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Weil am Rhein – home to the Vitra Campus, where one can spend the day browsing through the Vitra Design Museum. It’s an extensive collection of major pieces of design objects, encompassing an array of styles from the nineteenth century onward. Starting out as the private collection of Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum, it now contains around 20.000 curated pieces, from lighting fixtures to electronics, tables and chairs – so many chairs. From there, you may like to head to the company’s flagship store – Vitra Haus, an eclectic composition of its most revered designs currently for sale.
But you don’t need to spend a fortune to be able to enjoy the headquarters of the Vitra corporation. Aimed at providing an immersive design experience, the Campus is an attraction in itself. Aside from browsing, one can overlook the production process in the Lounge Chair Atelier. You can also attend numerous workshops, or take in the sculptural architectural composition of the site. With buildings designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Tadao Ando and SANAA, the premises are a perfect haven for architecture and design buffs alike.
Indeed, Vitra has come a long way over the seven decades of its existence. Company was founded in 1950 by couple Willi and Erika Fehlbaum. The deciding moment of the company’s establishment as a successful business was three years later during a trip to the USA. It was in New York that they became acquainted with the work of Ray and Charles Eames. The rest was history.
Captivated by the American furniture design scene, they soon set about bringing the trends to Europe, entering into a partnership with Herman Miller. Thus, Vitra became the licensed manufacturer of the Herman Miller brand furniture for the European market. They acquired the rights to designs not only by the Eameses, but other notable designers such as George Nelson and Isamu Noguchi.
Vitra’s partnership with Herman Miller continued well into the 1980’s, setting the foundation for the family-owned business’ development as an influential manufacturer and dealer of mid-century design icons. It was not long after that Vitra launched an original product of its very own – the Panton chair.
A mutual fascination and respect set in motion designer Verner Panton’s long-standing collaboration with the company. Willi Fehlbaum was fascinated by the designer’s idea of a legless chair made entirely out of one piece, sculpted from none other than plastic. It was an experimental undertaking fueled by a unique and exciting vision. The result of their joint labor ended up being a great success. It undeniably became Panton’s greatest design, perfected throughout the years. The chair was a sleek statement piece which shifted the world’s focus from wood, the favored material of the fifties, to plastic. It was a design that embraced the advantages of modern technologies – an expression of the evolving new trends accompanying the Space Age of the sixties. It was the collaboration on this piece which would ultimately drive Vitra’s independent reputation further.
Today, Vitra’s diverse designer portfolio boasts names like Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Jean Prouvé, Jasper Morrison and Konstantin Grcic. Their long-standing partnerships with independent designers is what sets them apart from the competition. Yet, what makes Vitra most remarkable is its vision, which goes beyond just furniture production.
The Vitra Campus is the prolific result of the company’s artistic exploration aimed at preserving and enhancing the design process. Despite being a mishmash of diverse architectural styles brought to life by some of the most remarkable, yet very different names in contemporary architecture – oddly, it works. It is a complete embodiment of Vitra’s design philosophy which strives for experimentation and artistic freedom. The most remarkable fact, which has earned Vitra a place in the history of architecture, is that as many as five architects, whose works stand on the campus grounds, have since been awarded the prestigious Pritzker prize. This stands in testimony to Vitra’s penchant for excellence.
After a fire destroyed the factory in 1981, Vitra set to work on reconstructing the grounds. This twist of fate brought the Vitra Campus to life and ignited a new direction for the company. The first factory building was designed by British architect Nicholas Grimshaw. Since then, the site has grown to become a magnificent ensemble of works by the world’s most distinguished architects.
The Vitra Design Museum, created in the deconstructivist style by Frank Gehry, set the growing campus onto a new path, cutting all ties with the new factory building. The works to follow were all marked with a set of “firsts”. The Conference Pavilion was Tadao Ando’s first building outside of Japan, the Fire Station Zaha Hadid’s first ever built structure.
The Campus is high-tech, futurist, purist and minimalist – all at the same time. It is characterized by the fast-paced nature of production, set against the slow and indulgent process of exploration; it is exclusive, yet extremely approachable. These buildings, set in stark contrast against each other, beautifully express the essence of the design process. The fact is that something can take years to research, create and perfect. However once it is finished, it is launched into the relentless pace of today’s society which constantly yearns for more. Vitra has mastered this balance, adapting to a world of constant change while maintaining a level of quality which makes its products timeless.
Today, Vitra is still a family-run business. A sharp eye for design is evidently characteristic of the Fehlbaums. While it was Willi and Erika who initially succeeded in bringing a taste of transatlantic design culture to Europe almost seven decades ago, it is their son’s vision which has helped elevate the company’s direction to another level entirely. Although initially reluctant to take over the business, Rolf Fehlbaum now makes sure that a family-oriented mentality can have a certain advantage over corporations. That is stemming primarily from a more non-commercial agenda.
Rolf is a strong believer in the necessity of embracing whatever one does with one’s entire being. Thus, his approach to furniture design is of a complex and multifaceted nature. An avid collector and visionary, he took his family’s furniture production business and propelled it to an almost cult status. He took his private collection of furniture and expanded it into a priceless treasury of the evolution of design over the centuries. From a burned down manufacturing facility, he brought the world the Vitra Campus. A one of a kind piece of architectural history.
Vitra today represents quality designs rooted in family values. It takes pride in an authentic and creatively driven design process. It takes pride in its long-standing history of collaborations with brilliant designers and architects. But what ultimately sets Vitra apart from the competition is a unique legacy few could offer the world – a vast collection of samples from all areas of industrial design, as well as the ensemble of architectural masterpieces they are housed in. Clearly, the business hasn’t been afraid to branch out – venturing into numerous aspects of design with a forward mindset. In addition, what Vitra offers to the people is of no less importance. It’s a glimpse into a rich history of design, as well as a transparent show of the process today. Vitra places the consumer in high regard. It opens its doors to allow a taste of the magic which goes into its timeless creations.
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