The Chairman's Chairs

The recently opened Schaudepot displays some 400 key pieces from the Vitra Design Museum’s permanent collection. Situated near the Vitra Fire Station by Zaha Hadid, this new building by Swiss Architects Herzog & de Meuron provides a second entry point to the Vitra Campus on the south side, facing the city. Behind the windowless façade made of hand-broken bricks, a selection of objects is presented on high shelves that are placed in a rigid grid formation in the main hall. On the lower ground floor, visitors can glimpse the other repositories and treasures. All in all, there are 7000 pieces of furniture, along with a vast assemblage of lighting objects and numerous archives. Rolf Fehlbaum, Chairman emeritus of Vitra, explains how it all started.

DAMN°: There have been many famous collectors – Sigmund Freund collected scarabs and statuettes; Salvador Dalí, plagiarisms of his own works. What was your personal motivation in collecting design?
Rolf Fehlbaum: Well, when I started to collect chairs I was not aware that it would result in a collection. I just wanted to have great products around me and to gain a better understanding of furniture design. I felt that if you produce furniture, you should dig as deep into your subject matter as you can. This makes your life as a producer more interesting, and you and your colleagues develop a better eye for what constitutes good design. After a few years, it was obvious that we had a collection and that we needed a building if we wanted other people to see it. This became the Vitra Design Museum by Frank Gehry. But then the idea for the museum changed and we made temporary exhibitions instead, which only showed a small part of our growing collection. Only now, with the new Schaudepot, can we give our visitors an idea of the collection as a whole.

DAMN°: What was the first piece you acquired?
RF: That was the Antony Chair by Jean Prouvé. I think I bought it in 1981. At the time – and as a matter of fact, still today – my main interest was in Charles and Ray Eames and other architects and designers with a similar approach: Alvar Aalto and Jean Prouvé. Of course, Aalto was earlier, his designs influenced the Eames. And although Jean Prouvé was based in France and experimented with different materials, his concepts are pretty similar. When the Vitra Design Museum opened in 1989, the collection became an institutional one, and from then on the ambition was to collect as widely as possible. Furniture from Thonet designed by Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, and Josef Hoffmann were added, as well as pieces by Rietveld, Breuer, Van der Rohe, and many others. The collection will never be complete, but today the major movements of the 20th century are represented. Evaluations change over time. Some aspects of the collection now seem less relevant than they did 20 years ago, others are gaining. One realises that some design stands for a moment in history and seems dated after a while, while some represents an epochal idea and remains fresh over a long time.

DAMN°: For private collectors it is crucial to possess single pieces. Nevertheless, you decided quite early on to make the collection part of the Vitra Design Museum.
RF: Absolutely. I’m not at all interested in possessing these objects personally. I would never have the notion to take a piece from the collection and place it in my home. I love the Vitra Design Museum’s collection and experience it as a very privileged visitor.

DAMN°: There are some famous estates in the collection, for example, that of Charles and Ray Eames and of Alexander Girard. What is their significance?
RF: It is awesome to be able to obtain such a heritage, and at the same time, it’s also a heavy responsibility. It takes years before you can see a result. Hardly anybody knows what it means to work with an archive, and those who do so rarely get the attention they deserve. Therefore, an estate can be a mixed blessing. But take the Alexander Girard archive, we could not have organised the exciting recent exhibition without it!

DAMN°: Marc Chagall commented that one recognises a collector not by what he owns but by the things that most delight him. What is it you would be most delighted to add to the collection?
RF: Naturally, there is a dream collection. There are objects that would be great to have but are no longer  available or are so expensive that you cannot afford them. I am not worried about these lacking highlights. It makes me happier to discover things that I had previously neglected. It may be strange for a Swiss person, but for a long while I was not very interested in Swiss design. I’m now discovering people like Jacob Müller, Wilhelm Kienzle, and Max Ernst Haefeli, who are hardly known outside Switzerland but have wonderful yet very discreet qualities. This morning I went through the collection and had a look at some chairs by Josef Frank that previously I hadn’t appreciated very much, and I was delighted. It is great that the collection is not personal at all. It’s not limited by my own borders. That’s why again and again I am able to discover new aspects of design that I did not notice before.

Interview: Sandra Hofmeister

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