After almost 25 years, German furniture company Zeitraum is still based in an old mill building some 30 km south of Munich, where it started life. ‘It’s pretty full now,’ says Birgit Gämmerler, founder and CEO of the company, ‘considering that we began with just two people and now have a staff of 25 in our design, sales and marketing team. But we don’t want to move.’
That’s understandable, as Zeitraum is well and truly rooted in its location – Gämmerler estimates that three-quarters of the timber the company uses is harvested in the Bavarian Forest, and most of its manufacturers are based here too (the rest are in Italy). ‘We would never use tropical woods and we would never manufacture in China, also for cultural reasons,’ she says. ‘The concept has always been ecology plus design. From the beginning, we’ve been determined not to compromise our ideals.’
For a quarter century, Zeitraum has been quietly making a name for itself for its elegantly minimalist and sustainable furniture. Functional, hard-wearing and easy on the eye, Zeitraum pieces have the knack of appearing effortless and natural. From the Corner wooden bench, designed by Gämmerler herself in 1997, to Formstelle’s Morph lounge chair and Läufer + Keichel’s innovative Nonoto chair, both from 2015, Zeitraum products seem to breathe the air of a simpler, kinder world where people and their products are in greater harmony with themselves and with nature.
Brgit Gämmerler was inspired to found the company as a young industrial designer who was simply tired of making things in plastic. ‘All the consumer stuff I did was plastic-based, and I was so bored with it,’ she says. ‘I wanted a new challenge. But there weren’t many alternatives 25 years ago. So I teamed up with another designer, Rolf Huber, and we began offering oiled wooden pieces, and that was it – something really new for the market then.’
The name Zeitraum, suggested by a friend, sent a clear message about the aims and authenticity of the fledgling company. ‘It suggested both 3D space and the element of time,’ says Gämmerler. ‘We wanted our stuff to last. Also, just as our use of wood was a reaction against all the chrome, glass and plastic in the marketplace, the German name was a reaction against all the international, mainly English, names around us.’
After showing its first five pieces in Cologne, Zeitraum became an overnight success. Gämmerler remembers the excitement: ‘The press loved them – they were exotic, something different – and they coincided with the beginning of environmental consciousness in Germany.’ But although there were plaudits, business success initially proved elusive. ‘In the early days, we were these two designers with little idea of how to run a company. For the first few years, we worked hard to learn about business management, which is something I think all design students should learn at college. Our turnover was so low at first that my business partner, who had a family to support, ended up leaving Zeitraum in order to make a better living. Besides myself, the current management team includes my husband, Peter Gaebelein, and Peter Joebsch. The three of us make all the decisions together.’
In design terms, Zeitraum’s success has always relied on what Gämmerler calls ‘double happiness’: the union of ecologically acceptable materials and techniques with beauty, simplicity and sensuous tactility. ‘We were initially inspired by Biedermeier and Shaker furniture,’ she recalls. ‘We wanted to achieve a similarly clean and functional aesthetic with good proportions and a coherent structure. It was important to us that our pieces should be beautiful, functional, and able to last a lifetime. Our furniture should be repairable, and it should get more beautiful as it ages. Wood has that quality – it acquires a patina.’
Despite the love of traditional cabinet-making, Zeitraum has avoided the temptation to live in the past: although made of a primeval material, the pieces remain industrial design and keep pace with technology. ‘We’re keen to maintain craftsmanship in our products, but we like to combine new techniques like CNC milling with more traditional ones,’ says Gämmerler. ‘Our new Nonoto chair combines old bentwood processes with CNC techniques.’ The result, the first wooden chair ever designed by Läufer + Keichel, is a genuinely fresh and contemporary take on a classic, and it dovetails with Zeitraum’s design identity. Gämmerler denies that this was the result of a complex brief. ‘You just know after ten minutes if someone is right for the company,’ she says. It’s vital that designers relate to the company’s aims and its pursuit of ‘a new kind of luxury: the luxury of simplicity and tactile quality and fulfilling lasting needs’.
The Zeitraum formula has resulted in a steady annual growth of 10 to 15 per cent. Sales are becoming progressively more international: one-third are made in Germany, and other European countries and the rest of the world account for the remaining two pieces of the pie. ‘We are both a consumer and a contract company, and right now the contract side is growing faster,’ she says. ‘We do a lot of hotel lobbies, restaurants and so on – at the niche, boutique, high end of the market. Our customers are looking for durable, clear, high-quality design.’
Although the future looks bright, Gämmerler does not subscribe to the idea of unlimited growth. ‘After 25 years, I realize that we are now a certain size and if we continue to grow we’d have to compromise more. We’d have less freedom to do things our way. So I would like to stay the way we are. I believe in small structures, also politically.’ She concedes that her sales team probably sees the question of growth differently – ‘but my interests are less in our turnover and more in our mission. As a woman, I find it important to observe and study society and find answers to modern needs. What makes sense in our world? It’s a significant question. As designers, we should develop only products that make sense.’
Portraits Markus Burke