The Campus is really an expression of our passion and playfulness, an expression much broader than simply creating and selling products.
NESTLED JUST ACROSS the German border from the Swiss metropolis of Basel, on the outskirts of a hillside river town, sits a design collection so extraordinary it has become a pilgrimage site for aesthetes. Make no mistake: the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein is anything but a suburban office park. With dizzying, groundbreaking structures designed by such luminaries as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, and Herzog & de Meuron, it’s more like a wildlife sanctuary for radical architecture, or a utopian social experiment.
For the uninitiated, Vitra is a renowned Swiss furniture company famous for manufacturing some of the most seminal modern and contemporary office and home furnishings. The preponderance of Eames chairs across Europe can largely be traced back to Vitra’s exclusive contract with Herman Miller in 1957. In 1984, Vitra acquired all rights for the production of furniture designs by Charles & Ray Eames and George Nelson, as well as Alexander Girard’s textiles for Europe and the Middle East. The company’s corporate headquarters is located in the nearby Swiss town of Birsfelden near Basel, but the Campus, seven kilometers away, originally served as the hub for its factory and manufacturing facilities. In 1981, when a fire resulting from a lightning strike ravaged the site, Vitra embarked on what would soon become a revolutionary new project, almost unlimited in ambition and scope.
As a bastion of cutting-edge design, the family-owned Vitra began inviting some of the most avant-garde architects to design buildings on the campus, offering what was very much a blank canvas to erect functional constructions responding to a necessity and fulfilling specific purposes. English architect Nicholas Grimshaw’s imposing factory sheathed in corrugated aluminum was the first chess piece on the board, erected six months after the fire in 1981; he built a follow-up in 1983. In 1989, the American architect Frank Gehry engineered not only a companion factory of rigorous, looping geometry, but also helped to expand the company’s cultural mission by creating a swirling deconstructionist confection of exhibition spaces for the Vitra Design Museum (his first building in Europe). Open to the public and hosting an impressive slate of design exhibitions, Vitra and its burgeoning 250,000-square-meter, cherry-tree-dotted campus at the foot of the Tüllinger Hill was off and running. The company never looked back.
In 1993, British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid completed her very first building on the Vitra Campus: an angular, serpentine cast-concrete Fire Station (Vitra decided not to risk a second catastrophic blaze by establishing its own fire brigade. Since the fire brigade was disbanded, the Fire Station has been used as an auxiliary exhibition space). That same year, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando assembled a monastic interlude of interiors and courtyards that serve as a Conference Pavilion (it was Ando’s first building outside of Japan). More architectural wonders followed, including Álvaro Siza’s quietly severe brick Factory Building (1994); Herzog & de Meuron’s Lincoln Log–like stack of gabled houses that make up the showrooms of VitraHaus (2010); and SANAA’s luminescent, Communion-host–like production facility whose outer walls are wrapped in a curtain of acrylic glass (2012). The Campus is a menagerie of marvels, a worthy contender as a monument of contemporary design. And yet it remains in constant operation as a manufacturing plant, churning out the company’s classic and contemporary wares. It’s this mix of workers and visitors, of public and private, of celebrating the past while actually creating for the present and investing in the future, that lifts the Vitra Campus beyond the theoretical and gives it a vital sense of a humming community.
“I think a lot of the success of the Campus stems from the fact that we’re a family company,” says Nora Fehlbaum, Vitra’s current CEO, and the third generation to run the business. “We’re free from external pressures and short-term financial targets and therefore can have a much more open and free spirit. The Campus is really an expression of our passion and playfulness, an expression much broader than simply creating and selling products.” Fehlbaum’s grandparents, Willi and Erika Fehlbaum, were Vitra’s founders, single-handedly revolutionizing the market of high design in the mid-twentieth century. In 1977, they passed the company on to their sons: Rolf, Nora’s uncle, who specialized in furniture production, and Raymond, Nora’s father, who focused on retail. Nora Fehlbaum grew up in Basel and recalls a childhood where function was in the foreground of her home. “We had our products at home, but mostly to try them out and test them.”
In 2010, just as VitraHaus opened and the annual visitor total spiked from 90,000 to more than 400,000, Fehlbaum took charge of running the Campus. She became intimately knowledgeable about the inner workings of its structures, including its symbolic role in communicating the company’s design ethos. “I think the addition of the Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen sculpture, which was a 70th birthday present for my grandfather [Willi Fehlbaum] in 1984, was the first sign that the site was special. Suddenly, people were driving by, seeing these enormous tools, and wondering, What’s going on here?” Fehlbaum is referring to “Balancing Tools,” a whimsical balletic outdoor sculpture commissioned from the great pop artists, which consists of an enormous hammer balanced on a screwdriver and pair of pliers. It’s one of several art pieces on the grounds. Other assemblages include that iconic symbol of community, a 1975 Buckminster Fuller Geodesic Dome; a viewing tower that also playfully doubles as a corkscrew slide by the contemporary artist Carsten Höller; and most recently, a monolith of ornate Italian tiles by artist Nathalie Du Pasquier.
Fehlbaum became CEO of the company in 2016, and she bicycles a few times each week across the Rhine River between the HQ in Switzerland and the Campus over in Germany. Fittingly, she sees sustainability and a “culture of care” being two primary goals for her tenure: “I really see this as a crucial task for our generation. None of us should be delegating it on to someone else.” The company has always tweaked and updated its classic designs. (Take, for example, one of its most famous chairs, the S-curved cantilever Panton Chair. Designed in 1959 by Verner Panton, it was reintroduced for greater durability in polyurethane in 1990.) But Vitra has had a strong record of sensitivity to environmental considerations. Last year, it produced its popular Tip Ton RE chair (originally designed in 2011 by Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby) in a material entirely made out of recycled household plastics from Germany. “Our environmental mission is so important,” explains Fehlbaum. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not only about the next 10 years, it’s about the plans in the next year or two that count.”
Case in point: Vitra has opened three “Circle Stores” in Europe, where customers can return old Vitra pieces to be refurbished and recycled by specialists. In tune with this credo, one of the most prominent additions to the Campus under Fehlbaum’s watch has not been a building or a sculpture per se, but an expansive, ecologically minded landscape garden bursting with more than 30,000 individual plants. It was conceived by famed Dutch gardener Piet Oudolf. The largely self-generating nature-scape of shrubs, grasses, bushes, and wildflowers grows and blooms throughout the year, not only creating a natural habitat for the architecture, but also bringing a vibrant biodiversity of insects and animals back to the grounds. Two Vitra employees, who are trained apiculturists, even take care of beehives next to the new garden.
Vitra could easily rest on its laurels as pioneers of the sleek twentieth- and early twenty-first century interior. But Fehlbaum and her team are determined to meet the future head-on. When asked if she ever feels the responsibility of two previous generations weighing on her shoulders, she likens her situation to young designers who come into Vitra in the shadow of the mighty talents who came before them. “It can be daunting,” she admits. “Those are hard acts to follow.” And yet these young designers continually improve and expand the definition of what is possible. Vitra is always on the hunt for young new talent.
In light of the pandemic, Vitra is rethinking the structure of what it means to work in an office, creating a top-to-bottom retooling of the workplace experience. Entitled “Club Office,” this project envisions the office as a place fostering collaboration, with fluid Vitra-assembled zones to encourage communication and interaction. “We were actually thinking about clubs,” Fehlbaum explains. “Chess clubs, debate clubs, rowing clubs.” It’s doubtful that the legendary designers of the past produced by Vitra — household names like Eames, Nelson, Panton, and Prouvé — had to wrangle with considerations of a global pandemic or an environmental crisis. But great design comes out of a sense of vision, experimentation, and a willingness to think outside of pre-programmed structure.
“People are now a lot more conscious of the purchases they make, and who they spend their time with, and what they want to do for work and what activities they enjoy,” reflects Fehlbaum. “A lot of basic decisions are being questioned right now, and that can have an impact on how people live and what objects they surround themselves with. That can only be a good thing.” One way to see how brilliant minds viewed the changing world around them — and rose to the occasion of furnishing it — is to visit this contemporary beehive of a Campus and witness the living history of contemporary design (open 365 days a year). All the whimsical, unorthodox ramps really do lead somewhere.
Christopher Bollen Writer
Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor in New York City. He is the author of four novels, including his latest, "A Beautiful Crime," a literary thriller set in Venice. He is currently the editor at large of Interview magazine and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
Adrian Gaut Photographer
Adrian Gaut is a New York—based photographer and filmmaker.