Insights / Design
”In the future, we will have to get used to what we earlier defined as imperfections”
On the journey to becoming a circular design company
14 Dec 2023

Who are you?

— I’m Chief Design Officer at Vitra. I’ve been with the company for 3.5 years and I’m responsible for design and product development. We’re working on many new projects focusing on fulfilling our environmental mission.

And what are those if you were to summarise?

— First of all, we want to reduce our CO2 footprint — we want to be a net-positive company by 2030. We want to make sure that our products are prepared for circularity and for a second or even a third life. To give full transparency as to where our products are made, who made them, what’s in them, and how it was made.

What are the keys to enabling that?

— Longevity is of course an important driver. We know that the longer we can keep our products in use the better. We want to ensure that our products are ready for maintenance and repair. Hopefully, in many years. When they come to the end of their lives, they are prepared for disassembly and can be 100% recycled. An important part of the work that we do is looking into new materials, making sure that they have a minimal footprint. We know that the material is a driver when it comes to the environmental impact of a product. We do a lot of testing, and we look into new ways of constructing products that we haven’t tried out before. It’s a bit like ground research. And in that sense, it’s very much in line with the history of the company. It’s an interesting moment in time.

Was that maybe the main reason why you joined the company, to tackle those challenges?

— Yes, it was definitely one of the reasons. I think it’s a very motivating part of my job. In general, as designers, we have to redefine and change design from being unintentionally destructive to becoming intentionally constructive. We have to find solutions to make things better.

You mentioned material innovations. In what part of the company and your daily operations can you make the most changes to reduce emissions?

— We have our own production that we can directly influence and we have very close collaborations with some of our bigger suppliers that are also part of our mission. When you can make decisions from the very beginning of a project, you can influence how the product is designed and constructed, so you can have a huge impact on the environmental aspects of a future product, says Grosen. He continues:

— For instance, we have developed an environmental design guide, that we use internally as a tool in product development, which is a pool of questions. Some of them are very banal but make you ask the right questions at the right time throughout the development process. Once you have come too far in the development process, it’s too late to ask certain questions. The small questions that you discuss in the early phase of the project may seem indifferent at the time, but they can have a huge impact because they guide the whole project in a certain direction. So, it’s about creating awareness to ask the right questions and making sure that even the smallest decisions that you make are the right ones.

You’ve been in the company for a few years, how has the conversation changed in the industry? What’s the difference now compared to when you joined the company?

— I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and it has changed a lot. When I started, sustainability was of course a topic but it was not top of mind. It has changed dramatically. Nevertheless, if you look at what products are being launched in the world today, not only in the furniture industry but in general, there is still a long way to go.

— In the future, we will have to get used to what we earlier defined as imperfections. If a material is recycled or upcycled it has different characteristics and a different appearance than a virgin material. However, once you understand why they look the way they do, it becomes beautiful because the meaning is different. It’s no longer only about the aesthetic but about the meaning of the product. I believe that we will witness a fundamental shift in the way we perceive aesthetics in the years to come. 

Plastic has a bad reputation. What kind of materials are you the most curious about now and in the coming years?

— The problem with plastic is single-use plastic. There’s so much plastic out there. If we use what is already there and upcycle single-use plastic from, for instance, packaging, it’s great. The idea of taking something that is single-use and turning it into something that will last for decades is beautiful. That’s what we are currently doing with our plastic chairs.

— Foam is a challenge for the furniture industry. PU as it is today cannot be recycled and there are no suitable alternatives. There’s a lot of research going on in that field, so maybe there will be solutions in the future. However, we also have to look into other ways to create comfort in a piece of furniture and ideally, we can achieve it without foam in the future.

Christian Grosen.

And that also leads us to consumer behaviour. What do they care about the most now?

— It’s a very diverse group. Some are looking very much into the longevity and circularity of the products while others don’t care. For them, it’s only about the way it looks or the price. We must create awareness and explain why one solution is better or more sustainable than the other so that the end-user can make a conscious choice, understanding what goes into the product. That’s why product passports are so important in order to create transparency.

Have you also noticed any possibility of making a profit when turning waste into a resource?

— We are now opening Vitra Circle Stores, Grosen explains. So far, we’ve had two and now we’re opening a new one on the Vitra Campus. We believe in the idea of circularity. If you have products that are built to last for decades which are prepared for repairing, refurbishing and reuse there is a good chance that you will also be relevant in the future.