I'll preface this with the fact that I woke up at 7am in Brooklyn, took a 5pm flight and haven't gotten to bed yet (apart from an short nodding session on the plane). I have had enough coffee today to kill a giant.
So first to Vitra and who they are. I think it would be fair to say that most people within the design world have a fairly extensive knowledge of Vitra. In the European mold, they continue to be family owned and champion many ideals quietly which non-European firms feel more insecure about, or use more as marketing tools to leverage sales. They look at themselves more as a developing project, which is a combination of a lifestyle and heritage brand (especially in this kind of environment, surrounded by hills, forest and wildlife), promoting the Eames like "collage"—a personalized interior space made up of collections of folk art and keepsakes along side their pieces. The stunning campus sits in beautiful location, with huge hills overlooking it, and is very integrated with the local community sitting on an industrial estate which has grown and has several homes dotted around, but which is open to the public 24 hours a day. Of course, it is composed of the family-like commitment and pride in the company and its ability to produce both classic pieces and innovational contemporary pieces of furniture which can be heirlooms because of their quality.
The campus and its open policy is a great physical manifestation of the Eames mantra of being a good host (epitomized in the basement of the Schaudepot: "The role of a good designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of [their] guest"), comprised of fantastic architecture from some of the most well-known architects of the modern era, the campus is a wonderful place to look around. Vitra is incredibly proud of the fact that the campus itself is a project and that that nearly all of the works by the architects were produced before they "made it", and went on to gain international fame through awards like the Pritzker Prize. If you are ever in the area (because why not), be sure to go on the architecture tour to really get a sense of the space and the history and how the campus actually developed over time. I won't go into the history here, because lets face it, I don't have any way near the experience or knowledge, but the Zaha Hadid Firestation (1993) is notable for currently houses exhibition of Vitra design which will be touring in the future and is one of the ways Vitra is hoping to grow engagement with the company and its investment in originality. It is also the one place I have experienced nausea inside a building due to the fantastic but incredibly overwhelming, strong architectural perspective lines which are defined within it.
The exhibition itself shows Vitra off very well—demonstrating the multifaceted approach which they take to design, with a combination of all design disciplines and also a mix of speculative and commercial work. It is really interesting to the see the presentation of the history of the company and where defining moments appear, and especially the typology shattering pieces of furniture appear in the timeline. It was interesting to see, in such a visceral way, the movement from classic to contemporary. It was here where I was able to ask a few questions about the designers that Vitra chooses to work with. I wanted to know (the dumbest questions) what do they look for in a designer, and who works best with the company? So it turns out the focus is on a designer with their own perspective—someone who has their own identity and is able to bring their own view to the problem. The designers are usually given a questionnaire when they start working with the brand to build a profile of them which will help find what kind of projects will work well with them. The relationships that they have with their designers are very tight and go beyond "profiling", and are built respect and trust.. What about the briefs for the products? Well that's kind of interesting too—most of them are crafted by Vitra, but sometimes the designer will bring them to Vitra (the classic example being the Pantone chair). This is something which will come up again and again, but Vitra has a history with experimentation and risk. This is true of their designs too, some are led more strongly by business cases and others by interest in searching for a new methodology or exploring materiality.