Frank Gehry was commissioned to design this building almost by accident. Gehry originally visited the Vitra campus in 1984 with his family, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, who were there to finalise the installation of their sculpture ‘Balancing Tools’ commissioned by Rolf Fehlbaum on the occasion of his father’s 70th birthday. Initially asked by Fehlbaum to design a chair for Vitra, this eventually evolved into the design of a new building which eventually opened in November 1989. In a 1990 Thames and Hudson publication on the Vitra Design Museum Gehry explains:
‘The brief was modest, the collection was modest and the expectations were modest; reflective of the character of the Fehlbaum family. Since it was to be my debut in Europe, Rolf kindly gave me the leeway, time and encouragement to make it a good one.’
This is the first building where Gehry extensively used curved elements in the composition, and he also limited the palette to simple white rendered walls and zinc roofs. This approach was appropriate to the European location but was also a very deliberate and conscious reference to Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp a mere 2 hours drive from the site.
The building was originally designed to house the Fehlbaum collection of significant modern chairs (as seen in these images) however the chairs have since been moved and the building is now used for a wide range of changing exhibitions.
I had the great pleasure of visiting the building soon after construction in 1991 and I present a gallery of images here that show the building, both outside and inside, as it was at that time.
Place: Vitra Design Museum
Architect: Frank Gehry – Gehry Partners
Photographer: Stephen Varady (scans from slides)
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