Think you know you a thing or two about design? Compare notes with Vitra's CEO, Rolf Fehlbaum.
The opening of the first Vitra design museum in 1980 established both Rolf Fehlbaum and Vitra's place as world-class design authorities. Here the CEO and leading expert on 20th-century furniture shares his thoughts.
Rolf Fehlbaum has been at the helm of Vitra, the revered Swiss design company, for the past 30 years. Beginning with Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, George Nelson and Jean Prouvé, the world-famous manufacturer (founded by his father, Willi Fehlbaum) has carved a niche in design history by producing iconic designs since 1950.
Thanks to the Fehlbaums' visionary approach and support, the company has become a leading innovator in the furniture field, boasting a roster of talents—including Alberto Meda, Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec and most recently Dutch ceramicist Hella Jongerius, the company's first solo female designer—that reads like a "who's who" of the world's foremost contemporary designers.
While Vitra's recent reputation has been built on bringing quality and fresh design to the office, as work life creeps into the domestic space, Fehlbaum is leading the company back in its original direction, creating timeless classics for the home.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury to me personally is the freedom to choose and being independent... bringing together whatever pleases you without having to calculate what is the effect on others.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
I'm not into luxury objects, for me it's more of a psychological state, not by being driven by any thought of gain value or to impress somebody. I'm not in this world of objects.
If luxury were a place?
I guess it would be a place that offers many options, so that you can practice that freedom, depending on your personal utopia. This could be somebody who loves to see the sea, someone who loves the mountains, or they may love to be in the city. It's a place where you can realize that.
If luxury were a moment?
I don't have an answer to that. I think it has to do with choice. You have the liberty of choice, because you don't have it all the time. You would go crazy if you were absolutely free.
What changes have you seen in Vitra over the last 30 years?
Recently, the theme of the home has become relevant to us again because the home has changed. It has become a more active place—not solely a place where you shield yourself from the world. Also, the combination of work and leisure is interesting to us because we have a transversal vision. We are not looking at one part of life separated from another. For us work and leisure is fluid.
Seeing such a cross pollination of designers from such a broad spectrum of ages and nationalities over the last 30 years, you must have noticed many changes in style and technique over time?
Generally, when designers get older, they get deeper in a theme, but it's less varied as a rule. They are more experienced and they know more about the things that don't work, which can also be a problem, because they almost build up an inner censorship, while the younger designers have the benefit of innocence, which is very interesting.
Who are your favorite designers?
If I had one I wouldn't tell you. Actually, the great thing about each project for me is that I can work and love to work with different designers. Hella Jongerius's approach is very different, say, from Alberto Meda's. He's a very technical designer, while Hella has an artisan approach. I think Citterio is a great designer, he works with the poetics of the normal product for the office and Jasper Morrison is another poet. It's a mix of personalities, they all represent who we are, so for us it's very exciting and for me personally it is very different.