Industrial designer Otto Zapf was born into a family of cabinet makers in 1931 in Rossbach, former Czechoslovakia. In 1945, his family moved to Eschborn, near Frankfurt in Germany. Turned off carpentry from the dust and the dirt of his father’s workshop, Zapf instead decided to study mathematics and physics at Goethe University in Frankfurt. When he returned to design, Zapf used his mathematical background to enhance his office furniture designs.
He began to design professionally in 1956, jointly with Rolf Schmidt, Dieter Rams (b. 1932) and Günther Kieser (b. 1930). In 1958 he met and befriended Danish entrepreneur Niels Vitsœ (1913-1995). A year later they founded the company, Vitsœ + Zampf, producing furniture designed by Dieter Rams. Ultimately, the partnership ended with Zapf leaving the company because he was not rightly credited with the design that inspired Ram’s infamous 606 shelving unit. After Zapf left in 1969, the company became simply Vitsœ.
In 1967, Zapf designed his own collection of fiberglass desks, cabinets, bookcases, and chairs that utilized fiberglass frames and shells. The Sofallettes, Arcadia, Comudus and Calix sofas; the fully fiberglass Column Table (1967) were well received at the time. It was for his Column Floor Lamp (1968) however, that he won the “Gute Form” (Good Form) Award in 1972.
Sometime between 1970 and 1971, Zapf designed his Softline System–one of the very first fabric-based panel display systems. The design received acclaim at the Design Center in Stuttgart. Bobby Cadwallader, president of the American furniture manufacturer Knoll, hired Zapf in 1973 to create an office system based on these fabric-covered frames and Bill Stephen’s Stephens System (1971). The result was the Zapf System (1976), which promoted an entirely free and open office environment, including free standing desks, storage units, work stations and screens. This collaboration marked Knoll’s first venture into office and systems furniture. Pacific Telephone used the system for over 7,500 employees, which was the largest furniture contract in history. Soon, Zapf’s designs were in the corporate headquarters of IBM, General Motors and CBS.
A fruitful collaboration, Zapf created an array of much-lauded designs for Knoll which were—above all—user friendly, comfortable and welcoming. In 1982 the Zapf System was adapted, extended and renamed the Zapf Plus Office System, which was launched in Europe in 1985. He continued to design for the modernist office, with the Management Office System for Vitra (1986), the Aurora Office System (1991), which took ten years to design and develop and which won the “Best of Neocon” award in Chicago, and the Marvel Zapf Office System (1999) which was also exhibited in at Neocon in Chicago.
Today, Zapf continues to design and develop new products in his studio in Germany.