He has worked with the most important designers and architects, created a unique campus and made furnishing less hierarchical: we celebrate Rolf Fehlbaum on his eightieth birthday.
By Thomas Wagner.
Whenever and wherever you meet Rolf Fehlbaum, he appears friendly and modest, is well informed, listens attentively. His appearance matches this: The only accent on his now bald, concise head is his never-fashionable glasses. A white shirt, perfectly cut, the tieless collar open or buttoned depending on the occasion, plus a black jacket – Mister Vitra, as he could also be called, appreciates noble normality. It suits the understatement that has characterised his appearance for decades that, were it possible for him to make a bold leap in time, he would prefer to escape anniversaries (such as his 80th birthday on 6 April) by travelling away.
Uta Brandes rightly observed about him 30 years ago: Rolf Fehlbaum “does not want to hold on and above all does not want to be held on by what has already been done and thought”. Consequently, even on his eightieth birthday, he does not want to be forced into the tight corset of biographical data and see his life stations lined up like stops on a timetable. For his sake, we will quickly get through the necessary details: Rolf Fehlbaum was born on 6 April 1941 in Basel as the eldest son of Willi and Erika Fehlbaum. After graduating from high school, he studied social sciences, first in Freiburg, later in Munich, Bern and Basel. The fact that he completed his studies with Edgar Salin in 1967 with a dissertation on Saint-Simon and the Saint-Simonists must be mentioned insofar as the entrepreneur’s son tried out the rebellious-romantic spirit of the early socialists for a while, and not only on paper. He only briefly sniffed out his parents’ company, preferring to found a publishing house for multiplied art, tried his hand at editing and producing at Bavaria Film in Munich, and worked as a consultant for training and further education at the Bavarian Chamber of Architects. In 1977 he joined Vitra after all, developing the company with the verve of well-dosed utopias as a “cultural-economic project”. He managed the company very successfully until 2013.
It began with Eames and Nelson
In retrospect, Rolf Fehlbaum’s career is rooted just as deeply in the history of the family business as it is in international post-war design. He himself has often told the anecdote of how his father Willi (he had taken over a Basel shop-fitting company in 1934 after the death of the owner), on a trip to the USA, had discovered furniture from a taxi in a shop that electrified him, so that he eventually secured the licence from Herman Miller Inc. to distribute Eames and Nelson furniture in Europe. The founding myth, however, does not illuminate more than a beginning. Rolf Fehlbaum developed today’s strong trunk and the imposing crown rising above it in the last two decades of a century in which furniture and industrial design became the not only aesthetically formative factor of a prospering consumer society. The young entrepreneur admires the Eames, discusses with George Nelson and understands: There is more to design than developing, producing and selling chairs (which he loves and collects), sofas and tables. Living can be understood more comprehensively, as a form of being-in-the-world, which allows everything to be included – the architecture, the type of rooms and how they are furnished, the change in work processes, finally the impulses from the avant-garde skins of the arts and popular culture. What preoccupies him is the world relationship realised in things, as expressed in the ancient word “oikonomia”, which means nothing other than “the management of the house”. House and city, private and public belong inseparably together.
A new economy of living
Rolf Fehlbaum, who never ceases to amaze us, has worked with the most important designers and architects. The list – it is impossible to list them all – is a Who’s Who of design that could hardly be more illustrious. In addition, the place where Fehlbaum has made his new economy of living visible in exemplary fashion is the Vitra Campus. Here, production, showroom, archive, design museum, show depot, art, communication and, not to forget, food and coffee mix in a unique way. The lively togetherness extends to the great fun for young and old alike of climbing Carsten Höller’s “Slide Tower”, visible from afar, looking out over the campus, fields and meadows, and then hurtling down the slide at breakneck speed.
All this is not just a trademark of the company. What blends into the surrounding hills between the foothills of Weil am Rhein has rightly been called “Fehlbaum City” as a sign of a cooperative pioneering spirit. Nowhere else can you find such a high density of buildings by the most important architects of the last decades: Frank Gehry (who realised his first building in Europe with the Vitra Design Museum), Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid (the fire station was the first building she built), Herzog & de Meuron, Nicolas Grimshaw, Álvaro Siza, Renzo Piano or SANAA. As a matter of course, the route is additionally garnished with built delicacies by Jean Prouvé, Jasper Morrison or Thomas Schütte. It is no coincidence that the “Balancing Tools” by Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen, created in 1984 – hammer, pliers and screwdriver dancing in a ring – stand at the entrance to the area, as it is here that one can study how regional roots and entrepreneurial action with a sense of equilibristics can give rise to a design culture of their own and how very personal relationships can give rise to global networks.
Looking at things from a different angle, throwing them up in the air, so to speak, in order to then be able to rebalance them, is entirely in keeping with Fehlbaum’s own approach, inspired by humanities methodology and driven by the desire to try things out, according to the principle of trail-and-error. When, to take one example, the working society is in upheaval, he accompanies the change in work culture not only as an observer. Together with renowned designers, he repeatedly roams the terrain anew with a boyish spirit of discovery to work out proposals on how to actively shape the next stage.
Collage instead of monoculture
Fehlbaum never acted defensively, let alone restoratively. He has never been solely interested in the original meaning and scope of what is called housing. On the contrary, he is still concerned today with how its meaning can be extended from the past and present into the future, into a future that can be actively won. Living, one could say, means for him: being here, being open, awake and present. It is a way of being in the world. Whereby everything is interconnected and remains in motion: Thinking, acting, design, architecture, production, distribution, advertising, museum, conference… Who knows, maybe therein lies the secret of the mediator Rolf Fehlbaum. For although he has worked with all the heroes and heroines of design and architecture, Fehlbaum’s own thinking never seems heroic. So, in a relaxed way, he substitutes a bundle of useful things and stimulating dialogues for the grand narratives. Spurred on by the social spirit of modernism, he strives beyond it. Instead of demanding uniformity in furnishing, instead of demanding the dominance of one style, instead of patronising the user, he starts a conversation with him and propagates the principle of the living collage.
Is this the art of living – to remain in motion, to react awake and open to what one perceives, to what changes? Is a collage of furniture, colours, styles, accessories, of the inherited and the acquired, of the accidentally added and the thoroughly planned an image of this? The fact that Rolf Fehlbaum approaches people and things with open eyes, that his spirit of discovery pushes into the unknown, that he effortlessly breaks out of pigeonholes (the strategically skilful entrepreneur, the partner of designers, architects, artists, the culture-savvy collector) – all this proves how wide-ranging his interests, his thinking and his actions are. Probably the most beautiful portrait of him, drawn with few words but many pictures, is therefore still that small red book block of around 600 pages, which the German Design Council, designed by Tibor Kalman and Kim Maley, published in 1997 on the occasion of his being awarded the Federal Prize Promoter of Design. Today we wish you a happy birthday! Cheerio!
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