THE DOOR OPENER.
Raphael Gielgen, 51, has made yet another discovery. “Wow, it’s even got Tempomat cruise control!” he exclaims, driving along the A5 freeway at the wheel of the MINI Clubman. Not a button or switch in the cockpit is safe from his inquisitive fingers. He presses, clicks, and pairs his cell phone to the car’s Bluetooth system. Then he puts his foot down. Gielgen isn’t in a hurry, he just wants to be up front. That’s his job: As a trend scout, he looks into the future of work for furniture manufacturer Vitra. The COVID-19 crisis has paralysed many companies, sending entire departments of big corporations into practical hibernation. Gielgen’s own activities were initially hampered, too. Prior to the pandemic, he would spend almost 200 days a year on the move, travelling to hundred of businesses across the world, visiting company headquarters from Houston to Herzogenaurach. He would also take study trips with like-minded people; the most recent was to Shenzhen, China, the workbench of the red economic miracle. Then everything stopped.
But the quiet phase is now over. “The trends I study have become markedly more important,” says Gielgen. Many companies now want to know what lies ahead with regard to remote working and agile work methods, digitalization and working from home. Offices will become defunct, replaced by remote management. There are very few German medium-sized businesses today that are not – of necessity – considering these possibilities. “As a result, I am very much in the spotlight,” says Gielgen. “But my role has changed. I used to be mostly a hunter-gatherer, but now I’ve become more of a transmitter.”
Gielgen’s days consist of interviews and conference calls. His mobile phone rings constantly. He records podcasts and videos and prepares presentations, speaks with architects, business consultants and company bosses. He shares knowledge in order to open doors for Vitra so that at the end of the process, businesses will buy his employer’s products, furniture designed by big names, such as Charlesand Ray Eames, Verner Panton and Jean Prouv. Gielgen plays the combined roles of teacher, ambassador and vendor. It’s no surprise, then, that this man has not just one place of work, but three: “The first is at home on my pony farm.” Gielgen grins. “The second is on the Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein. And the third is on the road.” Gielgen lives to a work model that’s coming to us all. According to that model, work isn’t just done where the office is located, but wherever we can make the best job of it.
PLANET PONY FARM.
Roughly 90 minutes north of Munich, just short of Regensburg. The MINI Clubman climbs a winding road flanked on both sides by the autumn glory of the Bavarian Forest. The sporty speedster then takes a right turning in front of a chapel before coming to a halt on Gielgen’s farm. Three hectares of land, paddocks, an indoor arena and a large pond. “When I’m here, I often feel as though I’m looking down on Earth from the International Space Station,” says our host with a laugh. He’s talking about the farm’s remoteness because it’s nowhere near as quiet as it is in space. Gielgen and his wife share their smallholding with eight cats, six dogs, two Haflinger horses and two ponies. Also at home here on the farm are Gielgen’s parents-in-law and a residential group of young people with special needs. Gielgen, dressed in white sneakers and a blue hoodie, shows us his study, a large, bright room off the combined kitchen and living room. The windows of the study overlook a paddock and the woods. It has a fireplace, natural-stone tiles on the floor and an impressive wall-filling bookshelf – and, of course, some design classics: the Panton Chair in brilliant yellow, the Eames wooden elephant, and a big Fantoni desk. The walls are hung with conference posters from all over the world, as well as a postcard with a quote from Picasso on it: “I do not seek, I find.” “This is where I do my thinking,” says Gielgen. “When I get home from my travels, it’s the room where I can focus best and consolidate my impressions. ”For Vitra, he puts together so-called “work panoramas” – a new one every 18months. In them, Gielgen names the global metatrends he believes are set to shape the future world of work. For his customers, it’s like a compass that points the way forward. “What I have here grounds me,” says Gielgen, looking out of the window to the green expanse beyond. “If I miss anything, then it’s discussing
I jump into new territory, get myself lifted out and report.
ON THE ROAD.
The Vitra campus is 500 kilometres from the pony farm. In his native Rhine accent, Gielgen speaks the address into the satnav. He hails from a village near Aachen but moved to the Upper Palatinate region as a favour to his wife. He commutes by car to his employer’s offices on the Swiss border. “I love driving. Behind the wheel, I feel like a cowboy on his horse.” Even trend scouts love the Wild West. Gielgen uses his car as a place to learn. Before every journey, he downloads audiobooks and podcasts. He is usually on the road by four in the morning. At that time, he can call Vitra colleagues in Asia, whose day is already well advanced –conversations with the future, so to speak. This is how Gielgen describes his work: “I’m like the parachutist of a special unit. I fly in, jump into new territory, get myself lifted out and report.” Of course he reads up on things beforehand, he says. And of course he also makes lots of appointments with interesting people before heading out, say, to Silicon Valley. “But I turn up without rigid expectations or any other kind of bias. I want to be completely open-minded.” If he weren’t, he wouldn’t be a trend scout, just an expert. Gielgen is self-taught; he never went to university, but he does know every facet of the furniture industry. He started out as a joiner’s apprentice, then trained as a retail salesman. After working in consulting, management and communication for Vitra rival Bene und Steelcase, he ultimately persuaded the old-established Swiss company to create the exceptional position for him that he now holds. Gielgen has been travelling into the future for Vitra for seven years.
THE VITRA CAMPUS.
Gielgen turns the Clubman in at the factory gate. The Vitra site in Weil am Rhein is a place of pilgrimage for design and architecture fans from all over the world. Vitra mastermind Rolf Fehlbaum, who has since handed over the reins of the company to his niece, Nora, came up with a brilliant idea in the early 1980s: Why shouldn’t utility buildings be built by star architects? And that’s how Zaha Hadid came to create a distinctively linear fire station and Frank O. Gehry a plain factory and the zany Vitra Museum. SANAA built a warehouse that looks like a gigantic panna cotta while Herzog & de Meuron contributed a flame-red brick building, which holds key representatives of the history of design. “The campus has an incredible aura. It grabs me, no matter what time of day I come,” says Gielgen. “You develop broad shoulders when you work here.” Today, trend scout Gielgen has a meeting lined up with Pirjo Kiefer, 51. As Head of Interior Design Services at Vitro, she advises companies on office projects. “Building on Raphael’s input, we can design future-oriented office worlds with our customers. He prepares the way by sensitising decision makers to the connection between global trends, corporate strategy and space. ”Kiefer, bright eyes beneath brown bangs, sees two mega-themes emerging from the pandemic: “On the one hand, we will be doing more things at home. That’s why we talk about the ‘active home’. On the other hand, the office will not die, although its role will change, making it a place that stands for identification and emotion. That’s why we call it the ‘club office‘”. Company headquarters in clubhouse guise? Gielgen nods.