Vitra is more than a furniture company or a product range: it’s a mission. That mission is referred to as Project Vitra, and is laid out in the volume by the same name published in 2008 by Birkhäuser. It outlines Vitra’s history and philosophy.
Chief design officer, Eckart Maise, who has been with the company for more than 15 years and is in charge of design development, describes the company philosophically. “Vitra is a broad project. Working at Vitra means being integrated into a wider design ‘movement’ – one that is focused on improving things, making the world a better place through design. It is more like a mission than a company. But I’m not literally a missionary, I don’t go home and try to convert my friends,” he laughs.
“The day Willi and Erika [Fehlbaum, Vitra’s founders] met Charles and Ray Eames, and George Nelson is the day Project Vitra started,” remarks Maise. “They were forward-thinking entrepreneurs but they didn’t really know what they were creating. It just evolved. Rolf, the Fehlbaum’s son and Vitra’s current chairman, often refers to how he and his parents’ encounter with Nelson and the Eames’s when he was 17 or 18 years old changed his life forever.”
That encounter has seen Vitra grow from a simple furniture shop in Basel, Switzerland in 1950 to an international operation that also includes the Vitra Design Museum; Campus Vitra, an architecture park that includes buildings designed by some of the 20th and 21st century’s most exciting and revered architects; Vitra Edition, a design laboratory for experimental furniture and interior installations; and the Vitra Design Fellowships, held in conjunction with the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Campus Vitra was an idea literally forged in fire. What started as a rebuild, after a blaze at Vitra’s Weil am Rhein facility in 1981, that had to fit the time constraints and other strictures of the insurance claim, has ended up being an extraordinary privately curated architecture “collection”.
Vitra commissioned British architect Nicholas Grimshaw to design a new factory to replace the one destroyed. That was soon complemented by an Álvaro Siza-designed production building in 1986. In 1989, Frank Gehry contributed both a factory building and a building that was originally intended to house Rolf Fehlbaum’s private furniture collection. Instead, it grew into the Vitra Design Museum, a public museum maintaining an extensive design collection, archive and research library, while also being internationally active with travelling exhibitions shown at distinguished partner institutions around the world.
While it houses important design works within its walls, the Vitra Design Museum building is itself part of a life-size gallery of contemporary architecture. As Fehlbaum describes the architecture park, “The Vitra Campus is a playing field – but for serious games.” He declares that although an industrial park does not at first sight appear to be the appropriate place for high-risk architecture, this signature collection also includes Zaha Hadid’s first built project, a (now somewhat ironic) fire station; a petrol station by Prouve; a Buckminster Fuller dome; an Ando pavilion; and most recently a factory hall by SANAA and the VitraHaus by Herzog and de Meuron.
Experimentation and inventiveness are the hallmarks of Vitra’s approach. For more than 20 years Vitra Edition has allowed designers to experiment with materials, applications, technologies and concepts not limited to the existing Vitra vocabulary, while fully accessing Vitra’s technical support to realise those experiments. Working without the constraints of market and production logic in the context of the laboratory has a liberating effect and produces some surprising results, including pieces by the Campana brothers, and Philippe Starck and Jasper Morrison.
Maise says, “We treat designers as auteurs. Jasper Morrison is Jasper Morrison whether he is doing a residency at Vitra Edition or working on a commercial project with us.”
Since their exhibition at Art Basel in 2007 the Vitra Edition prototypes now reside in museums and galleries around the world.
“Our role on a Vitra project is that of manufacturer, representing the market and the dealer, promoter and distributor,” says Maise. “We act as a kind of sparring partner defining the constraints and the functional targets. With Vitra Edition and the Vitra Design Fellowships there are no such constraints.”
The Vitra Design Fellowships are part of the international summer academy held at Domaine de Boisbuchet, a country estate in the southwest of France. Here, too, pavilions by Simón Vélez, Jörg Schlaich and Shigeru Ban are erected as part of the workshop program. They not only provide inspiration but also serve as demonstration objects, contrasting with the 19th century structures on the site. The workshops are led by designers, architects and artists – such Estudio Campana, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Tom Dixon, Fabio Novembre and Ingo Maurer – who live and work together with the participants for up to 10 days.
Typically of Vitra, the workshops aim to provide insights into the design process rather than to design the ‘perfect’ product, whether it’s in product design, graphic arts, photography, architecture, exhibition design or jewellery.
Maise sees the future direction of the company as focusing on consumer products. “The company went through internationalisation and then built up the cultural aspect of the brand in the 80s and 90s with the museum and education programs,” he comments. “Now is the time to be much more active in the consumer field.”
“The worlds of the home and the office have merged. Workspace now dissolves into the home and you need to feel at home in the office. Interest in design has grown enormously and there is much greater design literacy among the general public with a revival of interest in classics. Project Vitra would not be complete if we only concentrated on business-to-business activities and didn’t take the relationship with the consumer to another level,” says Maise.
“Vitra Home [the collection] can in some ways best express the brand. Rolf would say the architecture – the buildings anticipated the products.”
The documentary film "Charles and Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter” screened in New York on November 18, 2011. It tells the inspiring tale of the Eames's collaborations and studio in Venice Beach, California, where making furniture, films, products, corporate identities and architecture made the duo one of the world's great success stories of the post war era – watch the preview here.