History of Vitra
• The Vitra Design Musuems serves as a place to document and interpret the history of industrial furniture.
• The museum publishes catalogues which accompany exhibitions as well as separately providing historical documentation.
• Vitra is a well known and respected manufacturer of office furniture in Europe.
• Willi Fehlbaum began his Swiss firm in 1934 as a manufacturer of shop fittings.
• In 1977, Willi’s son, Kolf, took over the company, where he then began collecting early samples of furniture. The designs he collected were by Eameses and Nelson, as well as other classic modern designers, jean Prouve and Alvar Alto.
• In 1987, Rolf met Alexander Von Vegesack, who was an equally passionate collector, from whom he acquired a large group of classic furniture from 1880-1945.
• Originally Rolf intended to house the collection in a building adjacent a new factory commissioned from the North American architect, Frank Gehry.
• The Gehry Factory was part of Vitra’s ambitious building program which involved commissioning; some would say collecting, major international architects to design new structures at Vitra’s main manufacturing site in Weil Am Rhein, Germany. These included Nicholas Grimshaw, Tadao Ando, Eva Jiricna, Zaha Hadid and Alvaro Siza.
• Gehry’s “collection building” was intended to be open to business customers. However as the collection grew and Alexander Von Vegesack was hired as a free-lance director, the building transformed into a museum, open to the public. This subsequently attracted considerable attention, not only because of the objects in the collection, but because it was Gehry’s first European building, a dynamic and complex structure which drew in part of German Expressionist and Czech Cubist architecture for inspiration.
• The Vitra consists of more than 1800 pieces of furniture, with a majority being chairs.
Philosophy behind the collection
• Although contemporaries viewed it as style-less and timeless anti-style, the collection was expressed as an ahistorical utopian, functional and geometrically pure modernist style codified in the 1920s.
• The vitra museum and its collection are different from other corporate collections and museums. Many manufacturers have collections of their own products, although they tend to be relatively small. Few companies place value on original objects and designs.
• Whilst is may be true that the Vitra Design Museum collection includes some examples of Vitra furniture, that the museum is located on the factory site and that it frequently lends its holdings to exhibitions and trade shows, its cannot in anyway be described as a collection of the company’s products. Indeed it is difficult to believe that any corporate collection in the world includes such a small percentage of its own firm’s productions.
• The Vitra Design Museum was built during economic expansion when design found expression in all manner of consumer products, artwork and private institution.
• Like most cultural organisations, the future of the Vitra Design Museum relies on its ability to expand its audience and fund its own operating budget by income, hence its publications program and production lines of miniature furniture and the commitment of the Vitra company itself
• Unlike most design museums, the Vitra Design Museum focuses almost entirely on furniture and has been more that once referred to as a chair museum.
• Although most of its new additions to the collection have appeared to be beyond modernism, its outlook still adheres to a modernist belief in the moral, even redemptive power of design and in the validity of furniture as an autonomous and deeply important area of work.
• “ The fish shape got me into moving freely” (Gehry, 1990)
• “I learned how to make a building that was much more plastic and the first chance at that was the furniture museum at Vitra... I started to ude those shapes, but now I think the thing is to cut it back and see how little of that you can do and still get that sense of immediacy and movement”
• The Fish image, its form and appearance refined in drawing after drawing, changes from object with iconic identity to an innovative material application of a frame bearing a shimmering skin. And in exploring the theme, intuitively he learned how to make double curves in buildings.
• In the Bilbao Guggenheim, “fish” – truncated without head or tail, is transformed into leaf (or boat-like) shapes and applied in some of the side galleries – is endowed with a more elusive metaphorical quality which signifies fluidity and continuous motion.
• “Whenever I’d draw something and I couldn’t finish the design, I’d draw the fish as a notation... that I want this to be better than just a dumb building. I want it to be more beautiful” (Gehry, 1985)