While Herzog & de Meuron receives the plaudits for its heralded extension that is the new Tate Modern, another piece of its display work has quietly opened at Weil am Rhein, home of the Vitra Museum. Liz Farrelly reports
All images © Vitra Design Museum, Mark Niedermann
Words Liz Farrelly
Days prior to the fanfare accompanying Herzog & de Meuron’s new Tate Modern extension, another museum building by the Basel-based architecture practice opened - Vitra Schaudepot.
Sitting atop a raised plaza at the south end of the furniture manufacturer’s Weil am Rhein campus, this doubles the size of the Vitra Design Museum and means that it can now put on nine temporary exhibitions a year.
In the world of design museums the concept of Schaudepot - ‘open storage’ - was pioneered at the Museum für Gestaltung, Zürich only in 2014, which is probably why the term remains untranslated. Vitra’s version is much more than neat storage with an occasional guided tour, as it fulfils a long-time need to display an incomparable collection of furniture; visitors often ask ‘where are the chairs?’
Briefly on show in Frank Gehry’s signature building (opened in 1989) the collection was stored to make way for the temporary exhibitions. It continues to grow, however, and is central to the museum’s curatorial programme, as well as providing unique research opportunities for collaborating designers.
Open storage with a framed view through to memphis and Marc Newson
Developed in tandem with a scholarly work -in-progress, an atlas of furniture featuring 2,000 objects (published next year) and an online database, the Schaudepot offers a permanent display of 400 items of furniture on open shelves as well as a basement of archived objects behind glass. There’s also a materials gallery and handling collection, library, archive and, of course, shop and cafe. Behind-the-scenes glimpses into conservation studios and museum offices are all facilitated by an architecture that while appearing monolithic and appropriately protective, is also fluid and adaptable.
The building above ground is a windowless, gabled, masonry addition, softened by a process of splitting-and-turning each brick to produce a textured surface in saturated earth tones. It’s a quieter contrast to some campus landmarks and on a more modest scale than Tate’s Switch House - less a cathedral to art, more a chapter house of design - but as a new-build extension of a former industrial facility, there are similarities.
At the Schaudepot launch in Zaha Hadid’s 1993 Fire Station (now an events space), Rolf Fehlbaum, Chairman Emeritus and founder of the Vitra Collection, recalled the initial impetus. Prompted by a need to extend the underground storage space housing the collection, he called on H&dM to revisit the campus. ‘If we were not friends I couldn’t approach them with such a minor request: could we do an interesting entrance to the basement?’
The relationship was established with H&dM’s extraordinary VitraHaus store. For the latest project, H&dM decided it wanted to do far more than an interesting entrance, and Fehlbaum was receptive to a bigger idea. Jacques Herzog describes it as bringing together the ‘loft and cave’, adding, ‘that was how we understood our architectural role at Tate’. Fehlbaum explains: ‘He said, “Couldn’t we can do half of the building on one floor and then open the floor and look down and see the whole collection?” It wasn’t the most practical idea, but it opened our eyes to something very important, that what you see there is a small selection of a much wider collection.’ So the architecture underscores the multiple iterations of design worthy collection and display, rather than supporting one didactic, indisputable canon.
Vitra Museum director, Mateo Kries, described the new permanent display as ‘a good combination of known icons and hidden treasures, and some unseen things between the experimental pieces and the popular pieces’. Walking through the display and gazing into the thematically arranged storage areas, curator Janna Lipsky points out that multiple narratives are developed ‘and each shelf is a kind of history in itself’. So as not to disrupt the archival integrity of the space labelling is minimal, but interpretation and information is accessible via the newly digitised catalogue and on the website.
The windowless upper floors of the new building
Fulfilling a complex range of functions Vitra Schaudepot really represents a sea change. Herzog described it as ‘more authorless, timeless, a normal building without being boring’, which may hint at ‘grand projet’ fatigue. Stating that the campus is more than an ‘accumulation of interesting architecture’, Fehlbaum recognises the Schaudepot as emblematic of a new gateway - together with landscaping and a south–north promenade it opens the campus to public transport links with Weil and Basel, either side of the German/Swiss border.
This is museum building as place making. In the near future Herzog sees Vitra as the world-class cultural centre of a metropolitan neighbourhood. Working around the manufacturing facility the site is more public; Hadid’s Fire Station is now accessible from the Schaudepot plaza, no longer fenced off. As Fehlbaum concludes: ‘It is a completely changed environment… it’s a new site, a new campus.’