At first thought, it may seem like an easy task; how do you arrange a priceless collection of modern furniture in a new space devoted to showcasing industrial design? For Mateo Kries, Director of the Vitra Design Museum, who helped curate the inaugural show at the Schaudepot, a newly opened exhibition space, museum, and research center on the campus of the Vitra Design Museum, the solution wasn’t about clever thematic displays. Inside the new Herzog & de Meuron-designed space, a living research lab with a library, computer database, and recreation of Charles Eames’s office, all part of the modern furniture company’s large campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany, the goal is to tell the story behind the objects. Hence, the solution was to let the pieces speak for themselves.
“In other, staged displays, they never create a ‘real’ room,” says Kries. “It looks like a curatorial doll house. The name Schaudepot explains what we are, simply a depot. There’s little curatorial arrangement. It’s the selection of objects that is the most important thing.”
Kries explained that there wasn’t a single criteria in mind that helped him and his team cull down a priceless collection of nearly 7,000 objects—an array of tables, chairs and other objects that began as the personal collection of Vitra owner Rolf Fehlbaum—into 430 objects that offer a statement about the evolution of design. Kries examined the issue from numerous angles, including classics and pieces key to design history, prototypes and rarities, as well as affordable and pragmatic pieces that made an impact on everyday life. There was also a desire to showcase different materials, and make sure the global scope of design was well documented.
The final selection, arranged in lofted rows and displayed as if touring a warehouse, offers a sweeping look at stylistic shifts and technological evolution. Still, there are some unique, standouts that Kries couldn’t help but call out. Here’s a selection of some of his favorites from Vitra’s extensive collection.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Chair for Argyle Street Tea Rooms (1897-98)
“These chairs are exquisite because they sit right at the edge of Art Nouveau and modernism. They were produced in very small quantities for a private commission, so only a very small number of them are still around, perhaps five or six or seven. Every design collection curator knows these are really exceptional.”
Pierre Chareau Desk (1927)
“One of the icons of ‘20s design in France, Chareau’s pieces were created in very small quantities. They’re interesting because they were created in the period between modernist design and Art Nouveau. They showcase machine aesthetics, but are executed so beautifully, like the most delicate Art Nouveau piece.”
Gerrit Rietveld Aluminum Chair (1942)
“Rietveld is a Dutch designer who created the famous red and blue chair in the 1980s. This aluminum chair really looks like a spaceship, but it’s from the ‘40s. It’s one of the first pieces of furniture made from aluminium, and only two or three still exist.”
Carlo Mollino Arabesco Desk (1949)
“He was a legend of postwar Italian design who crafted very sophisticated plywood furniture. He used plywood in a nearly acrobatic way, with very complicated shapes. Scholars say he started a small Art Nouveau revival in the ‘50s. He’s a very remarkable figure. He was an artist who created furniture and practiced architecture. But he wasn’t interested in creating pieces that you could mass-market.”
Charles and Ray Eames Experimental Plywood Armchair Shell (1946)
“We have a lot of experiments and molds from the couple that were never realized. You can read the entire story of their way of experimentation, the trial and error method, in all the prototypes that we have. The Eames are famous for having invented the organic seating shell. In the prototypes we have, you can see they started trying to create it in wood. That model broke, so they tried a version with certain pieces cut out. That also didn’t work, so they started experimenting with plastic. You can literally trace their path from wood to plastic.”