Vitra Campus5 August, 2015
ROLF SOON HAD ENOUGH PIECES TO SET UP HIS OWN MUSEUM, WHICH WAS EXACTLY WHAT HE DID. HIS COLLECTION OF FURNITURE IS NOW ONE OF THE LARGEST IN THE WORLD.
Weil am Rhein is an unassuming German city in the shadow of Tüllinger Mountain. On the side of an anonymous grey tower block in the centre of town, Stadt der Stühle – City of Chairs – is written in a neat sans serif font many metres high. There is a street in Weil am Rhein called Charles-Eames-Straße. If you turn left out of it onto Römerstraße and drive for a few minutes, you’ll cross the Rhine, and with it, the border into France. Turn left, then left again down Müllheimer Straße due south, and with equal swiftness, you will cross the invisible line that takes you out of the EU, almost immediately finding yourself in the suburbs of the Swiss city of Basel. Berlin, in contrast, lies a mighty 858 km northeast. Charles-Eames-Straße is the home of Vitra Campus, its coordinates a metaphor for the company’s unconventional genius; the genius of bringing elements together.
If Vitra has a face, it is that of Rolf Fehlbaum; a pale, attentive man usually found with an open necked white shirt, trademark black framed glasses matching his neatly tailored jacket. Do not be fooled by the clean lines; minimalism does not feature here. Kaleidoscopic complexity is the hallmark of the Vitra story. Rolf was born in 1941, the eldest son of Erika and Willi Fehlbaum. Another of their other offspring was Vitra, created to produce chairs by Ray and Charles Eames, and George Nelson in 1957, when Rolf was 16. The company cut its teeth on moulded plywood, hand stitched leather, and hefty price tags, but quickly displayed its radical design credentials and segued into mass produced polyester. The fluid scarlet ‘S’ of the Pantonstolen (1965) was the world’s first plastic stacking chair. While its DNA was scooped from ideas floating in the design ether since before the war, Danish designer and namesake Verner Panton formulated its shape, with Erika and Willi playing midwife. North American design giant Herman Miller marketed the result, kicking off a partnership that endured for decades.
As the first Panton Chair was leaving the depot, Rolf was ensconced in the cavernous library at the University of Freiburg, completing his doctoral thesis. This polymath’s proclivities were already clear from his choice of subject matter; Claude Henri du Rauvroy, a 19th century sociologist and thinker, famously quoted with saying; La société tout entière repose sur l’industrie – ‘All of society rests on industry’. On leaving academia, and after a brief sojourn in the nest of the family business, Rolf embarked on a journey of professional discovery taking in editing, film, architecture, and education. It took him ten years to come home, but when he did, it was for good. With Rolf at the helm, diversity, scope, and scale became Vitra’s motto. He expanded, collated, crossed boundaries, but above all, he collected with a voracious appetite. He brought together the Centripetal Spring Armchair (1849) by Warren, Hoffman’s Sitzmachine (1905), and Lloyd Wright’s Peacock Chair (1921). He placed MR 10 (1927) by van der Rohe, M400 (1964) by Tallon, and No. 577 (1967) by Paulin side by side. Armsessel, Gartensessel, Sperholzsessel, Corbusier, Aalto, Noguchi; the inventory grew ever longer. Rolf soon had enough pieces to set up his own museum, which was exactly what he did. His collection of furniture is now one of the largest in the world.
On 20 July 1981 at 4 a.m., lightning struck. Warm winds fanned the flames, and by morning, half of Vitra’s production facilities at Weil am Rhein were reduced to ash. Precedent precludes surprise at Rolf’s rejection of replacing like with anonymous prefabricated like, but even the idea of one beautifully designed solution proved short lived. No sooner had the ribbon been cut on Nicholas Grimshaw’s cavernous factories, than Fehlbaum shook the hand of the next architect in line. A new phase of collecting had begun – this time, it was architecture. The tilted horizons and tangled toytown rooftops of Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum were completed in 1989. Zaha Hadid’s ‘frozen explosion’ in cement followed. The Fire Station (1993) was the first of her buildings to make it out of the sketch book. Past lessons learnt well, the name is more than a vanity tag; its great sail was designed to shelter the campus’s volunteer fire brigade.
Tadao Ando followed swiftly the same year by enclosing a slab of lawn in the angular grey embrace of his Conference Pavilion. In 1994, Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza created a cluster of utilitarian connecting structures, fulfilling Felhbaum’s resolve that every corner of his growing campus make a design statement. Siza was invited back in 2011 to create a 500 m walkway addressing the shift in balance that Herzog & Meuron’s VitraHaus (2010) brought about. Their glass fronted barn stack houses the Vitra Collection, a design aficionado’s answer to the Library at Alexandria. In 2012, the corrugated white curtain of SANAA’s factory rose like a tsunami, the huge articulated trucks serving it dwarfed like workers around a swollen queen.
The latest addition to the architectural collage of Vitra Campus, perhaps more than any other, underlines Fehlbaum’s approach to design. Carsten Höller’s 30.7 m high metallic tower is topped by a timepiece, the hands of which, in a marvellous display of maximalist idiosyncrasy, come together every 12 hours to form the Vitra logo for a brief moment. As if that wasn’t enough, the structure is wrapped in a 38 m long slide. On its inauguration, one wonders how many scions of the design vanguard surreptitiously slung their sling backs over their shoulders and allowed their asymmetrical fringes to be ruffled by a dizzying descent, whooping with abandon as they went. Surely Rolf Fehlbaum was among them, shirt tales flapping in the breeze. As Vitra grows, the form it takes comes from the need to reshape itself, with the only certainty being growth itself. Vitra’s stake in 21st century design is such that the shape it takes affects they way our homes and our workplaces look, and how the products we buy are made. In this wonderland curated by Erika and Willi’s eldest, drawing visitors in from near and far, design is a game played with deadly seriousness.