To Create a Great Company Culture, Start With Culture

Interior of the Dome on the Vitra campus, after Richard Buckminster Fuller

Start-ups wanting to create “beautiful organizations” (as so many founders claim these days) should visit 59-year old Swiss furniture maker Vitra — not just to buy sleek designer office chairs, but to learn from a company culture that actually deserves its title.

Culture is a hot topic as many tech founders are increasingly aware that it is a crucial asset in attracting top talent. In addition to building “epic shit,” companies must also differentiate with a work culture that is inspired by a bold mission and authentic values. But a look at legendary design furniture firm Vitra suggests that while many tech firms are looking to create a fun and perks-rich blockbuster culture, a truly beautiful organization might instead look more like an arthouse movie: intimate, complicated, and thick.

Personal by design

Vitra was founded by Willi and Erika Fehlbaum in 1957, and it has remained in the very private hands of the Swiss Fehlbaum family. Willi and Erika’s son Rolf took over as chief executive of the company in 1977, but recently he handed over the reins to his niece, Nora Fehlbaum.

Widely regarded as a tastemaker and influencer in the workplace, Vitra’s high-end furniture pieces can be found in many Fortune 500 offices and prominent public institutions (from the German parliament to the Tate Modern to the Dubai airport), as well as numerous private homes. Vitra holds licenses for the works of some of the world’s most admired furniture designers, including Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Alto, Alexander Girard, Jean Prouvé, Jasper Morrison, Alberto Meda, and Verner Panton (who gave us the first cantilever chair entirely out of plastic), and it considers its designers “authors” rather than mere contractors.

Photo: Vitra

Recently, I spoke at Vitra’s Think Future Summit, and after I spent some time with members of their team and their partner community, my impression was reaffirmed: Vitra is not only a successful and tightly run company, it is also an organization rich with emotional resonance, sentimentality, stories, mystery, wonder, and enchantment, eliciting a similar religious devotion from its customers as Apple.

Vitra is a business, and at the same time it is more than that—pragmatically focused on the task at hand, it constantly defies the strict confines of economic pressures and bottom-line efficiency. Vitra is, in essence, a romantic organization. As the former CEO and now chairman emeritus Rolf Fehlbaum once said:

“As a design company leader you are a romantic person because you believe you can do things for the world through design, which to an outsider sounds completely ridiculous. But we believe it.”

A cultural project

Vitra has always been and is still committed to being a “cultural project,” as Fehlbaum called it, a success both in economic and cultural terms, and a manifestation of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu named “cultural capital” — the notion that shared taste, aesthetic preferences, posture, or mannerisms form a collective identity. Vitra has plenty of it and has always been able to replenish its stock when needed. The firm’s distinctive cultural codes are ingrained in the quality of its products. From employees’ outfits (mostly black and white) to behaviors (humble, kind, understated, and hospitable), the more constraint is exhibited, the more space is created for the aura of the Vitra brand.

Petrol station on the Vitra campus by Jean Prouvé

The company’s “cultural project” is also perfectly manifested on its campus in Weil am Rhein that houses the Vitra Design Museum and features works from a dozen of the world’s most famous architects, many of whom Vitra commissioned even before they had appeared on the international stage. From the eccentric fire station (Zaha Hadid), to the monolithic conference pavilion (Tadao Ando), the quirky visitor center (Herzog & de Meuron), and the spiritualized minimalist factory building (SANAA), the campus epitomizes the Vitra philosophy: culture matters, and there is a direct correlation between an organization’s aesthetics and its inner values, between style and substance, between the ability to value what one cannot measure (i.e., art) and the willingness to venture into new, uncharted territory.

More than 300,000 people visit the campus every year, which shows that Vitra has managed to straddle the fine line between exclusivity and openness. The Vitra campus is a statement of intent, an exhibition of moral integrity, and a radical material commitment to the company’s ideals. The campus is the compass.

Vitra is blessed, and certainly also challenged, by a unique conundrum: on the one hand, a big part of its portfolio are design classics — timeless pieces that easily tolerate market volatility and might in fact be appreciated by customers as safe investments during economic downturns. On the other hand, the company must tirelessly strive to stay avant-garde with new, innovative products that shape trends well ahead of the mainstream.

“Never panic,” appears to be Vitra’s mantra, and a strangely relaxed intensity lingers not only over the campus but also its nearby headquarters. It’s a curious and powerful mix of sentimental attachment to its legacy and relentless forward-thinking about the “next big thing” — the technologies and social trends that are transforming the way we will live and work in the future in an ever more accelerated fashion.

Aside from the exquisite craft that its collections represent, Vitra’s relevance emanates from its cultural resonance. Maintaining it is not an easy feat, but the company knows itself and its foundational myth well and is confident about its values and beliefs. It has always been ahead of its time because, like an artist, it simply projected its vision and didn’t pay too much attention to market research.

Beautiful organization

As a privately held design firm, it might of course be easier for Vitra to embrace a design-driven culture. Indeed, it is fair to say Vitra applied the principles of Design Thinking long before it became a popular concept. And with its magazine and exhibitions, the company practiced thought leadership before marketers usurped the term. But it also wholeheartedly celebrates the power of pure design without the need for a rationalizing strategy.

At Vitra, beauty has always had a seat in the boardroom, not just because it designs object of beauty, but because it has a beautiful culture. Employees are hired not only for functional competence, but for taste and class. One of them told me, “It’s important our partners share our grammar.” If you define beauty as the harmony between form and feeling, between functional and aesthetic needs, collective and individual wellbeing, as well as the capacity to create unexpected awe, to enchant, then Vitra is a beautiful organization indeed.

Factory building by SANAA. Photo: Julien Lanoo for Vitra

In a time when ideological extremism appears to gain legitimacy while the center is eroding, one could argue that beauty is not really a priority and activism much more important than aestheticism. But as organizational aestheticist Rafael Ramirez once told me, protest movements form because people are not just upset but disgusted by a behavior or system. Ugliness incites as much as beauty inspires.

Creating beauty can therefore be a political statement in a climate that perpetually rewards winners for winning and tends to confuse data and scale with truth and integrity. Beauty may be a luxury good for those who can afford it, and yet it also remains the ultimate refuge for those defeated by the ruthless logic of markets, efficiency pressures, and the kind of tech entrepreneurship that asks founders to sacrifice their values for exponential growth.

The French author Michel Houellebecq writes in his much debated novel Submission: “The culture wars are over. Entrepreneurship won.” The entrepreneurship Houellebecq refers to is the Silicon Valley brand of start-up culture that is now being exported to the rest of the world seeking to augment their own complicated narrative with a slice of the sexy exponential global growth story, a universally accepted template of success. Nonprofits, large corporations, cities, and governments — who doesn’t want to be a start-up these days?

Vitra stands for another kind of entrepreneurship: the ethos of quality at all cost, an appreciation for art and craft, a culture that doesn’t allow itself to be operationalized into being a mere ingredient of the value chain and rather honors its subversive, friction-rich character.

Conference pavilion by Tadao Ando. Photo: Reinier de Jong

A narrow path

The garden path leading to the entrance of Tadao Ando’s conference pavilion on the Vitra campus is so narrow that only one person can walk on it at once. Visitors on the way to a meeting are forced to line up behind each other. Ando chose this design deliberately to ensure attendees gathered their thoughts before their meeting and had some quality time with themselves before entering the contested arena of politics and power. The narrowest path lends itself to the thickest experience — this is the philosophy at the heart of any form of exclusivity, which by design is a curated experience where someone made choices for you, mostly reducing the number of options so you can appreciate the remaining path as the most valuable, the ultimate path ahead.

As businesses are trying to create meaningful products, services, and experiences by following the customer “desire path” of least resistance, meaning is available in abundance. In the words of marketing expert Scott Galloway, however, “What remains scarce is profoundness.” It is difficult to be profound if your MO is lean. Meaning may be carefully crafted, curated, and packaged — but the profound reveals itself only in “thick experiences”: moments of intense emotion or radical constraint.

Álvaro-Siza-Promenade, Álvaro-Siza, 2014. Photo: Vitra

This kind of “thickness” might come more naturally to Europeans, or at least non-Americans. A harmonious co-existence of personal and professional lives, the ability to express multiple personalities, to enjoy time-in-between, ambiguity, “l’art pour l’art,” agency without agenda, and desire without ambition appears as a whimsical contrast to the winner-takes-it-all mentality of a super-optimized, maximized binary advancement society that has gradually turned American exceptionalism into American exponentialism, from the dramatic technological advancements and the vibrant spirit of entrepreneurship, to the excesses on Wall Street and the oligarchy of digital platforms in Silicon Valley.

Thickness is a bulwark against this binary world view, against exuberant disruption, against the reckless regime of platformization, of economies of exponential scale. It is an insurance policy in a time when software is eating the world and the leftovers merely serve as recycled limbs of the gig economy. Thickness is the soft cushion in rough times and the edge in softer ones. Thickness doesn’t mean you can’t be defeated — by competitors, algorithms, or Artificial Intelligence (AI); or increasingly, competitors armed with algorithms and AI — but it does mean relative comfort and consolation against the absolutist demands of a post-culture, pure-tech economy where both “work hard” and “play hard” are driven by the same striving for extreme and instant validation.

At the Vitra event, I met the German owner of a furniture retail shop who told me that he had never left his small town in North-Rhine-Westphalia to live anywhere else. He first appeared a bit regretful, but then he said:

“For my 50th birthday, 50 people came, 40 of whom I had known since I was 20. I consider that a personal success, and I’m very proud of it.”

In our networked economies we value the strength of weak ties, yet we tend to forget about the strength of strong ones.

Thick business

Culture, by its very definition, is thick. Organic, non-linear, unquantifiable, wasteful, messy, and intricate.

This is why Marcel Kampman, a Dutch curator and filmmaker, and the mind behind the Happyplaces Stories, a video series featuring authors and designers and their “happy places,” told me that he doesn’t edit his clips and deliberately keeps them at a rambling, meandering 15 minutes:

“If you don’t want to watch, then don’t. If you do, do. Fuck the rule book. There are no commercials waiting. And if you’re not interested, fine too. I do not want to reduce these stories to one-liners, because editing will also clip authenticity.”

This is also why, during a recent conversation at a dinner in Menlo Park I took offense when another European resident of the Bay Area pointed out to me that Europe hadn’t produced any significant innovations in the past two decades and that it was lagging the Valley and the US in terms of innovation firepower. I begged to differ: what do we consider innovative? Sure, by measures of disruptive business models and exponential growth, it’s not even close. But there is a distinctive quality, a local persona, in companies such as the French nutrition maker Danone (which began as a family business and maintains that feeling of intimacy), the French couture houses such as Dior and Chanel, the German “mittelstand” (the SMEs that make up for 90 percent of all jobs in Germany), or the Swiss watchmakers — these are all multinational companies that operate at global scale and yet they have maintained their ethos, personality, and aura, their thickness. They still have enough romance in them to be romanticized.

Schaudepot by Herzog & de Meuron. Photo: Designboom

Not to be a Euro-snob: US firms can share this spirit as well. For example, Etsy, with its emphasis on regenerative leadership and a values-based culture, and maybe Warby Parker. The 10-year old Twitter, too, is a thick business and a beautiful organization that is enriching our lives with ecstatic, at times even phatic communications. It is Twitter’s great misfortune that we haven’t come up with metrics to properly measure and reward its value to our societies. So it is collapsing in Wall Street’s estimation, top talent is leaving, and it has introduced an algorithmic timeline that is replacing the hitherto raw and thick firehose of the unedited, chronological Twitter stream. Truth will now be served but can no longer be found.

One might also be compelled to put nonprofits, purpose-driven organizations including B-corps or social enterprises, or mission-driven brands such as Patagonia into the same bucket. Some of them might well be, but in interviews I conducted for my book, The Business Romantic, I often observed a disconnect between noble mission and the day-to-day experience of employees: an enchantment gap that can only be filled with riveting emotional signature moments. The mission may be profound, but it will ultimately be rendered meaningless if it is not brought to life every day. Put differently, a profound mission needs profound moments. A beautiful organization does not just pursue a beautiful mission with efficient execution — it embraces the vagaries of meaning-making every day, an appreciation for the invisible, the inexplicable, and it celebrates beauty not as an enabler but the ideal outcome of its enterprise.

Brunello Cucinelli, the “king of cashmere” and founder and CEO of the legendary Italian cashmere company of the same name, put it this way:

“This century is where enlightenment and romanticism must blend. A great idea that is born out of the mind and then goes through the soul — there is no doubt that the outcome is marvelous. If this idea is true, fair, beautiful, there’s no doubt that it is also a good idea. I think this applies to everything.”

He cites Hadrian, the Roman emperor, who once remarked, “I feel responsible for the beauty in the world.” So should today’s emperors and empires, the CEOs and the companies they lead.

In the age of automation, beauty is a contrarian position.

As we tout the “fourth industrial revolution,” we must introduce new metrics that reconcile growth and human scale. We need a values revolution, as Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, suggests. And indeed, if we measure prosperity solely in terms of GDP, automation will do the job (and increasingly, ours, with 50 percent of the working population expected to be unemployed in the next 10 years), but culture will be anathema: not the kind of high-minded, high-brow culture one might frown at, but culture as the thick morass of human relationships and ingenuity, the collective organism of our individual values and desires. When we strip our businesses off this kind of culture, we unleash them as unfettered exponential growth monsters. And ultimately, we will then move from culture wars to a war on culture, to a world dominated by AMZN, STEM, ROI, and MVP.

The most radical position a business can take in times like these is to insist on waste, on human inefficiency, on the humanities, on time spent in no-man’s land, on detours and digressions, on extra and dead time. Vitra and other beautiful organizations encourage us to fight for culture to remain in demand in an on-demand economy. They ask us to find the best point of resistance — total denial, direct confrontation, or subversive cooperation — and to work toward a delicate balance between devotion and disruption, thick culture and fat margins.

The result will be sublime.

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