In 1953, the entrepreneur Willi Fehlbaum discovers the furniture of Charles & Ray Eames in a New York store. Immediately seduced by the designs, his enduring enthusiasm leads to the decision to become a furniture manufacturer. Back in Switzerland, Fehlbaum gets in contact with the Herman Miller furniture company in Michigan, the manufacturer of the Eames furniture.
In 1957, after 4 years of negotiations, Vitra begins with the licensed production of the Herman Miller Collection including designs by Charles & Ray Eames, George Nelson, Alexander Girard and Isamu Noguchi. In the following years, the Fehlbaum family (Willi, his wife Erika and their eldest son Rolf) comes into contact with Nelson, Girard and the Eames' on numerous occasions. For Rolf Fehlbaum, currently Vitra’s Chairman, these encounters number among his most formative experiences.
In the early 1960s, Willi Fehlbaum makes the acquaintance of the Danish designer Verner Panton, who is seeking a manufacturer for his design of a plastic chair. Vitra’s expertise in the processing of plastics gives Fehlbaum the confidence to develop the chair for mass production together with Panton. After several years of collaborative effort, Panton’s sculpture-like chair comes onto market in 1967 – the first cantilever-based plastic chair moulded in one piece and the first product developed directly by Vitra.
In 1984, the partnership with Herman Miller is terminated by mutual consent. Vitra acquires all rights for the production of furniture designs by Charles & Ray Eames and George Nelson, as well as Alexander Girard’s textiles for Europe and the Middle East. Now able to sell these products under its own label, Vitra operates as an independent brand.
In 2013, Vitra acquired the Finnish Artek, the renowned design company founded in 1935 in Finland by architect Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino, art promoter Maire Gullichsen and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl. Artek was built upon the radical business plan to “sell furniture and to promote a modern culture of habitation by exhibitions and other educational means.” Artek has become one of the most innovative contributors to modern design, building on the heritage of Alvar Aalto.