As a continuation of our explorative series of classic and modern design in collaboration with Be Original, we looked at a more modern design—Vitra’s Tip Ton chair designed by Barber Osgerby, which launched in 2011.

It amazes me sometimes how much work goes into a single chair. In the case of the Tip Ton, we’re talking about years. Years of research. Eckart Maise, Vitra’s Chief Design Officer, told me “it’s quite intensive. We first met Barber Osgerby back in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2008 that we revisited our conversations with a solid project in mind.” The idea was exploring school furniture. “There is so much bad school furniture and we wanted to do a project to create good quality school furniture with good ergonomics for the students.”

Tipping Point: The Tip Ton Chair in main home furnishings  Category

Edward Barber explains “We spent lots of time going around schools, talking to facilities managers (who order school furniture), uncovering research from the 60s on how children’s concentration is effected by movement, and working with Zurich University on the ergonomics.”

Maise points out that the world of the office and the world of education are getting closer to each other, and the educational environment was the starting point for Tip Ton. However, it was meant to be a universal chair, similar to their “Vitra standards”—chairs made for all-around function—at the kitchen table, for meetings, in your home office, or even in public areas.

Tipping Point: The Tip Ton Chair in main home furnishings  Category

The Tip Ton is a two-position chair that allows you to be active or passive without sacrificing your posture. You can sit back and listen to a lecture or music or a conversation, or sit forward and lean over the table to perform more active tasks like writing. I sit on the edge of my seat all the time, tipping my body forward, but I end up hunching over. The research that Barber Osgerby and Vitra performed indicated that many people tend to do this, too, and that there needed to be a chair that would accommodate this leaning forward, yet minimize rounded shoulders and keep the back straight.

Tipping Point: The Tip Ton Chair in main home furnishings  Category

Early Tip Ton sketch

Tipping Point: The Tip Ton Chair in main home furnishings  Category

Early Tip Ton sketch

Beyond the research, the design itself took a while to perfect. “We drew 3 or 4 concept typologies before finally arriving at TipTon. We had, however, roughly 100 prototypes of the final chair before we were happy with all the details,” Barber said.

A fun tidbit that I found out was that the name of the chair comes more obviously from the “tipping” motion of the chair, but also from Tipton, a suburb of Birmingham in England.

Tipping Point: The Tip Ton Chair in main home furnishings  Category

Tip Ton sketch

Tipping Point: The Tip Ton Chair in main home furnishings  Category

Tip Ton sketch

Barber told me more about the process of design: “We set ourselves a list of challenges at the beginning of the design process which we had to overcome. The list we drew up reads something like this;

- Indestructible (schools require one of the highest strength tests)
- Lightweight (less material used)
- Quick to produce (lower cost)
- Low sound (clattering chairs are a big problem in large numbers)
- Stackable (essential)
- Color (schools often use color as a zoning device)
- Recyclable (obviously)”

Tipping Point: The Tip Ton Chair in main home furnishings  Category

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby working on a Tip Ton model

In the beginning, the chair was a two-part design with a molded shell and a metal base, but after many discussions, they decided they wanted to make something more study and less breakable, so they ended up with a one-piece plastic chair made from a single mold.

Tipping Point: The Tip Ton Chair in main home furnishings  Category

Tip Tons in production

The life of this chair from idea to production took about 2 1/2 years, but perfecting the manufacturing was also a big part of this process.

“Because of the two-position design, it’s one of the most complex molds we’ve made. It weighs about 19 tons in four pieces and is made of steel. It’s quite a complex chair in terms of plastic manufacturing and a large investment,” Maise says, “We’ve had one engineer here for the past 2 1/2 years whose entire job was working on this chair. There are a lot of hours that go into something like this, and quite a bit of back and forth between computer designs and physical models, including many hours of sanding and shaping. But then in the end, that’s what makes the quality of the product.”