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There are many factors accounting for the singularity of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. The initiative for it came from industry, specifically the office chair manufacturers Vitra. However, the particular way in which it is run, extremely actively and with an orientation to international objectives, has made the Vitra an exemplar of the partnership between "economics and culture". The museum building itself was the first project by the Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry in Europe.

Economics and culture
BY Véronique Brom

We are in Germany, in Weil am Rhein, in the Land of Baden-Württemberg, that spot in Europe known as the "place of the three borders", or drei Eck Land, where Germany, France and Switzerland all meet up. To be even more precise, we are in the basement of the Vitra Company, makers of office chairs. We have an appointment with Mr. Alexander von Vegesack, director of the Vitra Design Museum. (...)
The interview kicks off with a few obligatory details. Rolf Fehlbaum, Vitra's manager in the early eighties, took the initial steps towards building up a collection by buying the first mass produced products designed by Ray and Charles Eames and George Nelson to which he soon added items by Alvar Aalto and Jean Prouvé. The birth of the Vitra collection soon posed the problem of where to keep it and the idea of the museum did not take long to emerge. In fact, two decisive meetings between the architect Frank O. Gehry and Alexander von Vegesack, who is also a collector, sufficed and the museum conceived by Frank O. Gehry was opened on 3 November 1989.
The architecture of one of the founders of deconstructivism soon became a talking point (it was Frank O. Gehry's first building in Europe) and so everybody was also talking about the Vitra Design Museum. The fact that the architecture and the architect had people talking about the museum was certainly a good thing. However, Alexander von Vegesack, who had been appointed the museum's director, in his own way also took another step in devising a strategy allowing the collection, dedicated to design and far removed from the major cities where the economic, political and cultural decisions are taken, to exist in its own right. This strategy has also made it possible for the museum to have 55 employees.
The Vitra Design Museum's management strategy is based on two approaches: on the one hand, not to imitate, or simply merge into, Frank O. Gehry's architecture when putting on exhibitions, but to conceive special exhibitions for each occasion; and on the other, to plan and set up collections with all sorts of cultural organisations and institutions outside Weil. The first approach highlights its identity as a museum, while the latter generates "co-productions".
But how to put this strategy into practice?
It would appear, in the first place, through a slightly different attitude to work. Team spirit is particularly strong, with everyone, from the director, exhibitions manager and press officer to the technicians and representatives unwrapping, putting up, taking down and sending each exhibition off again - jobs which are obviously often done on Sundays. But also, by making the economics and culture tandem a byword of the Vitra Design Museum. Alexander von Vegesack makes no bones about explaining the methods employed in getting the museum to be almost 80% economically self-sufficient. "You won't come across any other museum in Europe that is financially self-sufficient in this way," he tells us, "and which dreams up ways of keeping close tabs on contemporary creation."
"All that is possible thanks to the co-productions and the sponsors. All our exhibitions are devised and organised from Weil, but they are conceived to be itinerant. They'll be shown in six or seven places in Europe, then they'll go across to the United States, then on to Latin America and finally to Asia. This way of doing things enables us to recuperate what we invest in each exhibition. We never put on exhibitions that can't get around." (...)
All this leads Alexander von Vegesack to be continually devising new types of collaboration and exchange. Sponsors play a major part. The Vitra Company remains the leading private partner, but not the only one. It acts as a sort of bank to the museum, putting up the money needed and being paid back within two years of the exhibition in question being held. The von Vegesack method also includes supplementary services which he calls an active balance. "Nowadays, to get a sponsor, it's not enough for a logo to appear on a poster. You need a much broader project that produces a real payoff." That means organising parallel events, visits, conferences, theme exhibitions, trips, etc. (...)

A new museum system
BY Alexander von Vegesack

More and more people are interested in design. Nowadays there are less psychological barriers to visitors entering a museum displaying everyday objects, technical objects or even a common or garden cooker. You do not need any special education or culture to appreciate and understand such items. However you do require a particular type of education for an art exhibition. This is the great advantage design museums have.
Our wish is to work more closely with Barcelona, so if your article can facilitate that cooperation, so much the better. It seems quite obvious to us that, in future, it will only be possible to put on major exhibitions through co-operation. With the money available for major exhibitions, they would be staged just once, and that would be neither economic nor democratic. That is why we have to co-produce. (...)
In the case of the Vitra Design Museum, we have been forced to find a new museum system. We have a main sponsor who gives us an annual lump sum, but this money is enough to employ only three people, whereas there are now 55 of us. It was absolutely vital for us to come up with another system to be able to exist just like any other museum, that is a museum that stages exhibitions, carries out research, develops a collection and organises workshops. (...)
Our approach at the Vitra Design Museum has two essential strands. The first is to try to maintain a balance between interesting topics and broad public appeal, in other words, a compromise between themes that interest the general public and educational themes which we know will not be readily accepted. But if you do not attempt to achieve this balance, decline is inevitable in the long run. The second strand concerns the workforce. Among us there is no civil service mentality. It is a young team, between 22 and 35, and they are all highly committed and fast learners. We're a perfect example of teamwork. (..)

Design and museums: utopia in the cupboard
Enric Franch

Over the last few years, a large number of museums have appeared focusing specifically on design. (...) Nowadays you can find design items in art galleries, as an extension of artistic practice, in decorative art museums, as examples of the evolution of applied arts, and also in design museums as examples of an autonomous, stand-alone discipline. (...)
In general terms, the items in a design collection have to provide answers to the following questions:

1. How do the artefacts we construct become objects of culture?
They have to explain the particular interrelationships between these items and their creative, production and distribution processes; how they are used and consumed; their uses and meanings in regard to the agents acting directly upon them and in regard to others (whether individuals or groups); and their role in their immediate and social context.
2. What are the major differences that emerge as a result of how they are made and how they are conceived?
There is a before and after, a line that can be traced from craft production to industrial production. And it is with the passage from the former to the latter that contemporary industrial design comes into its own. (...)
3. How does all this operate in our culture, in an increasingly complex environment?
The exhibits have to show the evolution of production, technology, industrial procedures and materials, the market and consumption patterns. They have to illustrate the development of the mass media and information channels, people's behaviour and values (today we are better educated and more mobile, and have a higher standard of living and more free time) and social awareness. Lastly, in the current situation, which is perhaps new in relation to the period in which design grew up, we have to look at objects afresh to discover the underlying roots of these transformations and see how design processes adapt to, and/or capitalise on, changing dynamics, at times conservative, at others the bearer of cultural innovation.
A collection of design objects will make sense (strictly speaking we ought to add provisionally) to the extent that it is actually able to highlight all these developments. (...)
Bearing in mind everything said so far, the Vitra Design Museum has a strong point and a weak point. Its strong point is that it is very clear as to where its interests lie: the furniture industry and designer furniture. Its weak point is its name, design museum, which suggests that its scope is much wider, when in fact it does not venture into this more complex terrain.
For us, however, the Vitra Design Museum is worthy of consideration for two main reasons. In the first place, the way it came into being as a direct result of industry's interest in exploring and discovering the qualities of its products in respect of both their formal, technical features and their significance as cultural products. Secondly, because of how it is run in an extremely active fashion and with an orientation to ambitious international objectives.
It is true that the Decorative Arts Museum is already up and running in Barcelona, the first one in Spain with a collection of items belonging to the artificial environment that people in general, and each culture in particular, have been able to construct to improve domestic life. The exhibits are ordered by periods, styles and formal trends with the emphasis on industrial design and the equivocal decorative arts (Marta Montmany. Experimenta 19. December 1997).
However a design museum is really a matter of unfinished business, a project with many questions still to be answered and a lot of work yet to be done.
A Catalan design museum would have to show, (...) on the one hand, the achievements of a great active and innovative craft tradition with outstanding individual contributions leading to the formation of a large group of designers and small businesses of a certain standard and singularity, and on the other, the poor preparation, the absence of risk-taking, the loss of interest in technological innovation and the structural incapacity of the ruling classes and the consequences of all this. Perhaps we would not like that.