TEHE VITRA DESIGN MUSEUM
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
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
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
DIRECTOR OF THE VITRA DESIGN MUSEUM
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
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
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
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
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
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