Rolf Fehlbaum, head of Vitra, collects architecture the way others gather art. He reveals an astonishing shrine to design

Rolf Fehlbaum has perhaps the greatest private collection of architecture in the world. Yes, this man collects architecture. Not stamps, not shoes, not model railways but socking great buildings. On a peaceful patch of land in Weil am Rhein on the outskirts of Basel, Switzerland, surrounded by vineyards and cherry orchards, Fehlbaum has built a couple of Frank Gehrys, a Tadao Ando, an Alvaro Siza, a Zaha Hadid, a Nicholas Grimshaw or two, a Jean Prouve, a Buckminster Fuller and a couple of bus shelters by Jasper Morrison. Not bad.

Today he is proudly showing off his latest acquisition, a particularly plum one by the most in-demand architects in the world, Herzog & de Meuron, designers of the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and Tate Modern.

Collecting buildings is of course nothing new: royals and aristocrats from Louis XIV to the Howards at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire built up eclectic menageries of architecture. But nobody in the world has a collection of stunning contemporary architecture to compare to Fehlbaum’s.

“It’s not a collection,” Fehlbaum corrects. “It’s an accumulation. I’m not a connoisseur. There’s a purpose to this architecture.” Indeed there is. Fehlbaum and his brother Raymond run the most influential design company in the world, Vitra. If you’ve ever lusted after a Verner Panton chair, that Ron Arad throne you saw on Big Brother, or the show-off Eames recliner in Frasier’s apartment, it’s probably been made on Fehlbaum’s patch — probably in that Frank Gehry building over there.

For this Willy Wonka of design has built a factory unlike any other, a wonderland made by the greatest of architects. The campus, including Herzog & de Meuron’s new VitraHaus, shop, design museum and café, is open to the public and attracts some 100,000 visitors a year. Fehlbaum was the first person to build one of Zaha Hadid’s supposedly impossible buildings, back in 1993. He built Gehry’s first building outside the US, Ando’s first outside Japan. So he has built not only a reputation as a first-class entrepreneur and design guru but also one as a man who takes a punt on architects before they’re famous, and gets it right first time.

It all began 30 years ago, in a baptism of fire (literally). Fehlbaum may have grown up unknowingly immersed in design — his father Willi, a blacksmith’s son, founded Vitra in 1950 to produce and distribute in Europe the stunning modern product design emerging from postwar America — but it took him a while to really love it. “I spent my first years running away from it,” he laughs. He tried film directing — “I was very bad” — and academia — completing a PhD on Utopian capitalism — before returning, slightly reluctantly, to the family business in 1976. Four years later his father’s factory was destroyed by a fire and the insurance company gave the business six months to get up and running again.

A few weeks earlier on a trip to London he had met a young British architect, Nicholas Grimshaw. These days Sir Nicholas is part of the Establishment, famed for his Eden Project in Cornwall. Back then, though, he was just another ambitious youngster, keen to spread his cool brand of high-tech modernism. But he had one USP: he could build factories, fast. Fehlbaum loved the Herman Miller factory Grimshaw had built in Bath with his business partner Terry Farrell. “It wasn’t just a factory. It was a beautiful factory.”

That was perhaps his epiphany. “It was the biggest crisis imaginable,” he remembers. “In six months we could be out of business. But something made me want to gamble. We could have gone to a building company next door and said build us something quick. But I’m glad we resisted the temptation.” It worked. Six months later Vitra chairs were rolling off the production line in their new home, a crisp, minimalist rectangle in icy grey aluminium.

It proved one thing: Fehlbaum had an eye, and a talent, for design. At first, he says, he thought that producing design was about being like Grimshaw, “about being consistent, making the same perfect thing again and again. It is about this in part. But it is also about taking risks”. So he started making the company more his own, commissioning new designers such as Ron Arad to add to Vitra’s repertoire. He had an eclectic eye. He liked the cool modernism of Grimshaw but also something a little more fun. And then he met Gehry.

“That changed everything,” Fehlbaum says. “I was blown away by Frank’s personality and, of course, his work. I’d never seen anything like it.” Nor, yet, had most the world. The site’s design museum, built in 1989 originally to house Fehlbaum’s growing collection of modern and vintage chairs (buildings weren’t the only thing for which he’d acquired a taste), and a production hall were the first time Gehry had tried out on a major scale his new aesthetic of writhing, curvaceous forms that he would go on to perfect later at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

“Nicholas thought I was very silly to go to Gehry,” Fehlbaum says, “because he didn’t like his approach, all that sculpture. He was Mr Rational.” And if there’s one thing Frank Gehry is not, it’s rational. “But when I saw the Gehry and Grimshaw buildings next to each other, and each makes the other look better, then I had the thought, ah, it makes sense to have every building different. They enhance each other if the choice is done well. Then I realised that this was going to be more than a factory.”

Hadid’s fire station and Ando’s conference centre followed in 1993, and new factory buildings by the Portuguese master Alvaro Siza a year later. Fehlbaum was beginning to enjoy himself. And the architects returned the compliment. “Rolf was one of the best clients we ever had,” Grimshaw recalls. “He has always been incredibly hands-on. I dealt with him personally over every detail. It was as though I was designing his own house.” “What’s different about Rolf,” says Jacques Herzog, of Herzog & de Meuron, “is that he really, really does obsessively care. He’s critical. He doesn’t give you an easy ride. But he trusts the architect to get on with it. He’s modest, he wants to learn all the time. But he’s an intellectual, he knows everyone. And he’s on the Pritzker Prize jury [architecture’s Nobel]. So, yes, he’s clearly an amazing guy.”

Fehlbaum confesses that he doesn’t have a plan; he just responds to his company’s evolution. As modern design rose in popularity in the past 20 years he expanded Vitra’s range to embrace contemporary designers such as the Bouroullec brothers and Hella Jongerius, and homeware from ashtrays to shelving systems. He morphed Vitra into an lifestyle brand, as happy to kit out Google’s HQ as provide you with a vintage Eames rocking chair.

Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus is the cherry on the cake. You might sniff that it’s just a shop. Not quite. It’s a brand space like Niketown, a cathedral in which to immerse yourself in the beneficence of this particular consumer religion. There’s the usual: posh café, retail opportunities. But most of the cavernous halls are filled with imagined scenes from a life decked out in Vitra products, museum displays telling the Vitra story, or “laboratories” where you can pick the precise colour combo for your home. All of which pale beside the consciously spectacular architecture. On the outside a feat of architectural Jenga: a cartoon outline of a house extruded as a slab 12 times, then chaotically stacked five storeys high. Inside it’s all dizzying Alice-in-Wonderland labyrinths, and Piranesian perspectives thrown through vast windows out to the countryside.

An indulgence, especially in a recession? “No, business,” Fehlbaum says. “Would we build such buildings if the company made nails? Maybe not. But how could we make bad buildings if we promote good design products? Good or bad architects charge the same fees. Why not take the time to find a good one?” Lurking behind him, he says, is that PhD on Utopian capitalism. Paternalism has its place, especially after the rapacious capitalism of the past decade. “I was never about trying to become rich and expand or buy or get power. I’m interested in work, good work. To work in a good factory where what you do is celebrated and you are not alienated. The campus is a celebration of work, to create a place where people are proud of what they make.”

Read the article on Times Online

VitraHaus: beauties in the backyard

Rolf Fehlbaum, head of Vitra, collects architecture the way others gather art. He reveals an astonishing shrine to design

Rolf Fehlbaum has perhaps the greatest private collection of architecture in the world. Yes, this man collects architecture. Not stamps, not shoes, not model railways but socking great buildings. On a peaceful patch of land in Weil am Rhein on the outskirts of Basel, Switzerland, surrounded by vineyards and cherry orchards, Fehlbaum has built a couple of Frank Gehrys, a Tadao Ando, an Alvaro Siza, a Zaha Hadid, a Nicholas Grimshaw or two, a Jean Prouve, a Buckminster Fuller and a couple of bus shelters by Jasper Morrison. Not bad.

Today he is proudly showing off his latest acquisition, a particularly plum one by the most in-demand architects in the world, Herzog & de Meuron, designers of the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and Tate Modern.

Collecting buildings is of course nothing new: royals and aristocrats from Louis XIV to the Howards at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire built up eclectic menageries of architecture. But nobody in the world has a collection of stunning contemporary architecture to compare to Fehlbaum’s.

“It’s not a collection,” Fehlbaum corrects. “It’s an accumulation. I’m not a connoisseur. There’s a purpose to this architecture.” Indeed there is. Fehlbaum and his brother Raymond run the most influential design company in the world, Vitra. If you’ve ever lusted after a Verner Panton chair, that Ron Arad throne you saw on Big Brother, or the show-off Eames recliner in Frasier’s apartment, it’s probably been made on Fehlbaum’s patch — probably in that Frank Gehry building over there.

For this Willy Wonka of design has built a factory unlike any other, a wonderland made by the greatest of architects. The campus, including Herzog & de Meuron’s new VitraHaus, shop, design museum and café, is open to the public and attracts some 100,000 visitors a year. Fehlbaum was the first person to build one of Zaha Hadid’s supposedly impossible buildings, back in 1993. He built Gehry’s first building outside the US, Ando’s first outside Japan. So he has built not only a reputation as a first-class entrepreneur and design guru but also one as a man who takes a punt on architects before they’re famous, and gets it right first time.

It all began 30 years ago, in a baptism of fire (literally). Fehlbaum may have grown up unknowingly immersed in design — his father Willi, a blacksmith’s son, founded Vitra in 1950 to produce and distribute in Europe the stunning modern product design emerging from postwar America — but it took him a while to really love it. “I spent my first years running away from it,” he laughs. He tried film directing — “I was very bad” — and academia — completing a PhD on Utopian capitalism — before returning, slightly reluctantly, to the family business in 1976. Four years later his father’s factory was destroyed by a fire and the insurance company gave the business six months to get up and running again.

A few weeks earlier on a trip to London he had met a young British architect, Nicholas Grimshaw. These days Sir Nicholas is part of the Establishment, famed for his Eden Project in Cornwall. Back then, though, he was just another ambitious youngster, keen to spread his cool brand of high-tech modernism. But he had one USP: he could build factories, fast. Fehlbaum loved the Herman Miller factory Grimshaw had built in Bath with his business partner Terry Farrell. “It wasn’t just a factory. It was a beautiful factory.”

That was perhaps his epiphany. “It was the biggest crisis imaginable,” he remembers. “In six months we could be out of business. But something made me want to gamble. We could have gone to a building company next door and said build us something quick. But I’m glad we resisted the temptation.” It worked. Six months later Vitra chairs were rolling off the production line in their new home, a crisp, minimalist rectangle in icy grey aluminium.

It proved one thing: Fehlbaum had an eye, and a talent, for design. At first, he says, he thought that producing design was about being like Grimshaw, “about being consistent, making the same perfect thing again and again. It is about this in part. But it is also about taking risks”. So he started making the company more his own, commissioning new designers such as Ron Arad to add to Vitra’s repertoire. He had an eclectic eye. He liked the cool modernism of Grimshaw but also something a little more fun. And then he met Gehry.

“That changed everything,” Fehlbaum says. “I was blown away by Frank’s personality and, of course, his work. I’d never seen anything like it.” Nor, yet, had most the world. The site’s design museum, built in 1989 originally to house Fehlbaum’s growing collection of modern and vintage chairs (buildings weren’t the only thing for which he’d acquired a taste), and a production hall were the first time Gehry had tried out on a major scale his new aesthetic of writhing, curvaceous forms that he would go on to perfect later at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

“Nicholas thought I was very silly to go to Gehry,” Fehlbaum says, “because he didn’t like his approach, all that sculpture. He was Mr Rational.” And if there’s one thing Frank Gehry is not, it’s rational. “But when I saw the Gehry and Grimshaw buildings next to each other, and each makes the other look better, then I had the thought, ah, it makes sense to have every building different. They enhance each other if the choice is done well. Then I realised that this was going to be more than a factory.”

Hadid’s fire station and Ando’s conference centre followed in 1993, and new factory buildings by the Portuguese master Alvaro Siza a year later. Fehlbaum was beginning to enjoy himself. And the architects returned the compliment. “Rolf was one of the best clients we ever had,” Grimshaw recalls. “He has always been incredibly hands-on. I dealt with him personally over every detail. It was as though I was designing his own house.” “What’s different about Rolf,” says Jacques Herzog, of Herzog & de Meuron, “is that he really, really does obsessively care. He’s critical. He doesn’t give you an easy ride. But he trusts the architect to get on with it. He’s modest, he wants to learn all the time. But he’s an intellectual, he knows everyone. And he’s on the Pritzker Prize jury [architecture’s Nobel]. So, yes, he’s clearly an amazing guy.”

Fehlbaum confesses that he doesn’t have a plan; he just responds to his company’s evolution. As modern design rose in popularity in the past 20 years he expanded Vitra’s range to embrace contemporary designers such as the Bouroullec brothers and Hella Jongerius, and homeware from ashtrays to shelving systems. He morphed Vitra into an lifestyle brand, as happy to kit out Google’s HQ as provide you with a vintage Eames rocking chair.

Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus is the cherry on the cake. You might sniff that it’s just a shop. Not quite. It’s a brand space like Niketown, a cathedral in which to immerse yourself in the beneficence of this particular consumer religion. There’s the usual: posh café, retail opportunities. But most of the cavernous halls are filled with imagined scenes from a life decked out in Vitra products, museum displays telling the Vitra story, or “laboratories” where you can pick the precise colour combo for your home. All of which pale beside the consciously spectacular architecture. On the outside a feat of architectural Jenga: a cartoon outline of a house extruded as a slab 12 times, then chaotically stacked five storeys high. Inside it’s all dizzying Alice-in-Wonderland labyrinths, and Piranesian perspectives thrown through vast windows out to the countryside.

An indulgence, especially in a recession? “No, business,” Fehlbaum says. “Would we build such buildings if the company made nails? Maybe not. But how could we make bad buildings if we promote good design products? Good or bad architects charge the same fees. Why not take the time to find a good one?” Lurking behind him, he says, is that PhD on Utopian capitalism. Paternalism has its place, especially after the rapacious capitalism of the past decade. “I was never about trying to become rich and expand or buy or get power. I’m interested in work, good work. To work in a good factory where what you do is celebrated and you are not alienated. The campus is a celebration of work, to create a place where people are proud of what they make.”

Read the article on Times Online

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