in chairs instead of polyurethane foam. It takes only a short time in his presence to see that he is absorbed in all aspects of Vitsoe’s products, strategy, financial structure and very existence.
He first came across Vitsoe in a design shop in Marylebone in 1985 after studying zoology and working as a headhunter. The encounter changed his life: he left his job to work in the shop (“I thought, if I don’t do it now, I’ll miss my chance. I’ll just climb the corporate ladder and be lost”); then became Vitsoe’s UK distributor; and took over when it was in crisis after Niels Vitsoe’s death.
The company is owned by Adams and Jennie Moncur, a designer who is creative director of Vitsoe (the couple are married). They took big financial risks to make Vitsoe stable again after taking it over, including borrowing to produce its planning software in 2000 — “We mortgaged our house to the absolute limit,” Adams recalls.
“Mark is an animal who is interested in each detail, but he is approachable. Anyone in the company can phone him or sit down and have lunch with him,” says Moncur. The latter is made easier by the fact that those in Leamington take lunch communally each day at tables by a kitchen run by chef Will Leigh. A smell of baking often fills the building.
Rams started working with Vitsoe only as a side project, since he was employed by Braun, a family-owned company for which he designed radios, alarm clocks and other devices (Braun was acquired by Gillette in 1968). His principles for good design to be unobtrusive, long-lasting and “thorough down to the last detail” have influenced many industrial designers, including Jony Ive at Apple.
The 606 system was designed for apartments built in postwar Germany and at first glance little has altered since the 1960s. But Adams has made a multitude of tiny changes, from adding a small lip to reinforce the shelves, to altering the pin designs so they slide into the holes on the tracks more easily.
“There is an understated elegance to Vitsoe. They are constantly innovating but they do not look like they are,” says Steve Evans, a professor and director of research in industrial sustainability at Cambridge university, who has studied the company. “And how many people would move production from Germany to the UK to make high-quality precision objects? That was really brave.”
The challenge has been eased by its location in Leamington, close to Warwick and the Midlands vehicle industry — it is a 40-minute drive to Solihull, one of Jaguar Land Rover’s plants. It has a supply chain of 30 parts makers within a 90-mile radius of the building: it buys stainless steel screws from Hertfordshire and aluminium plates for its cabinets from Cirencester.
But this just-in-time efficiency has suffered recently. The building used also to host a local dance company called Motionhouse, with the dancers both rehearsing and having lunch. Their space is now taken by stacks of parts and products waiting to be dispatched as a buffer against supply chain disruption, while higher prices for parts have squeezed its margins.
Adams injured a knee in a cycling accident last year and had to take time off work to convalesce. It forced him to devolve control of the day-to-day running of Vitsoe to others and gave him time to reflect.
One outcome was the focus on expanding its global footprint by building facilities overseas. Leamington cost £9mn for land and construction and Adams believes customers would contribute capital again. But minibonds face tighter regulation since the collapse of London and Capital Finance in 2020, and a different structure is needed.
Growth is not the only thing on his mind: there is also the question of ownership. Adams and Moncur have been considering transferring Vitsoe to a trust rather than keeping it in their family or selling it to a rival. It is a striking decision, given that they invested heavily in the past and could reap their rewards.
They do not see it that way. “Ownership is not a word that enters our minds much,” says Moncur. “We much more regard ourselves as custodians of Vitsoe. We want to preserve it and have a duty to ensure an easy transition. It was certainly not easy when Niels Vitsoe died.”
They have not settled on the form a trust would take, but are influenced by the John Lewis Partnership, founded by John Spedan Lewis in 1920, and German Stiftung (foundation), including those at Carl Zeiss and Robert Bosch. These put management under the oversight of a trust that sets the corporate principles.
But it would be a big change, coinciding with ambitious growth plans. Adams does not intend to retire soon, and there is no clear succession plan, but he has been taking some steps back. “I don’t intend to disappear into the sunset, but I talk about rebalancing, especially in the light of my accident.”
“It is an admirable idea but implementing it will be challenging, and they may underestimate the role of Mark in bringing all of the ideas behind Vitsoe together,” says Evans of Cambridge. “When Steve Jobs died, Apple was an enormous company, but Vitsoe is at the stage where a leader’s departure can lead to collapse.”
Adams is undeterred. Vitsoe is used to treading its own path, including its past move from Germany to the UK. If most business is done in one way, he will try another. “I have a deep problem with a capitalist system that benefits a few at the expense of many,” he says, “We’re doing our little bit to change it.”
John Gapper is FT Weekend’s business columnist
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