Pyramid Schemes

An inside look at Via 57 West with BIG and Fritz Hansen

Architecture Design Product
(Nic Lehoux)
(Nic Lehoux)

What takes longer to make, a chair or a building? You know you are speaking to an architect when the response is a shrug. Such is the case with Bjarke Ingels Group and its collaboration on the VIA 57 chair with Danish furniture company Fritz Hansen.

Christian Andresen, head of design at Fritz Hansen, and Kai-Uwe Bergmann, partner and architect at BIG, sat down with AN to discuss the legacy of Danish design, KiBiSi coming to an end, and what surprised BIG about U.S. architecture practices.

VIA West 57 chair

The VIA57 chair by BIG and Fritz Hansen (Aldo Soligno)

BIG is branching into projects on a variety of scales. Where does furniture design fit in? Does it fall under KiBiSi?

Kai-Uwe Bergmann: KiBiSi was a collaboration among three entities [Kilo, BIG, and Skibsted Ideation]—you could call it a product design and branding constellation. It has, however, lived its life and we are developing projects just within BIG. This is one of the last efforts we did with KiBiSi.

We are still designing a lot of other products and furniture under the BIG umbrella.

How did Fritz Hansen become involved with BIG on this project?

Christian Andresen: The historic reference to this is, of course, the designers who build furniture in collaboration with an entire project—what the Germans call gesamtkunstwerk. This concept was really nurtured at the design schools and the architecture schools in the 40s and 50s. It came from the Bauhaus, but the Danish really took it on. It’s since been abandoned. So when we asked up-and-coming furniture designers to make something, there was no reference to a project or a building.

We wanted the dynamic framework of working within a project; the product has to have a reference to a building. It is in our DNA. And that was the case with BIG and this chair; it was made for the West 57th building.

What came first, the building or the chair?

Andresen: When the West 57th building was on the drawing board, the chair was on the drawing board. We were making a chair for the public and regular building spaces. BIG was trying to experiment with the furniture design and the way that people would sit around it in the building. It actually took about the same amount of time to make the building as it did to make the chair. When the chair finished, we launched it at ICFF at the same time they had the building opening.

VIA West 57 chair

(Aldo Soligno)

How did that design process go?

Bergmann: Well overall it’s a big change from working in Europe to working in America. In Europe you, the architect, design everything, indoors and outdoors. You move to America, and they use the term “shell and core” and then they hire interior designers for the rest. We didn’t understand when we first arrived that you could only do the outside or only do the inside; we had always considered the complete experience. We actually had to bid on the interiors of West 57th.

I think we’ve been lucky and fortunate that we’ve been able to bridge the two cultures and we’ve been able to design the interiors of most of our buildings.

How do architects approach furniture differently from those who are strictly product designers?

Andresen: Most architects tend to make products that are softer and more sculptural than their buildings. The simple explanation here is that round windows cost more money and square furniture is boring. But there’s also quite an interesting thing that furniture is at the human scale and many architects work with an interest in finding the meeting point between a person, the piece, and the flow. The ones that are really good at it are also really good at the interior spaces in general.

Many Scandinavians and some of the German and Italian architects have touched upon it in their design career in education, but in many countries, building architects and furniture designers are in separate sections, like in the U.S. In Scandinavia, they still spend a lot of time on the artistic part of being an architect. I think it has to do with culture and the educational traditions, and also the legacy that you carry in a culture and in a trade. Our approach to the design and the natural piece is to eliminate the unnecessary details, which creates these very simple pieces that are very difficult to make.

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