Vitra’s London showroom was originally designed by David Chipperfield, 2000.

Design for strife

23.08.05. The Guardian

It’s 2am on a rainy Saturday and I’m sitting on a canvas chair outside a furniture showroom in Clerkenwell, central London. I am not alone. At the head of the queue, some 20 places in front of me, I can just make out a sleeping couple buried under a duvet. They have been here since Wednesday morning. Elsewhere in the line, a man is playing a beautiful steel guitar rather badly. Someone next to him mumbles some lyrics, but they’re not going to win any talent contests. The atmosphere is superficially friendly, but the bum notes and faltering conversation mask tension. There are less than eight hours to go until the annual Vitra sale.

This Swiss manufacturer is one of the world's leading brands in contemporary furniture. Founded in 1950 by Willi Fehlbaum, Vitra was responsible for introducing designs by Charles and Ray Eames to Europe in 1957 and has worked with some of the world's most notable designers and architects, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Philippe Starck and Ron Arad. Its annual sale started in 2003 and ever since, the reductions have become more and more dramatic.

The punters waiting outside didn’t think twice about spending three nights away from their comfortable beds. Liliana Shanbhag, a 19-year-old architecture student who was the first to arrive on Wednesday morning, along with her boyfriend Richard Speight, has her heart set on an Eames lounger, reduced from more than £4,000 to just £50. ‘I just can’t afford these items normally,’ she tells me, ‘and seeing as I'm on holiday I thought it was an opportunity not to miss.’ ‘We’re going to live together at university,’ chips in Speight. ‘She’s going to get the Eames chair and I’m going to get something else.’

The clubbers on their way home who gawped in disbelief when we told them why we were camped outside may not believe it, but this group of students, architects, teachers and investment bankers reflects a sea change in British culture. As a nation we have become obsessed by contemporary interior design. We don’t just covet clean lines; we’re willing to fight tooth and nail for them. The clearest proof of this came in February, when five people were taken to hospital after a riot broke out among 6,000 bargain-hunters at the Edmonton branch of Ikea in north London.

Tony Ash, Vitra UK managing director, says that the Swedish behemoth deserves much of the credit for our new love for design. ‘I think Ikea has done a wonderful job in opening people’s eyes to the possibility of having high-design products in their homes,’ he says. ‘It makes some pretty spectacular stuff now, and if that piques consumers’ interest in contemporary design, the next step is to go to people like us.’

The plethora of home makeover programmes has helped too, of course. ‘They have completely changed people’s perception of how they might mould their homes,’ says Naomi Cleaver, design consultant and presenter of Channel 4’s Honey, I Ruined the House. ‘I think the nature of producing a television programme insists on a contemporary treatment. If you’ve got 24 hours, in the case of Changing Rooms, you’re not going to go out to a lovely antique shop and take your time choosing special pieces. You’re going to go to Ikea or Habitat – Ikea, mainly, because it’s incredibly cheap – and put a space together in that context.’

Back at Vitra, no one’s expecting a scrap, but there have been arguments – notably at the front – over who arrived first. ‘When we arrived the woman next to us had left her chair here and gone somewhere else,’ says Richard, pointing at a small wooden stool that is once again unoccupied, ‘but there’s been a compromise now. Liliana is first, she’s second and I’m third.’ It sounds like a reasonable arrangement, but when I approach their neighbour she is still too miffed to make eye contact, let alone talk.

By 8.30am the hard core have been joined by hundreds of others. After waiting 72 hours, Richard and Liliana look more relieved than excited as opening time approaches. ‘It has definitely been worth it,’ says Richard, trying to remain upbeat. ‘That said, we’re looking forward to going to bed really badly. A shower would be amazing.’

As the doors are finally unlocked, it looks as though the alliances forged during the days of waiting are holding strong. The first six people through the entrance move swiftly but politely to their allotted pieces and pick up the required sales tickets. Soon afterwards, though, things descend into chaos. Excitement and lack of sleep appear to have got to some of the shoppers as they sprint towards the bargains at the back of the showroom. A man flies through a pile of chairs, sending them crashing into a wall. ‘Just calm down, please!’ bellows a shop assistant, in hope rather than expectation. I bump into one of the UK’s leading young architects, who waves a fistful of white slips at me. ‘My friends were at the front and they just grabbed every label they could see,’ he cackles. ‘So I’ve got a selection of Eameses. It’s absolutely hilarious!’

At the cash desk I meet Arnaud Payet, a translator, who shows me his purchase and then lifts his trouser leg to reveal his red badge of courage: a rather nasty two-inch gash he received in the process. ‘We were just two people fighting for the same chair. He was behind me and pushed me. I tripped over and there you go,’ he says as blood trickles down his leg.

One shopper’s story best sums up the moment of madness. ‘We arrived here at five o’clock this morning and we couldn’t be bothered to stand, so we brought some folding chairs along,’ says Wolfgang Haak. ‘They were about £5 from Tesco and because there was this mad rush, we just decided to ditch them among the furniture. We were looking for some bits and pieces, turned around and saw someone actually about to walk off and try to pay for them. People have no idea what they’re buying. They think: ‘It’s in Vitra, it must be good. Buy it!’