Interview with Rolf and Federica Fehlbaum | The Plan
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Interview with Rolf and Federica Fehlbaum

Interview with  Rolf and Federica Fehlbaum
By Nicola Leonardi -

Nicola Leonardi - Vitra - and you yourself - have written and continue to write an important chapter in the history of contemporary design and architecture. You’ve come a long way from Eames to Citterio, from Grimshaw to Aravena. What have been the pivotal moments in your life? And what about the future?
Rolf Fehlbaum - I have no idea about the future. A fundamental moment was my meeting with Eames and Nelson who came to Europe in 1957. I was helping my father with translations and so made their acquaintance. In the Sixties, when I was in the States, I visited George Nelson again, Charles Eames and Alexander Girard in Santa Fe. That was the first time I came across the idea of the collage, which I then introduced into our own production. I picked up on the idea of mixing new, old, folk, cheap, expensive and casual. Then there was the opportunity of producing the Panton chair. And after that, meeting Gehry in the early Eighties, then our work with Bellini, Citterio, Meda, young designers… and Adriano Olivetti - he was a role model for me.
Federica Zanco Fehlbaum - This generation was very influenced by Olivetti’s approach to the project and by the mediation of Sottsass and Bellini himself. It was a fantastic period for Italy. The country had an entrepreneurial ability that I think it’s lost today. There was an Italian vision of the world: radicalism, the Super studio, new ideas for interiors… It was an incredible time.
R.F. - My encounter with Italian design came with Bellini, I would say in 1979. First there was the American world, then Panton, German design and finally my meeting with Bellini and Italy. And a couple of years later, with Citterio, who was still very young. We only worked a few times with Sottsass. I remember “Citizen Office”, an important exhibition about the office concept. It was only ideas though; no product ensued. Then sure, Jasper Morrison, whom I’ve always been close to, and whom I admire greatly. There were many challenges. When I started, the workplace was pretty boring because very few people had ever given it any thought. So that was exciting. For years we had never really considered the home. Our products went into homes as well, but we had never been interested in developing a product line. Only later did we look at the domestic scene and go back to the idea of the collage. I love the idea of mixing up things. Our homes are our personal mix, an assembly of memories and experiences in our lives.

N.L. - In 1941 Siegfried Gideon wrote in his “Space, Time and Architecture” that to understand contemporary architecture, you have to move into it. “Space could play his whole meaning only together with time”, in other words, there were no more static points of view in architecture. One of the most effective examples he gave was the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan that changed the way we relate to architecture.
We now talk of “free-form” design, and here the latest software has played a fundamental role. Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid were pioneers in this revolution. Did you realise this when you commissioned them to build on the Vitra campus?
R.F. - I am not a theorist, nor an architecture historian. I’ve just seen lots of architecture and I like it. I wasn’t knowledgeable, I just liked the language they used. I didn’t realise it would change the way people built or lived in buildings. With Frank it was an exciting experience, as well as fun, emotionally demanding and difficult. They were all new qualities for us that perhaps would lead to innovation.
F.Z.F. - There are few architects that lead to something really new with their research. Siza doesn’t innovate just for the sake of innovating; he works within tradition, achieving extraordinary results.
There are two basic trends in architecture: those who work on the permanence of language, like Roger Diener, Álvaro Siza or Tadao Ando, taking tradition and pushing it to the extreme, like Monet, even introducing new materials; others are more daring, seeking out materials technologies and new ways of expression. They may seem more expressive at first sight but their roots go deep down.
Take Gehry, for example. Everybody thinks “Oh, those crazy shapes!”. But our factory is a square building, like the central office: normal when it needs to be normal. The meeting rooms are very expressive but the offices are a linear block. This is an aspect of his work that has been overlooked by the magazines that show only the more flamboyant bits. The rear of the museum is wonderful. It’s very simple and normal and one of my favourite views.
R.F. - This is the rule with a Gehry building: one part’s normal and great and another’s more expressive and plastic. Being extravagant with the whole building would be excessive but the combination is just right.
F.Z.F. - If you look at the museum plan, there are just four rectangular rooms, about 600 sq m. What’s exceptional is the way the roof is designed to solve the problem of providing sufficient natural daylight. It’s not big, but the effect is extraordinary. It’s not a wild or crazy development at all.
R.F. - Frank is a very matter-of-fact person. Referring to a practical approach I would like to outline Roger Diener, who I think is a really good architect doing excellent work.
F.Z.F. - He does a lot here in Basel. Many of the quiet, contemporary buildings are his. They improve with time too, because they create a bond with their setting; they do a great deal for the city.
R.F. - In life too, at times we are into relentlessly pushing against the limits, at others we go for sometime that brings it all together in a way you feel will last. So, there are different moments, different moods. With Vitra, I wanted to show these two aspects because I’m attracted to both.
The campus is not a contemporary architecture collection. We have never thought in terms of what was missing and needed to be added. We haven’t worked with some people, like Rem Koolhaas, whom I really like, simply because we have never had a project that was right for him. We don’t think of the campus as a representative collection of architecture of our times.

N.L. - The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Vitra is not just that it’s a design factory, a museum or an open-air campus but that such complexity must be underpinned by a wider project. Is that so?
R.F. - I don’t think it’s complex, but there is a project, the project of modern design. The economic motor of everything is the company. The museum, collections, workshops and publications together make up what we can call a project. There’s no particular vision, just the belief that things around us matter for our wellbeing.

N.L. - Is the Vitra campus cultural patronage or an entrepreneurial operation - or perhaps these things are two sides of the same coin?
R.F. - Vitra started as a normal industrial site; the first buildings are irrelevant from an architectural viewpoint. It became a campus gradually without any underlying vision. The first thing that changed its character was the sculpture by Oldenburg and van Bruggen we gave my father for his 70th birthday in 1984. Suddenly there was this object that had nothing to do with the industrial world. Then I got acquainted with Frank Gehry through Oldenburg. Gehry at the time was interested in furniture. So we talked about furniture. Then, one day, got talking about architecture. At the beginning my idea was that all the buildings should be by Grimshaw. The general plan was for a classical, rationalist industrial site where each building would be very similar to the next and the overall image would be technical and rational. Then I met Gehry and got him involved, even if this went counter to the original idea. But his project was so tempting that we commissioned the factory and museum. We saw that, although very different, the Grimshaw and Gehry buildings sat side by side and were the same size, the same price and had the same purpose: each enhances the other. That was when we got the idea of commissioning buildings of different architects: each would add something to the others and give something to the overall complex. Step-by-step, without a real plan, other buildings were added. Each time we had to build, we asked ourselves who it should be. Initially I did not want to have local architects like Herzog & de Meuron. Even if they’re very good, we wanted people from outside who would not otherwise have built here. The search was exciting. I was particularly intrigued by Gehry above all, then Ando, Hadid and Siza. I entrusted each building to someone who interested me and that I wanted to get to know through architecture. That’s how we grew.
Today we choose in a more deliberate way though I don’t regret any of my choices. For Herzog & de Meuron and Sanaa the choice was pretty obvious and easy. With Herzog & de Meuron, who have since become friends, we went back to the idea of architecture linked to the place. It felt right to think regional after so many journeys across the world; it was like a homecoming.
We had been interested in Sanaa for some time but from the mid-Nineties we did not build anything. It was a difficult economic period. I had seen Sanaa’s work in Japan and followed her development with great interest. Sejima is an architect of great talent. The real surprise was Alejandro Aravena. I saw his Catholic University in Chile and was very taken by the building and by him as a person; a really nice person. The idea for the workshop, which for the time being we’re not going to build, was to have somebody young and fresh for this relatively low-cost, unpretentious, forthright construction. It’s just right for Aravena’s approach. The project is marvellous and I hope one day we can build it.

N.L. - Basel is a city within three countries, with three languages and three cultures. With many multinational pharmaceutical companies around, it is highly focused on architecture, art and design. Do you see yourself as a son of your city? And what responsibility does that give you?
R.F. - I have never been particularly in love with Basel, nor am I particularly drawn to it. I live here because I was born here and have a factory here. I appreciate the advantages, the wealth of architecture, art and graphic design. But I don’t feel I am the product of this environment. I think it’s more accidental.

N.L. - Industrial design goes from the creative process to the production process, with product engineering coming half way along the way. Mies van der Rohe said: “God is in the details”. What’s your opinion?
R.F. - I think that design, unlike architecture, is a collective process where designer and producer work closely together. Sometimes they are one and the same. Take Jean Prouvé and Maarten van Severen. But usually they are two separate entities and the dialogue and cooperation between them are what gives a quality product. When excellent designers work with mediocre producers not much comes of it. Yet when good producers work with average designers the results can be interesting. Design is a hybrid discipline that involves commercial, technical and artist elements. With architecture, the architect and client don’t really work together. The client may have a good idea and be a valid discussion partner, but ideas are not developed together. It’s different with designers. We exchange opinions, we discuss. We have to be clear and willing to cooperate, and if something’s not right, the project has to be re-done. They are different processes. In fact, very often architects are not good designers. And vice-versa.

N.L. - Architecture is about individual buildings, whereas design is about serial production. How does the approach differ in these two disciplines?
R.F. - Every building is in fact a prototype. In the case of a product, you make a prototype and learn from the mistakes, experiment and make changes. In architecture, you learn with time but the finished building does not change. In that sense architecture and the building industry are a more archaic process. Today’s new software allows you to fine-tune a building while you design it; production and design go hand in hand. Gehry has been very important in that development. But still architecture is all about experience. After building about ten projects, you know what works and what doesn’t. When commissioning a work, the client very often wants something very special. If it’s an iconic building, then the architect can let himself go since the aim is to have a special programme, create a symbol. If it’s a more run-of-the-mill project, then it has to be something that falls within a wider standard.
F.Z.F. - With products, you try and avoid producing several prototypes. You make one and fine-tune it with the aim of making multiples of a defect-free product. In architecture on the other hand, you make one prototype, each time taking a risk and accepting the imperfections. A chair is a chair. It’s something you use every day so it can’t have faults. Industrial design does not intend to be original, but rather useful; handsome, yes, but without challenging the limits of the discipline. Architecture, or certain types of architecture, sets out to challenge and go beyond those limits.
R.F. - In design too, there are people like Eames who take things to the edge, but they do it in order to get a better product by using new materials, new technologies. When plastic came around, they created plastic chairs with a new form; not to make a splash but rather to solve a problem in a new and economical way.

N.L. - In an interview with The Observer in 2004, you talked of Louis Kahn and the two schools of thought he called “mosquito design” vs. “elephant design”. What’s your take on this, and in what group would you put the designers and architects you have worked with?
R.F. - It’s easier with designers than with architects because the idea of the “mosquito” structure is that each piece or organ is exposed and connected: an eye is an eye, a leg a leg yet everything is connected. You recognise each bit for what it is and the purpose for which it has been designed, and how it connects to the rest. “Elephant” design is a sort of over-all form. There are legs, eyes, teeth, whatever, but it’s the over-all shape that defines the image. Eames is a mosquito designer par excellence. If he designs a chair, he thinks “What is the best ply, what is the best leg, the best seat, the best arm, the best back?”. And then he starts thinking: “How can we bring them together?”. So in the end you have a composition but every part is visibly different. You show the connections; you make them understandable.
F.Z.F. - Renzo Piano is a mosquito designer but in a radically different way to Carlo Scarpa.
R.F. - Albini too perhaps. In the design field, in our history, there is the Panton chair. That’s got an over-all form: you don’t really know where it starts and where it ends; it has no separate bits to connect.
Ron Arad is a typical elephant designer even if he does sometimes do more fragmented things. Citterio is a mosquito designer.
F.Z.F. - Starck is an elephant designer, because his are over-all forms.
R.F - Now the question is which principle is more successful? Generally, I think the mosquito helps to solve functional but not aesthetic problems. Problems are solved one by one and the solutions brought together. The elephant designer always has to think about how a particular solution will work with the rest. Perhaps he is less free, but his designs are more striking. Over-all shapes and over-all characters are more important than the single element, for even the slightest change can derange the whole. In the case of Eames, and Meda too - another mosquito designer - variation is fundamental. Van Severen, on the other hand, is an elephant. So you see what I mean when I say that for mere functional needs, the mosquito approach is probably the most successful.
F.Z.F. - It’s difficult to keep diverse components together with a fluent, over-all shape.
R.F. - That’s why Eames says that the connections are the most important thing. That’s how he sees it of course. The Panton doesn’t have connections; it’s just a single shape.
F.Z.F. - Both approaches are needed. Both have their shortcomings though. The Panton has to rest on a perfectly flat surface otherwise it will tilt. On the other hand, a chair with a series of small parts that adjust to differences in floor levels would be unsightly. It depends.

N.L. - What’s more difficult to produce, a mosquito or an elephant design?
R.F. - It’s more difficult to achieve complex function, solve a multi-functional problem with an elephant design. When the technical problem is simple it’s easier to create an over-all shape than to do a mosquito composition. The more difficult, the more suitable the mosquito design. If you want a more iconic expression, then I think the elephant design is easier. But then every case is different.

N.L. - This year Vitra launched two models of office chairs by Antonio Citterio, the “AC4” for conference rooms, and the “Skape” for top managers. What went into these new products in terms of R&D, effort, time and energy to get the highest possible quality?
R.F. - A lot depends on the question of finding a new solution to a problem. The really difficult task is to define the problem, especially in the office furniture business where technologies change, changing the form of office organisation. The real challenge is to find a new typology, a new idea. Take the Joyn by the Bouroullec brothers: long community-type tables that also somehow create separable spaces. We wanted to give form to a new need that didn’t exist twenty years ago when everyone usually worked alone in his or her own space. That’s the complexity of the task. In other cases, you apply a new technology, a new way of considering a known object, like an office chair. Mechanisms and functions are improved. It’s got to be comfortable, ensure the right body posture, and give support. You don’t re-invent the object, you just tweak it here and there making small improvements, interpreting the spirit of the times.
With the “AC4”, the idea was to develop a product that did what it had to do and reflect the mood of today. It had to be comfortable and thin, especially the back, elegant yet efficient. I think our task is to bring all these factors together. With another recent chair, the “Vegetal” by the Bouroullecs, we first found the kind of chair that reflected nature-oriented feelings and then found a way of actually making it. That was a completely different type of research. I also think that the project-designer combination has to do with the designer’s particular sensitivity and his/her affinity with the problem.
F.Z.F. - Production proceeds on parallel levels that paradoxically merge in the end. Someone will propose a logical theme, someone else, the creative, perhaps will provide an illogical response because he solves problems by intuition. Finally there’s the engineer and his concrete approach of thinking in terms of complying with complex regulations. These three languages come together in a final synthesis: the product.
R.F. Take Meda. He’s fantastic for tackling technical problems because he’s an engineer. The Bouroullec brothers propose new typologies; Antonio Citterio - he’s great at everything - finds practical, elegant solutions since as an architect he can see problems also in terms of opportunities. Jasper Morrison knows how to learn from the past and make it relevant to our times. Hella Jongerius has a special knack with surfaces, but it wouldn’t make sense to ask her to design a sophisticated office chair. You make mistakes on the way.
Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you really go the wrong way. And when you realise you are on the wrong path you have to go back and take another, because the final goal is to find an honest solution to an honestly posited problem.

Weil am Rhein, June Friday 12th 2009

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