A Family-Run Company Gracefully Shifts from Aluminum Folding Chairs to High-End Outdoor Furniture

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By Diana Budds / Published by Dwell
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How Kettal, a furniture company in Spain, remains a vanguard of outdoor design.

Pavilion-like shade structures and sofas composed of intricately woven straps are a far cry from the humble aluminum folding chair, but for Kettal, the Barcelona-based outdoor design company, they are borne from the same spirit of innovation and reinvention. When Manuel Alorda founded Kettal in 1964, the first product he sold was one such metal seat. With his son, Alex Alorda, at the helm since 2006, the company has built a collection of technically rigorous and aesthetically daring furniture. Here, the Alordas brief us on design culture, the inherent difficulty of outdoor furniture manufacturing, and how they work with venerated designers like Patricia Urquiola, Jasper Morrison, and Hella Jongerius.

Alex and Manuel Alorda recline in a canopy designed by Patricia Urquiola in 2009.

Kettal’s products today are leagues away from its first offerings 50 years ago. Has the philosophy changed?

The Vieques rocking chair, launched in 2012, is covered in 3-D woven fabric.

Manuel: We have always been looking for differentiation through design and innovation. Kettal needed to evolve. Alex guided the brand towards emphasizing design.

The fabric took Kettal three-and-a-half years to develop.

Alex: When my father started the company, he did things differently. When people said "plastic chairs," he said aluminum chairs; when they said "aluminum chairs" he called for a specific aluminum. He is a very curious guy, which is important. The day you lose curiosity, you become a dead man. It’s not about age; it’s about spirit. My father has that spirit, and he taught it to me.

Jasper Morrison’s Park Life collection of 2012.

What should good design accomplish?

The brand has evolved significantly since making folding aluminum furniture.

Manuel: Furniture must improve our daily lives, not only from a functional and ergonomic point of view, but with a good balance between creativity, method, values, and experience.

Alex: It’s something that’s timeless on your eyes and in engineering so that 30 years after a piece is designed, it still has consumer demand and is still in production.

How do you grapple with the constant push for "newness" in the contemporary furniture industry?

Alex: I want my tenure to be remembered for working with a team to create maybe one, two, or three future classics. It takes us about four years to develop a new collection. You cannot release two durable, long-lasting collections every year. It’s not possible because you have to innovate with the materials.

Kettal works with a small, elite group of designers. Tell us about your collaborative approach.

Manuel: It has to be natural. We approach designers who think and conceive design the same way we do. They have different personalities and sensibilities. The commonality is that they’re all product people.

Alex: We don’t "collect" designers. We work with few people—people whom we view as friends and whom we respect very much. They give us the design, and we bring it from paper to reality. Vieques, our second collection, launched in 2012, has a fabric that took us three-and-a-half years to develop. Eight years ago, Patricia [Urquiola] brought us an oil filter with a 3-D texture and said, "I love this and I want to do something with this fabric." She created the design, and we worked from that language to make it possible. You will never create a "good" design only with a good designer. You need a good designer and a good company to create good things.

Why are materials a linchpin for Kettal?

Alex: If you want to do something interesting, you have to innovate with materials; you have to think of new ways of doing. 

Why was bringing manufacturing back to Spain from overseas important?

Alex: We can control the production and finishing of each piece and feel proud of what we produce. Because of the actions we took, everyone at Kettal felt more empowered. Having a motivated team that feels proud is much more interesting than a six percent cost reduction.