Each time I go to Basel, I go once a year or so to visit my brother, I find something new and approach life in a different way. This is what's nice about staying with other people especially in other countries; you do life their way. One thing we do is get on a bike and cycle somewhere like France to a Michelin-starred restaurant. Or, less than an hour's cycle ride away over into Germany, you can visit the Vitra factory and The Vitra design museum in a town called Weil-am-Rheim. It's only about 20 mins by car so easily accessible if you're staying in Basel. When I first visited it, they had the factory and the museum and called it The Vitra Campus. But now they have the VitraHaus, designed by Basel architects Herzog de Meuron (architects of the Tate Modern), which is a concept store. Vitra is essentially German company that produces furniture. They work with the best designers and have exclusive license to produce their work. You will probably recognise these pieces, for example:
by Verner Panton
Or these fun elephant stools by Charles Eames (originally designed in 1945)
Or more recent work such as this chair by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec:
Much as I lament in my romantic way the impact of manufacturing on skills and quality, I would certainly make the exception here. The work is produced to the highest standards with great expertise and using the finest materials. I suppose it's a combination of exacting German standards with longevity through quality of structure and design that lasts decades. I love these 1950s clocks:
They have a fully audited sustainabiity report. I like the way this is an, albeit rather stellar, 'normal company' which is bringing sustainability closer to it's core.
I went to this place before the Haus opened last year. When we went, we got on the architecture tour. I can't recommend this more because there is something a little Ikea about the Haus. Whereas, the architecture tour is rather intimate and serious.
Family-run and integral to the community of Weil-am-Rheim, the Vitra company champions architecture and for each building the commissioned world-famous architects. Such as this building by Nicholas Grimshaw:
and this building by Alvaro Siza:
the owners were so keen on architecture that they bought, and re-erected this splendid 1950's gas station by Jean Prouvé
One of the most recent buildings is the fire station built by Zaha Hadid.
Her work is interesting in many ways - though a little disconcerting there are no right angles. I felt a little like I was being toyed with, like I was in a Pirandello play. It was intriguing.
My favourite space was the conference space designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. There was something monastic about the experience. You had to enter the building in single file, which felt like a respectful ritual. Wherever you are you are supposed to see a cherry tree as the space on which the building was erected there were cherry trees all around.
I liked the simplicity of the materials and the use of lighting. Note that you can see the cherry trees even though you are in a basement.
This re-ignites my desire to go to Japan. I hope to go next year. My thoughts are with their trauma. My work is informed by a Japanese approach to materials and a respectful way of treating every detail. I felt this aesthetic and seriousness in this space.
Next to this building was the museum. When I first went there was a fabulous exhibition by the Brazilian Campana brothers. I suppose pioneers of upcycling - they used waste from the favelas to create art and design objects. The museum is by Frank Gehry:
It has made me reflect on the nature of design and how my work relates to this approach. I do feel in some way that this was like Ikea for more literate, more moneyed consumers. However, especially in the intimacy of the architecture tour I felt the connection with the community of the town, so integral to the factory. The attention to quality of function, creative expression and how we live is important. I suppose my reservation was how the shopping experience is now part of this, how car loads of expensive German cars are flocking here, families, at the weekend to 'shop' and see. I love and respect beautiful things, and honour companies that have a strong culture - which is much broader than being a pure financial vehicle. Maybe it's that it's modern and I'm a little more grounded in traditional skills - ways of making. I favour the artisan, the rougher-hewn piece, the work that has a closer connection to the land. Factories are a little disconnected. Maybe that's what drew me to Tadao's architecture. Its modernist purity appealed to the esthete, the monastic, and the ever-present cherry trees reconnected me with the land and the cycle of seasons.
However, I have to say that I admired enormously the integrated approach that revealed the whole vision of the company; invited its customers and admirers into its inner workings and shared them. I think it's on the right side of consumerism, on balance. It shows a respect for the object, the materials and the worker and the customer alike.