Exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explores the story of Vitra

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Exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explores the story of Vitra
Model of Balancing Tools, 1984. Designed by Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen, Photographer: Andreas Sütterlin, © Vitra.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- The Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting Vitra—Design, Architecture, Communication, an exhibition exploring the story of Vitra, the family-owned Swiss furniture company, from its American roots and distinguished design collaborations to its architectural commissions and educational outreach. The exhibition of some 120 works includes furniture, design objects, publications, models, publications, and videos divided into the following sections: American Roots; Communications; Architecture/Sites; Products/ Designers; and Vitra Design Museum, Collections/Archives.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Rolf Fehlbaum, Vitra’s Chairman Emeritus, was honored by Collab, the group for modern and contemporary design at the Museum. He received Collab’s 2014 Design Excellence Award on November 21. Fehlbaum founded the Vitra Design Museum with his collection of modern and contemporary furniture and then expanded its activities to include traveling exhibitions, publications, and workshops. He created Vitra Edition, a program of experimental pieces such as Rod Arad’s looping steel Well-Tempered Chair (1986) and Philippe Starck’s surreal W.W. Stool (1990), which are included in the exhibition, and commissioned internationally renowned architects to design buildings for the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein.

The exhibition includes contemporary products in addition to historic objects and archival material from the Vitra Design Museum that represent the firm’s American roots. These include a plywood toy elephant by Charles and Ray Eames, a group of Alexander Girard’s Wooden Dolls, and George Nelson’s 1948 furniture catalogue for Herman Miller.

Vitra’s founders, Willi and Erika Fehlbaum, began licensing furniture from Herman Miller for the European market with designs by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Alexander Girard in 1957. The Eameses view of design as the “recognition of need,” their warning against “stylistic excess,” and their understanding of the connections between people, ideas, and objects have served as Vitra’s guiding principles ever since. The company continues to manufacture such classics, as well as new products by leading international designers, from Verner Panton and Antonio Citterio to Jasper Morrison and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, which will be on view.

Rolf Fehlbaum joined the family business in 1977. He launched Vitra’s signature architecture program by commissioning British architect Nicholas Grimshaw to design new factory buildings when a substantial part of Vitra’s manufacturing facilities were destroyed in a fire in 1981. Other commissions followed, among them the Vitra Design Museum by Frank Gehry, a fire station by Zaha Hadid, a conference pavilion by Tadao Ando, VitraHaus by Herzog & de Meuron, a factory building by SANAA, and Balancing Tools, a large-scale outdoor sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

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