With Europe’s best archive of modernist furniture, vast production facilities, and a collection of buildings designed by leading architects to house it all, the Vitra Campus is a powerhouse of 21st-century design, discovers Mark C O’Flaherty
It is priceless. Hidden away behind locked doors bearing NO PHOTOGRAPHY signage, in a maze of shelves in the darkest recesses of the Vitra Campus, is the world’s most dazzling collection of 20th– and 21st-century furniture. The scene is reminiscent of the closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the Ark of the Covenant is put into storage in Hangar 51 in Nevada’s desert. These are astonishing hidden treasures, a privately owned archive beyond compare. There are one-off pieces by Prouvé alongside the greatest collection of vintage Eames in existence. One whole room is set aside for Alexander Girard’s textiles, including samples in 1950s boxes that bear Girard’s handwriting. Along one wall stand brightly coloured Memphis cabinets from the 1980s that look like retro MTV hip-hop Aztec totems. A few metres away on a mid-level shelf: a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge – still, officially, the world’s most expensive design object (one sold for £2,434,500 at Phillips in London last April).
When a definitive book of Vitra chairman Rolf Fehlbaum’s collection came out in 2016, it proved to be one of the weightiest coffee table volumes produced this decade. And although tours of the whole archive are currently reserved for a handful of VIPs during Art Basel, that same year a bold new red-brick Herzog & de Meuron building opened in which to see highlights.
“We showed some of the collection in 1989, the first year the Museum was open,” says Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Museum in Weil am Rhein, where Germany meets both France and Switzerland. “People think of us as a place that represents furniture design heritage, and they expect to see it. But we had to focus on temporary exhibitions after our inauguration because of our remote location – if we only showed the chair collection, we wouldn’t have many return visitors. Now, 25 years later, we finally have the second space to display it – in chronological order.”
The most recent ‘Bauhaus’ show at the Museum building will, like the ‘Making Africa’ show before it (which went on to the Guggenheim in Bilbao), expand and take on a life of its own on tour. Both shows contain elements of Fehlbaum’s collection, but these items were by no means the starting point for either – the Vitra Museum is an institution run entirely apart from the Vitra production facility and VitraHaus showrooms on the Campus. “It is wonderful and unique,” says Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London. “It could have just been a company museum on a business park, but they have put together a series of great architectural projects.”
The new Herzog & de Meuron space – effectively one vast windowless gallery showcasing 450 key pieces from Fehlbaum’s private collection of 7000 – has added yet another Instagram-friendly building to what Fehlbaum, on taking over the family-run business in 1977, envisaged as a kind of “Vitraland”. “The result was extraordinary,” says Didier Krzentowski, one of the world’s most influential design gallerists. “Of course it includes one of the most important collections of industrial design in the world, but the Campus boasts industrial manufacturing facilities, and buildings by some of the world’s greatest architects: Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Prouvé and SANAA.” There is also a vertigo-inducing viewing tower by Carsten Höller, complete with slide, that is equal parts inspiring and terror-inducing. Visitors to Vitra get so much more than the opportunity to see an Eames office chair being made in the factory.
When Fehlbaum took over the company, renowned for producing the iconic Herman Miller and Eames collections alongside its hugely successful shop-fitting business, he already had an impressive private collection of furniture. Four years later the Vitra factory, responsible for producing design classics including the profoundly pop Panton Chair, the mid-century modern Eames DCW and the fanciful George Nelson Marshmallow Sofa, burnt to the ground. Necessity would be the mother of invention: the specifics of Vitra’s insurance policy required them to be back in business in six months. Fehlbaum employed high-tech British architect Nicholas Grimshaw to create a sleek, sci-fi industrial facility. He says he found his style as compelling as it was obviously suited to the task: “His technical aesthetic and construction with prefabricated elements – stemming from the ideas of the Eamses – greatly appealed to me.”
The new-look Vitra facility inspired Fehlbaum to take things further. He scrapped plans to have Grimshaw extend his vision across the whole Campus, and began inviting other architects to break new ground. Fehlbaum’s private collection was the starting point. “I had begun to collect pieces of furniture,” he says. “More and more people were interested in viewing them. I thought a small building for exhibiting furniture could be placed in front of a new factory.”
Things didn’t quite go to plan – with wonderful results. When Vitra founder Willi Fehlbaum turned 70, his children commissioned a Claes Oldenburg sculpture for him, to be installed in front of the Campus. The result was Balancing Tools – a supersized collection of the implements used to create an Eames chair. During the project, Claes introduced Rolf to Frank Gehry. A shared passion of form led to Gehry designing both the Museum and a new production building. Both count as the first projects Gehry completed outside the US, and the first to display his now distinctive, fantastical, deconstructivist style. “I’ve never looked for an architect who has the most practical solution,” says Fehlbaum. “I am interested in finding the right person, someone I would like to solve a problem with.”
Fehlbaum was the first, and still one of the few, to greenlight a Zaha Hadid building. It was decided that Vitra would build its own fire station to serve the Campus and nearby areas (the existing one had been too far away to save the buildings when the fire hit). The imagery Hadid supplied for the building, created in 1993, barely suggests a building at all. The result incorporates a dazzling concrete canopy that is slowly collapsing, a terrace deemed unsafe after an inspection by safety legislators and toilet doors without locks (“they are glass, you can see if someone is inside!” went the reasoning). The whole thing is as flawed as it is glorious. It is also, like other buildings on the Campus, an experiment in how architecture affects human behaviour: Hadid’s building is a deconstructivist funhouse, intended to keep its firefighting staff on edge, ready for action. Tadao Ando’s building (his first beyond Japan) is, in contrast, a place of contemplation. “Ando and I first talked of it as a meditation space – a pavilion of silence,” recalls Fehlbaum. The front door of the concrete building is deliberately narrow, reached by a winding path that can accommodate people in single file only. Once you’ve walked Ando’s way, and slid down Höller’s slide, Fehlbaum’s original vision for the Campus as a starchitect theme park seems perfectly apt. It supports the idea that all architecture should be experiential – only truly bad architecture doesn’t consider the end user, or a human being at all.
Other structures on the Vitra Campus include a 1950s prefab petrol station by Jean Prouvé and a bus stop by Jasper Morrison. There is a 1975 Dome by Buckminster Fuller, and a 2013 prototype of Renzo Piano’s Diogene – a single-room dwelling that can be installed anywhere; a project Vitra had brought so close to market as to price it, before abandoning it. Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus is comprised of a series of showrooms styled for fictional residents, curated by the likes of Ilse Crawford, and a timeline of Vitra furniture.
The largest structure on the Campus is deceptive and remarkably subtle. The enormity of the white SANAA factory building is hard to gauge, thanks to its irregular circular structure, clad with what looks like one giant acrylic glass curtain. The interior, accessible to the public only via one of the Museum’s architecture tours, reveals a radically different kind of factory floor: because SANAA didn’t want anything other than white to reflect on the pale concrete walls, there are no hazard patterns, or colours at all. White, bright and serene, it’s an inspiring, superbly 21st– century working environment.
Vitra is a powerhouse of design production. There’s so much more to it than the Eames Lounge Chair and the Charlotte Perriand Potence lamp. Having acquiring Artek – the modernist carpentry brand founded in the 1930s by Alvar Aalto – in 2013, it then introduced Bouroullec designs based on Artek classics. And fashion brand G-Star RAW, which is owned by particularly obsessive Prouvé collectors, continues to collaborate with Catherine Prouvé on Vitra pieces that put twists on her father’s classic designs.
While Vitra remains a commercial juggernaut, it is a crucible and champion for the avant-garde, too. The starchitect buildings on the Campus cost between 10 per cent and 15 per cent more than the industry ‘standard’, but they recoup that tenfold in marketing. Most significantly, the way the Vitra Campus has developed reflects the changing culture of design globally. “We opened in 1989, at the same time as the Design Museum in London,” says Mateo Kries. “In the 90s, exhibition design in a museum was prosaic: ‘Here is a red and blue chair’. That was enough and that’s how exhibitions looked. Now it’s not about a single piece, it’s about society and context, the development and manufacture. We have a show next year about robotics.”
The curation at Vitra has changed the way design is perceived and looks. Like many, Ron Arad – whose work was the subject of one of the Museum’s first exhibitions, in 1990 – believes the uniqueness of the Vitra Museum is its attitude to what constitutes ‘design’. “I like museums that have a more carefree attitude to what they exhibit,” he says. “Why can’t you show Donald Judd next to a chair? MoMA has very strict rules about what ‘design’ can be exhibited: it has to be industrially produced, for instance. I don’t think much of that, or them.”
The Vitra Campus has, in its short history, brought new talent to the fore, and created new stars of design. “I am truly indebted to Rolf,” says Arad. “He ordered work from me back when I didn’t really have a design business. He saw a picture of my Rover chair in blueprint, and commissioned me to do something for him.” The commission led to the Vitra solo exhibition in 1990, ‘Sticks and Stones’. “I had a workshop adjacent to the exhibition space,” recalls Arad, “and I was experimenting with materials that I had never used before. I still use them. It changed my way of working forever.”
Photography by Mark C O’Flaherty
A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Baku magazine.