Several weeks ago, I visited Vitsœ in north London (along with David, good friend turned M&I photographer for the day). When I learned about the company making nearly all of its components in the UK I was surprised, presumably because of the Scandinavian sounding name. The story of how it ended up being produced in Britain is an interesting one.
Vitsœ’s key product is the 606 Universal Shelving System, designed by Dieter Rams in 1960 (hence the ‘60’ of ‘606’ - the ‘6’ is the design number).
Shortly after graduating university, Mark Adams became associated with Vitsœ and in 1986 established Vitsœ UK to became the sole importer and distributor of Vitsœ products in the United Kingdom. Under Adams’ leadership, Vitsœ UK quickly became the largest retail account for Vitsœ.
We arrived at the factory, situated off of a Camden side road and were greeted by Anne, an outgoing Scot who would be our host for an excellent day. Also joining us was Keith, who has worked at Vitsœ for nine years and is, as you might expect, thoroughly knowledgeable on every facet of the product.
Starting our tour in the meeting room, which is also an archive containing masses of drawings by Dieter Rams and some of his designs for Braun, we were given an overview of the history of the product. “In the 60s Dieter’s ‘buy less, buy better’ ethos was almost counter culture. Anti-obsolescence rather than sustainability was the message,” Anne told us. It’s fascinating to think of the power of that stance in an era where consumerism was just starting to blossom.
At its north London base Vitsœ assembles the orders, with parts coming from all over the country. A very small amount of the components come from outside the UK, a key one being the drawer runners, from a supplier in Austria. “Else 95% is made in the UK,” says Anne.
There is one supplier that Vitsœ deals with on a regular basis and has high regard for.
“They make lots of the internal components for the 606. The only reason we found them was that Mark was driving one day and he spotted a van that said ‘Quality machine turned components’; he thought that sounded good and got in touch,” Keith tells us as we move onto the factory floor.
It is this constant desire to improve which strikes you as you learn more about the company. Incremental changes appear to be being made on an unbelievably regular basis considering that the product Vitsœ produces is essentially the same as the one created over 50 years ago by Rams. However, as Keith explains the minutiae of these improvements you find yourself understanding how such miniscule changes come to be, and how they reflect the culture of the company.
“The changes we make are often tiny, and sometimes they will cost us more money but it results in a better product,” Keith says, before adding, “These shelves used to be stamped out. When you ran your finger under the bottom of it you could feel it. We spent years trying to get our suppliers to use laser cutting, eventually they did. When we showed Dieter he had the biggest grin on his face.” You get the sense that this means as much to the team working on the product as it does to the designer himself. This quest for perfection does not remain in-house, however.
“We listen to the customers. If they make a suggestion we will take it on board. One very famous one, who I can’t name, suggested we change the shape of the shelving pins. Flat ended, the pins that hold the shelves in place feel flush with the E-track (the upright posts that hold the shelves). He suggested however that the pin could be rounded for ease of use. We made 10,000 of them but then we decided it wasn’t right so we changed it back,” says Keith.
Listening to customer’s feedback doesn’t stop with product improvements – we also hear about customers who have obtained their 606 elsewhere, who then contact Vitsoe UK and have their calls for help answered by being provided with the parts to repair their units. Remarkable.
It comes as little surprise that most of the staff we meet have been with the company for many years. Many of them are RCA graduates, spanning at least four decades by my reckoning. According to Keith, Ian, one of the cabinetmakers, ‘came with the furniture’ when the company moved from Angel to its current location nearly six years ago.
When it came to implementing a new computer system Ian was instrumental in its design. “The way the cabinet makers used to do it was printed assembly lists would come to the workshop and it would be marked with a highlighter,” Keith explained.
“Ian used to have a big folder. A new order would go at the front. There was a piece of card saying ‘in progress’ and when he was building it he’d move it to the next section and when he’d built he’d mark it as complete.”
“When we told him he was getting a computer for the first time in his life there was a look of horror. So we told him ‘no, we’re going to base it around how you work, rather than tell you how to work. You’ll be even more in control’. It’s entirely based on his system: incoming, in progress and completed - all based on his cardboard tabs.”
Every aspect of the production seems to be considered to a level beyond anything I have witnessed previously. As we continue our walk around the factory (Radio 4 favoured by the cabinet makers upstairs, Mount Kimbie by the team downstairs on the day of our visit) we hear about how Vitsœ created bespoke timber boxes to ensure damage free transportation for its parts. “Some companies we work with often find this surprising as there’s not many companies that pay for the packaging to transport parts coming from other factories. But we’ve saved about 15 years worth of cardboard by doing so,” Keith tells us.
We hear how saving packaging is considered across the company - from how the installation teams return all cardboard to the factory after a day’s work to how Bill (one of the more senior members of the team) designed a bespoke tape holder to ensure that the exact amount of tape needed to wrap around a tube was dispensed. Fastidious stuff.
A final tale from Keith sums up why Vitsœ has managed to build such a strong business in the UK. “Around seven years ago we created these cardboard folders for sending out with instructions for fitting. We’d had them for about a week. A German guy who had bought the system from Germany and now lived in Cornwall calls up. He’d removed his shelving from a brick wall and was now putting it up on a plaster wall. He was concerned and called us to ask our advice. We sent him the fixings and instruction manual for free in the new folder. Within a week of him receiving it his wife had placed a new order for more shelving. He made a comment about the quote which reads ‘Our happiest customers are the ones who have dealt with us the longest.’”
For the full set of photos, please see the M&I Facebook page
With thanks to Anne and Keith at Vitsœ