German high-end sofa manufacturer Rolf Benz will be part of WantedDesign next May, to launch its latest collection in the U.S. We had a chance to discuss with Stefan Russ, engineer and director of development department, Bettina Hermann, director of design and product management and Norbert & Silja Beck, designers, around the brand core values: design, comfort and quality.
WantedDesign: The company celebrated its 50th anniversary. Can you share a little bit of the history and background?
Bettina Hermann: Mr Rolf Benz has started the company in 1964 and established the brand right away in the contemporary premium segment. In these now more than 50 years we could gather experience in sofa and chair upholstery. On one hand we have always worked with well-known freelance designers. A freelance designer will work in different fields and is able to work on new creations without “RB glasses”. This ensures a different dynamic inside of the collection.
The continuous evolution and innovation of seat construction and upholstery on the other hand is the other pillar of the Rolf Benz collection until today.
Further developments in the last 50 years were the changing room layouts and open room concepts. They have initiated the engagement of Rolf Benz in the dining sector around 20 years ago and a little bit later the focus on the international markets started. The latter had tremendously influenced the design part. A total paradigm shift was necessary but had to be realized gradually in order to keep the brand’s identity and get a more significant design language at the same time.
WD: How are your current products defined by the personality and vision of Rolf Benz when he started in 1964?
BH: Our core values are a triangle of Design – Comfort – Quality. These elements have to be balanced in a Rolf Benz product. Sitting inside of a sofa, not on top and sitting ergonomically right in it – no matter if you sit proper or lounge – was and is always the spirit when we develop a product. Another fundamental conviction Mr. Rolf Benz – and still part of the corporate culture – is the MADE IN GERMANY: using our decade long expertise not only in development of collections but also in the production process with highly skilled workforce. Our products are still made locally but distributed globally.
WD: A Rolf Benz sofa is known to be the ultimate one. What is the process for bringing new sofas to market that combined beautiful modern design, extraordinary comfort and super quality?
BH: To me the first step is a convincing product concept. From this concept I will develop a briefing which will go to a few of our designers. Each designer has an own handwriting and an own focus. In our team we will then decide which one of our designers is getting which briefing. After we have decided which designer’s suggestion will be realized, the technical department hops on board. The first prototype is solely for ergonomic testing, afterwards we will work out proportions and craftsmanship details. During an average of one year development time we will have 4-5 prototype phases.
Stefan Russ: Depending on the product we start working on it around one year before market launch. During this time we are undergoing a multi-staged process from the first prototype to production maturity. At the end of each stage we do have a release process that ensures that the product is matching our demands towards design, quality and comfort.
WD: Stefan, you are the one who oversees and guarantees delivery of such high quality products. How do you continue to improve the quality of products on an ongoing basis, collection after collection? Is it through new materials? Innovative tools and technology? New design visions?
SR: Primarily I have to say that our whole development team is striving for continuous improvement and has many years of experience. This common longing for perfection is the fundament of our quality and innovative strength. Parallel we are always on the search for new materials, technologies and tools. As an example – our design engineers are working with most modern 3D construction software.
WD: What are you looking for when you imagine the next collection? For a new sofa collection, but also for new categories of products?
BH: This is a very multilayered research. On one hand one needs to consider general architectural and living trends, e.g. the strong urbanism right now calls for more flexible, filigree solutions, the increasing use of laptops and tablets suggesting a more lounge/ casual seating and the sofa has more and more developed to a private zone in the home vs the dining area becoming the more public space. Fashion – even being far more fast living than furniture – does influence us too: details, leather and fabric trends, patterns, materials – all of it has always been translated in our collections and will do so in the future. Visiting of fairs (furniture, fabrics, decoration etc) and store checks in international metropolises like New York, Milano, London and Asian cities are all influencing and shaping the search for a new product concept.
WD: Can you tell us a bit more about the latest collection you designed and presented at WantedDesign next May?
Norbert&Silja: The technical challenge here was to create a sectional sofa program that allows a great variety in combination possibilities but limits itself to only a few individual elements. In order to set the base for this we have designed armrest and backrest the same – now the armrest can serve as backrest and vice versa. Additionally it will allow the clients later to put together compact configurations for smaller, urban room layouts as well as large compositions. The proportions will always stay harmonic. The further design was realized in an unconventional and soft optic: the soft cushiony arm- and backrests are allowing comfortable seating even without additional extra cushions. Additional craftsmanship details, such as bend leather straps and wood buttons, keep the cushions in shape and structure the sofa optically.
WD: There is always an emotional factor that comes with a good product. How does it translate in a Rolf Benz sofa?
Norbert&Silja: While designing a sofa one always must have in mind how the end user will later use it. There are different seating habits and optic wishes: representative, correct seating, young families, traditional/transitional style, playful, romantic, unconventional…. Rolf Benz wants to primarily offer cozy warm and comfy seating. Here we had people in mind that like to come home, spend time in the living area with friends and family and sit in uncomplicated gatherings – get home, get comfortable, relax.
WD: Given the company’s 50-year history with a team working together for decades creating timeless products, is the notion of time a key one at Rolf Benz?
BH: A Rolf Benz product is for sure a rather timeless product. Our philosophy is always that the sofa is not the dominant factor in a room, but the person living in it. We convince through our ergonomics, craftsmanship details and know-how. However certain significant changes in architecture have influenced our thinking over the years as well. Was the sofa some two decades ago usually oriented towards a wall it is now mostly a free standing element, an island in the room. So the back-sight of the product needs more attention from the side of design and technical part (leather cuts, decoration lines etc.), too. The advantage working with such an established development team is that we will know the answers to changing habits quickly and react accordingly, e.g. when the sitting behavior in front of TV screens changed due to larger and larger screens.