In the mind of Marc Zehntner, Co-Director of Vitra Design Museum

Future Classic

By Gretta Louw

On a foggy day in early May, we visited Vitra Design Museum Co-Director Marc Zehntner at the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein just outside of Basel to discuss the museum’s mission, its collection strategy, and what’s in store for the future of design.

Gretta Louw: The museum was initially going to be a building to house the private collection of former Vitra CEO Rolf Fehlbaum; it has since expanded exponentially. Could you tell us about how that mission shifted and how the museum became more public-facing?

Marc Zehntner: Well, the museum was founded in 1989 and, as you said, Rolf Fehlbaum was CEO of Vitra furniture company at the time. He collected chairs because of his personal interest. As the collection got larger, he had the idea to create a little museum to show [the collection] to friends and clients. He hired the Founding Director Alexander von Vegesack—who was already a collector and exhibition-maker himself—and it was he who made the museum into what it is today.

In the early 90s, Alexander developed the concept of the traveling exhibitions. He said there’s no way we should develop such important exhibitions and show them only here, in Weil am Rhein. So, he started the system that we still use today of working with international exhibition partners. He also said we should enlarge our collection and we have to establish changing exhibitions. If we want people to come back to the museum we have to continually produce new exhibitions. The collection grew from a few hundred pieces in 1989, to over 7,000 pieces today—and that’s only the furniture collection.

GL: Vitra has a reputation for being a rather democratic design company in the sense that it makes beautiful design at an attainable price. That seems to complement the museum’s mission of educating the public about design, architecture, and the history of design.

MZ: Yes, that’s true. One important thing is that while the museum belongs to Vitra, and we’re very close to the company, it is an independent and nonprofit foundation—we are not a company museum. Many companies start a museum collecting their own products, showing only their own history, and that’s completely different with Vitra Design Museum. And yes, it is our goal to bring design and architecture closer to people—which we do through our exhibitions, our educational programs, publications, and so on.

GL: Do you feel that the appreciation for that way of thinking about the world is increasing, that people are understanding more about design as it impacts their environment?

MZ: Of course, otherwise we wouldn’t have done a good job! [laughs] I mean, on the one hand, I really do think it is increasing, yes; on the other hand, there has also been a big shift in design. Design as we understood it 10 or 20 years ago was really product design. But as we understand design today, it’s very much a political thing. We’ll be looking at these things in an exhibition coming up in September called Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design. It’s going to be about the person of Papanek but also his ideologies. There are all these different movements: social, environmental, and economic design—design is in everything.

Plywood prototypes exhibited in Charles & Ray Eames: The Power of Design Photo © Mark Niedermann for Vitra Design Museum

GL: Let’s talk about how the museum approaches collecting; its collection strategy and how the decision-making process behind acquiring new pieces works.

MZ: As I mentioned, we have over 7,000 pieces in our furniture collection, so in certain ranges it’s fairly complete. Of course you always have certain pieces that might be interesting in the historic sense, but what is perhaps more interesting is how we collect today. The tricky thing is that we have to try to imagine which pieces could be interesting in 30 or 40 years. Only the people who run the museum at that point in time will be able to say whether we did a good job or not; you need time to find out what is a classic.

But what we do—and that was always interesting for our collection, and still is today—is not only an aesthetic, classics, or special editions and so on; it’s also new technologies. When you look at the Schaudepot [the building on the Vitra campus dedicated to the museum's permanent collection], which is laid out chronologically, you will clearly recognize new materials coming up. For instance tubular steel; before a certain point it just didn’t exist, then you see all these furniture pieces coming out that incorporate tubular steel. The same happens with many processes.

One of our interest lies in new technologies—the first designer making a chair or another piece of furniture with a new technology. We are collecting a lot of 3D printed pieces at the moment, for example, and watching that market intensely because this is something that is so new. Internally we have a committee made up of the curator of the collection, the two directors, and some external consultants—and we talk about the direction we should go with the collection and making the best possible choices about acquiring new pieces.

GL: It’s interesting, what you’re saying about collecting based on the developments of new materials, because you end up with this series of historical artifacts; a record that documents the progression of technology. In terms of collecting contemporary designers, you’re really concentrating on this innovation aspect; designers that are pushing the tech further?

MZ: Well, this is just one aspect. There is also the aspect of furniture design that is just very successful in the market; which sells very well. Then there are some designers that have, let’s say, very unique ideas or an aesthetic that we’ve never been seen before, but which we think has something. Looking back, it’s easy to say that the Eames chairs are classics, but at that moment in the ’40s and ’50s nobody really knew about them. I mean, before the Second World War, they were not so famous. Take Frank Gehry, for instance: when he built this building here on the Vitra Campus—it was his first building outside of California, 1989—he was 60 years old, and he was not a world famous architect. He is today, so everyone thinks, “oh yes, they have a Gehry building as well.” But at the time he was not [famous] at all. We really try to look at designers that are perhaps not so well known but that we think there’s something special about their work. It’s not hard to get a list of the 10 most important designers today and, if you have enough money, buy their work—but this is not our approach.

Charles & Ray Eames: The Power of Design at Vitra Design Museum Photo © Mark Niedermann for Vitra Design Museum

GL: I was reading about the history of the way that the architecture on campus expanded, and there’s been a great deal of recognition of the foresight here, because each of the architects—who, now, are all huge names—were not well-known at the time. There must be some intersection between those two, though; being commissioned to do a building here increases an architect’s reputation.

MZ: Yes, the same goes for the collection. The design market is like the art market—the numbers are not as big but it works exactly the same way. It helps designers to be able to say, “my pieces are in the collection of the Vitra Design Museum.” That helps to bring some attention.

GL: There’s a kind of responsibility involved in that, in terms of whose voices you raise above the others by adding them to the collection.

MZ: On the one hand, we have this role of collecting and raising awareness; and on the other hand, when we acquire, we are also one of the players in the market.

GL: Right, yes. Speaking about the architecture, I wonder if you feel that, for your team, there’s a direct link or influence between the architecture that surrounds them and the content of their work.

MZ: Well, it’s hard to discern exactly where this influence is, but, yes, I do think there is an influence. Each of the buildings has a different atmosphere. Sometimes, for instance, we leave our phones and computers here in this former factory building that is now our team office and go to the Tadao Ando conference building. There’s a really special aura in the building that he was able to generate through architecture. It’s a very different kind of work than if we had the very same meeting, on the same day, with the same people in this office.

GL: For someone who hasn’t yet visited the campus, could you describe something about the sensation of being here or how you felt the first time you came here?

MZ: The sensation that draws a lot of international visitors is to have a mix of today’s world famous architecture—but this architecture is in use. All the buildings have been built for a special purpose. This is significant because it makes it very authentic. It’s an industrial site—production is happening here, it’s not Disneyland—they’re interwoven, and that makes it very special; you feel the spirit. That’s why we produced a publication about the campus and called it Industry, Architecture, and Design; those are the three most important things. We never forget the industry—that’s where we come from.

Vitra Miniatures: designs by the Eameses, Ron Arad, Patrick Jouin, Frank Gehry, Marc Newson, Studio 65, and Joris Laarman Photo © Nacho Alegre for Vitra Design Museum

GL: You’ve said that the museum is almost financially self-sustaining, which is quite a feat. What’s the secret of the museum’s success in terms of its financial sustainability?

MZ:, I have to say it’s a pretty special situation that we have here that you probably can’t just copy-paste. Basically, it was always the idea that the museum is supported by Vitra, but not fully; as a museum, in our everyday work, we think more like a company. It was always clear from Vitra that we also have to bring our share of the finances [to the table] in order to grow. One aspect is to look at the costs and make sure they are working efficiently. And then we established different income streams. We have our products—the miniatures collection, the books, and so on—that help to support the museum. It’s nice to create high quality museum products; people love them and they are collectible pieces—and when you buy one, you help to support a great institution. We also do fundraising, particularly for larger exhibitions. Then there are the entrance fees. For many museums the entrance fees are not so important; for us, they are very important. We get zero public funding. But it makes you independent; it makes you agile as a team.

GL: Yes, there’s less bureaucracy to deal with. Can you tell us a bit about visitors to the campus?

MZ: Last year we had around 178,000 visitors. It was our best year ever; 30% higher than the year before, which is huge. When international architects and designers come to Europe just once in their lives to visit some architectural sites, they more than likely come to the Vitra Campus. It’s just amazing to see the groups of Japanese or Korean students on campus, especially in summertime. When we give lectures at universities over there, they all know about Vitra Design Museum and many of them have been here.

GL: Following on from the international appeal of the Vitra Campus, I’d like to ask you about the building momentum behind the Decolonizing Design movement. What’s your thinking on it? What’s Vitra Design Museum doing in that field?

MZ: Well, I have to say our collection is very vast, but it’s very western-oriented. We have started making some exhibitions like Making Africa: Continent of Contemporary Design, so we are trying to look into regions where we don’t already have this huge knowledge and experience. If we acquire these days, our view is broader. And then we also work with partners worldwide, for instance, M+ in Hong Kong, which is being built—we’re in exchange with those colleagues. You could call it a globalization in the museum business. As we do our traveling exhibitions we always had this international focus—but it’s getting stronger.

Guided tour of iconic chairs in open storage at Vitra Schaudepot Photo © Bettina Matthiessen for Vitra Design Museum

GL: Thinking about the future of the museum, which direction do you see the institution moving in? What are the big upcoming projects?

MZ: Where are we heading? Actually we are really focusing on quality. We have excellent quality in our exhibitions, and we want to maintain that or even get a bit better. We have some ideas about tackling two areas that are a challenge for us. One is the digital aspect. With the Schaudepot, we have started Collection Online; we are asking the question how can we attract people who are not able to [physically] come here. The second focus is the museum department called Education and Visitor Experience. We are looking into ideas for a summer school and other strategies to encourage visitors to stay longer. We do thousands of visitor tours every year; 5 a day, every day of the year. I think the whole educational field—symposiums, academies, summer schools, etc.—all of this will be the focus of the future as well. We’d rather do fewer things in a higher quality than try to do everything.

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