BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society student Stan Portus takes a trip to Germany and considers the relationship between a Modernist heritage and a Postmodern present
This year marks the 20th anniversary of architect Zaha Hadid’s first commission, the Fire Station at the Vitra Campus, located just outside Basel in Will-am-Rhein, Germany. A new installation outside the building, entitled Prima, was commissioned from Hadid by Swarovski to mark the anniversary. Her original drawings for the Fire Station were used to create the five angular components of the sculpture, embodying ideas of action and speed. Hadid believes buildings should float: observing the juxtaposition of these structures, it is difficult to deny that this had been achieved.
Vitra is a company with quality and ‘good design’ at the forefront of its ethos. Entering the Campus as an architecture and furniture fan, it was hard to be disappointed. Since the site largely burnt down in 1981, Rolf Fehlbaum, son of Willi Fehlbaum the founder of Vitra, has transformed the site into a ‘playing field’ committed to ‘experimentation and artistic excellence’. The architect Philip Johnson described Vitra Campus as the first place since Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart in 1927 to bring together the most distinguished architects in the western world.
Rolf Fehlbaum’s personal collection of furniture forms the basis of the Vitra Design Museum, housed on the Campus in the building of another Pritzker winning architect, Frank Gehry. Opened in 1989, the same year as London’s Design Museum, Gehry’s first building outside America took a radically different approach to its British counterpart. Unlike the London structure, a re-clad warehouse on Shad Thames that harks back to the Modernist style of Le Corbusier, Gehry’s building represents the contemporary Postmodern deconstructivist style he would explore further in his later work, notably the Guggenheim museums. Ron Arad, when asked what the best and worst things of 1989 were by Design magazine (December, 1989), praised Vitra’s Museum and complained that at the ‘safe’ London building ‘visitors don’t see anything they haven’t seen before’.
The pedigree of the architecture and design represented at Vitra sustain the company’s image as the home of ’design classics’. Vitra recently acquired Artek, the Finnish design company co-founded by Alvar Aalto in 1935. At its core Artek is comprised of Aalto’s work, including his Armchair 41 and birch wood furniture. This acquisition is an example of Vitra ensuring their position as holders of a strong canon of 20th century designers. Vitra arguably became synonymous with the Eames since acquiring the rights to manufacture their work in 1957; in another 60 or so years they will likely be synonymous with Aalto and Artek as well. However, there are arguably some issues relating to Vitra in regards to their ideas on what constitutes classic design, what they choose to manufacture and their outlook on what design should be.
In his book Project Vitra, Luis Fernández-Galiano, explains how Rolf Fehlbaum wrote a doctoral thesis on Saint-Simon before taking over the family business. The interest in a utopian socialist from Napoleonic times, who believed in the new religion of industry, left a lasting impact on Vitra’s design canon. Industrial production of furniture was the aim of designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Aalto, which was seen as a means to supply many with ‘good design’.
The Campus contains other buildings from architectural history such as Jean Prouvé’s petrol station from 1953 (acquired in 2003) and a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome (1975), formerly used as a car showroom in America and brought to the campus in 2000. Fuller’s dome adheres to Modernist ideas of utopianism and Prouvé’s Petrol Station is also a strong example of rationalised design, a fundamental tenet of Modernism. It was one of the first serially manufactured petrol stations and could be assembled easily by two people, thus reducing labour time.
It is strange to see Modernist ideas of ‘good design’ so strongly expressed at Vitra, a company also engaged with contemporary designers and architects. Postmodernism acted as a reactionary movement against such ideas. How we understand the role of the designer and material culture has changed dramatically since 1950s Modernism, where the designer was seen as able to dictate taste and often had societal aims at the centre of their work. Revealed is a complex relationship between the heritage and the contemporary work of Vitra. Walking around Vitra Haus, Vitra’s onsite show room and shop designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, one is left with the feeling that the Modernist history of design Vitra represents and manufactures will always be present, regardless of how dated the ideas of ‘good design’ apparent in some of the products are. Yet one also has to consider that Vitra has always provided a space for the new and exciting and continues to do so.