A bold client - Rolf Fehlbaum - and two audacious architects - Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron - join forces to create imaginative architecture and a new functional type. Rolf Fehlbaum tells the tale.

Vitra Project is the term we use to sum up the different activities of Vitra: the company’s commercial activities, the economic motor of the project, but also the activities of the Vitra Design Museum, its exhibitions and its collections, especially our collection of furniture of the modern, the archives of different designers, but also the architectural archives of Luis Barragan, publications, workshops and of course our architecture.

Architecture plays a very important part in this project. The very first building by Vitra – erected in the 1950s in a suburb of Basel (on the Swiss side of the River Rhine, where Vitra started and still has its headquarters) – was a very decent factory building by the Basel office Beck and Bauer (Jacques Herzog worked in this office for a while much later). Today it is our product development centre and is still a good building. What followed in terms of buildings was less memorable. Most of it was fortunately lost in a big fire in 1981 which allowed architecture to gain a permanent place in our thinking. The first building of the new generation was a factory by Nicholas Grimshaw (1981). Grimshaw also designed a master plan for the site, but only one further building by him was realized. The reason why we changed the concept was that I had met Frank Gehry actually via Claes Oldenburg whom we commissioned to design a sculpture for my father’s 70th birthday. That was in 1984. I was fascinated by Gehry’s architecture and his furniture and wanted to do a building with him. In 1989 we opened the Vitra Design Museum and a factory by Frank, his first permanent structure outside the USA. From then on we asked a different architect for each new task, not so that we could have a collection of architecture, but to create a site full of life and diversity. The basic principle was that the architects chosen should be from far away and never had built in our region, we wanted to have our own “international” zone: so Ando did his first building outside Japan here; Zaha her very first building ever (the fire station); Siza built a factory. These were followed by a second Gehry building (our headquarters near Basel). I was occasionally praised for these choices. They were considered surprising and some called them brave. Remember, this was more than twenty years ago and it was not so common then for architects to build all over the world.

Now, how do Herzog & de Meuron fit into this pattern? Well, they don’t and they do. They don’t in so far as the choice is hardly surprising or daring and because they are like myself from Basel. But they do fit precisely because they are not regional, they represent the world. Also, I must admit that I only realized the full impact of their work in the 1990s. And we have not built since then. In the 1980s, when I turned to Gehry, Zaha, Ando and Siza, Jacques and Pierre thought I was an idiot, unaware of what was happening on my very own doorstep. In spite of that, we became good friends over time and it became quite clear to me that the next building absolutely had to be with them, since they represent all I care about in architecture. They always conquer new territory pushing the envelope of architecture, but they are also good listeners and while creating iconic buildings they come up with intelligent solutions to the clients’ problems. They are also great fun to be with and they are impeccable in the execution of their buildings. This also holds true for issues of budget and time. With the VitraHaus, we are slightly under the cost budget and spot on time. Much is said about architects’ ego trips, architects’ lack of respect for the budget, the client in general, and so on. My experience is completely different. We have always got great value buildings with great architects.

Keeping the budget is a very important issue for Vitra. We are a very economically minded Swiss company and have to be if we want to be culturally active and relevant. We are not a big corporation, just a private company of modest size. We have grand moments like today, but we have to earn them. Like the Vitra Design Museum, which is mostly financed by its own activities, our buildings must make sense. We build when there is a necessity and we cannot afford any luxury. Still, we wanted buildings which are memorable and exciting and it worked and it could work for others as well. With this in mind one can regret all those thousands of missed opportunities when a mediocre building is set into the landscape instead of a good one. I know for sure that the reason for the mediocrity is attitude, not primarily economics. Our own buildings are hardly more costly than “normal” buildings; indeed, they are very economical if you consider their impact on the people who work here and on our public. It is bad business not to realize good buildings.

The VitraHaus is not a museum, nor a showroom, nor a furniture shop, but something new. It combines aspects of these three models and some further elements. It is not only an interesting building, it is also a marketing innovation: it offers a new experience that will hopefully enable people to make better choices for their interiors. The experience is first of all one of seeing and testing different products, combinations, environments and styles, and also understanding the cost of different options (this is made possible by a sophisticated electronic information system that allows the visitor to get information about products, cost and availability in his or her country). Additionally the VitraHaus offers information regarding the history of the designs and the designers, production technologies, product testing and real-life applications. The VitraHaus allows people to experiment with neglected areas of design like colours (the Hella Jongerius Colour Lab). It offers a historical perspective by showing a small selection of masterpieces from the collection of the Vitra Design Museum. In the library (normally in the room today occupied by this press conference; the Colour Lab also had to be temporarily removed for this occasion) visitors can get information about different aspects of design. Children can have their first design experience with Verner Panton. Consultants help with explanations. We hope that all these conceptual, visual and tactile experiences allow the visitor to understand his or her preferences better and inspire those choices that are so important for everybody’s life: how to design your private home, the only world that you can arrange according to your wishes. The interior we live in (or work in) is a permanent transmitter of messages, every time we are in this space. They can be trivial or sublime, irritating or inspiring. It is a sadly missed opportunity if this space is arranged in a banal, clichéd way. The arrangement of one’s home, one’s second skin, merits rethinking, trying, observing, reading, studying, tasting, until some certainty is achieved. Sometimes change is needed, some times a tiny accessory is sufficient to refresh the atmosphere. Doing a home is a lifelong pleasure, a lifelong job. And the Vitrahaus can help to do that job better. Everybody is a designer. And dreaming the ideal home in the VitraHaus is not an elitist exercise.

Buildings have always anticipated great changes at Vitra. They seem to express our evolving thoughts long before these thoughts are fully articulated. They give us focus. In 1981, after the big fire, we built the first of this new generation of buildings and it was a new beginning for Vitra, the beginning of the Vitra that you know today. In 1989 we opened the Vitra Design Museum and Vitra became a project with cultural elements infiltrating all aspects of our activities. The VitraHaus, the first building we’ve realized since 1994, will be of equal importance for the evolution of Vitra. I think it will lead us to become more aware of real needs, to enter new fields of design, to expand our product offering and to communicate with our public in an incredibly intense way. The VitraHaus will change the company. Thus is the power of architecture.

Why is the VitraHaus here and not in one of the capitals of the world? Because we are here and we are from here and we produce here and Germany is our biggest market. And we can offer an experience with the Vitra Campus that we would not be able to offer anywhere else. And, by the way, we are quite accessible. We are in the heart of Europe where three countries meet, in a culturally exciting area near an international airport. We just have to be relevant enough to make a trip worthwhile.

We can realize this Campus thanks to the vision of my mother.Together with my father she founded Vitra and ran the German operation. She believed that Vitra had a big future, and over many years acquired what at the time seemed an enormous piece of land from local farmers and so made it possible for us to build this complex. She passed away last year and my brother and I would like her to be remembered. Therefore, on the wall opposite the entrance, you will find an inscription dedicating the VitraHaus to Erika Fehlbaum.

The VitraHaus is not the final word in the story of our Campus. SANAA’s factory building which replaces an old factory will soon be finished (it is already functioning, but the cladding has to be added); a small workshop building by the young Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena is on hold due to today’s difficult economic situation, but hopefully will happen in a not so distant future.

Why is the VitraHaus built in this period? Has Vitra not been affected by the economic crisis? Certainly we have been. 2009 was a bad year for Vitra and 2010 does not look great. But this is not the issue. This is our first building on the site in sixteen years. It represents a new Vitra. Until 2004 we were an office/contract company. We still are, but since 2004 we have placed a new emphasis on the home. This part of Vitra has been expanding every year since then. The VitraHaus is an investment that will help us to grow. That is why we think the timing is good. Rolf Fehlbaum

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