Weil am Rhein
Few companies express an enthusiasm for architecture and design with the flair of manufacturer Vitra. Founded in 1950 as a furniture shop in Basel, Switzerland, Vitra turned into a furniture manufacturer and obtained production rights to the estates of Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson—followed by arrangements with the estates of Jean Prouvé, Alexander Girard, Verner Panton, among others—quickly becoming a force to reckon with in the world of office furnishings. When Rolf Fehlbaum, son of founder Willi Fehlbaum and now chairman of the board of directors, became a leading collector of chairs (well over a thousand and counting) in the 1980s, it seemed the perfect time to add a museum to the factory site. Frank Gehry’s Vitra Museum was a breakthrough building, firmly establishing Gehry as an architect with astonishing sculptural insights. Then with Zaha Hadid’s firehouse, her first completed structure, the campus began to emerge as an unparalleled assemblage of globally significant architecture. By now, there are building facilities by Tadao Ando and Nicholas Grimshaw, a Buckminster Fuller dome, Jean Prouvé gas station, and a new factory by SANAA nearing completion.
Against this backdrop of international talent, Vitra looked closer to home for designers of a showroom for the Home Collection and selected the Swiss team of Herzog & de Meuron, based in nearby Basel but certainly no less significant in reputation than the others. “This is one of our most perfect buildings since Prada Tokyo,” said Jacques Herzog in a phone interview. “They share a level of craftsmanship that it is only possible to get in Switzerland and Japan.”
The Home Collection launched in 2004 includes both classics by the likes of the Eameses, Nelson, Prouvé, Panton, and Isamu Noguchi, and also contemporary pieces by Maarten Van Severen, the Bouroullec brothers, Hella Jongerius, and Jasper Morrison. At the Milan Furniture Fair last month, Vitra presented to considerable acclaim a simple strap (borrowed from Ayoreo Indians of Paraguay) by designer Alejandro Araveno, to be used as a minimalist seating device when wrapped about one’s knees and back. On a more practical note, Vitra also reintroduced the Charles and Ray Eames 1956 lounge, resized for modern physiques that are at least four inches taller and a lot bulkier than the measurements of midcentury loungers.
Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus is not only meant to be a container for these diverse collections, but a welcoming destination positioned at the entrance to the Vitra compound in Weil am Rhein. Starting with the most basic line-drawn house shape, the architects transformed an ideogram for domesticity into an intriguing abstraction by multiplying and stacking five extruded “houses” atop each other like children’s Lincoln logs, with the “house” on the bottom seeming to buckle from the weight. “The form was also chosen to break down a big building into smaller pieces,” Herzog said. The charcoal-gray stuccoed stack makes for surprisingly intricate but well-integrated and intimately proportioned spatial arrangements both outside, where a shared wooden platform becomes a plaza, and inside where the five extruded houses cantilever as much as 16 feet outward, framing carefully calibrated views of the Black Forest, Rhine River, and city skyline.
The role of VitraHaus is to be both showroom and public laboratory where people can come, as the materials say, “to explore, define, and refine” their decorating chops. But Herzog, who admits to no special interest in chairs on display, said his aim was to create a demanding space in order to challenge people “to see new qualities” about even the most familiar products. What more of an invitation does a design pilgrim need?
Julie V. Iovine is AN’s executive editor.
Galleria Rossana Orlandi
COURTESY galleria rossana orlandi
For design cognoscenti, the center of the universe in Milan resides in a 27,000-square-foot repurposed tie factory just off Corso Magenta. Here, eight years ago, former knitwear designer Rossana Orlandi opened the doors to an irresistibly quirky emporium and design studio filled with cutting-edge wares. In this place, even the most jaded discover what is truly new, and who will be the next rising design star.
This year, for her presentation during the International Furniture Fair in April, the work of some 50 companies fill the labyrinthine nooks and crannies of the sprawling outer buildings and spread out into a charming cobblestone courtyard overflowing with a riot of greenery. Although the products are the dernier cri, the look is disarmingly slap-dash and hodgepodge—the antithesis of stores like Moss. It is the highly personal look of an extremely stylish woman.
“I worked in fashion, when fashion was really fashion,” said Orlandi, explaining her decision to change careers, “but I always loved design.” A diminutive figure, she is immediately recognizable by her enormous white eyeglasses that cover most of her heart-shaped face. “I have a big love story with this one pair of glasses,” she explains. “I wear them as much as I can.”
Her vision is unimpaired when it comes to spotting talent. She was an early champion of Spanish designer Nacho Carbonell, for whom she organized a separate show this year at Palazzo Ferre. “I like things in which I believe, and I believe predominantly in the designer, not necessarily the object.” As to her talent scouting, “Sometimes they find me or I find them. It’s always a good relationship,” she said.
This year, as always, the mix is broad, ranging from totally unknown newcomers—lighting by Naked City and American lighting designer Marcus Tremonto are especially strong standouts—to new products by Artek, the Finnish furniture company who introduced a shelving system by Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa and a do-it-youself pine chair by Italian maestro Enzo Mari. “I love what they do,” said Orlandi, explaining Artek’s presence amid so much that is avant-garde. “It’s a huge pleasure to have them.”
Surprises abound: A fabric-covered VW Beetle upholstered in Middle Eastern fabrics by Boka design is parked in the courtyard. It’s to be auctioned off on eBay to benefit a Milan charity. (Paulette Cole, president of ABC Home, is there negotiating to get another one from Boka for the New York store.) The heart of the permanent store, however, is up a winding staircase in the main factory building. There, an artful chaos reigns. Walls are lined from floor to ceiling with old tie storage cases, which provide a wonderful backdrop for the eclectic range of wares that include resin trays by Gaetano Pesce, chairs by Brazilian Pritzker-prize winner Mendes da Rocha, and Richard Ginori dinnerware by Paola Navone, who also designed the chic but tiny restaurant that adjoins the space. Will there be more Rossana Orlandi stores in the future? Who knows, said the singular designer herself, “I am only a short-term planner.”
Arlene Hirst is a New York design writer and blogger for The New York Times T magazine.
Triennale di Milano New York
Gio Ponti is one of the few architects who lived and worked according to the famous dictum that design encompassed everything from the city to the spoon. Soon, New Yorkers will have a new spot to go where that philosophy is the guiding spirit, and they will be able to take in an architecture or design exhibition, grab an espresso, and buy the latest copy of Domus or even a set of elegant flatware. The New York branch of the famed Triennale di Milano, opening in September on 53rd Street across from MoMA, seeks to showcase the best in Italian material culture through exhibitions, a retail shop, and a bookstore. Naturally, there will be a cafe/ restaurant, too. Even more apropos, the Italians will inaugurate their space with an exhibition on the prolific and versatile Ponti.
The New York space is the latest in a string of Triennale outposts, which stretch from Shanghai to Korea, with plans in the works for Brazil and Japan. The original is in the 1933 Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan. Clearly, the Italians see their design expertise as a globally exportable commodity. “We are locating in world cities. The choice to be in New York allows us the chance to offer the best of Italian culture and commerce to people from around the world,” Davide Rampello, president of the Triennale di Milano, told AN through a translator.
In a space formerly home to the Museum of Arts and Design on 53rd Street, redesigned by the noted Italian architects Pierluigi Cerri, Michele De Lucchi, and Alessandro Colombo, the approximately 21,000-square-foot venue is spread over three levels, with the restaurant/ cafe at street level, the book and design shop below, and the galleries filling the remaining 11,000 square feet of space. Open stairs and thin white metal balustrades will keep the three crisp spaces connected visually, helping to draw the casual coffee drinker into exhibition programs. Following Ponti, shows are planned on the textiles and designs of Fortuny, the ceramics of Lucio Fontana, and the architecture of the not-so Italian Frank Gehry. “It’s the only show on the work of Gehry from the last ten years,” Rampello said.
In addition to ambitious shows and seductive objects, perhaps the Triennale di Milano New York’s best asset will be offering a quiet alternative to the ever-thronged MoMA. “We know what MoMA is—it’s fantastic,” Rampello said. “We couldn’t miss that opportunity to be here.” Rampello wants the space to offer direct contact with the pleasures of Italian life by engaging the mind, the eye, and the culinary palate. “It will be a great place to have a good coffee or a good dinner and take in an exhibition.” Unlike its neighbor across the street, the Triennale di Milano New York, the newest addition to the city’s cultural landscape, will stay open until 8 p.m.
Alan G. Brake is AN’s Midwest editor.