Before the opening of the Vitra Schaudepot

Interview with Susanne Graner

7000 pieces of furniture, more than 1000 lighting objects and numerous archives, as well as the estates of such designers as Charles & Ray Eames, Verner Panton and Alexander Girard - the collection of the Vitra Design Museum ranks among the most important holdings of furniture design worldwide. On 3 June 2016, a new era will begin for this collection: in the Vitra Schaudepot by Herzog & de Meuron, key pieces from the collection will be on permanent public display.

The collection has been overseen since 2010 by Susanne Graner. She studied art technology, conservation science and restoration at Munich Technical University, before going on to specialise in furniture and modern materials. In 2010 she left Die Neue Sammlung in Munich to assume responsibility for the collection at the Vitra Design Museum. With preparations for the Schaudepot now in the final stretch, she found time to talk with us.

Susanne Graner, what is special about the Vitra Design Museum’s collection? How did the collection evolve over the years?

The Vitra Design Museum’s collection is unique. The cornerstone for the collection was laid by Rolf Fehlbaum, the museum’s founder and former Vitra Chairman. In the 1980s he assembled a collection of furniture that was transferred to the Vitra Design Museum upon its establishment in 1989. Ever since, the collection has been expanded by the museum’s directors, Alexander von Vegesack (1989 to 2010) and Mateo Kries and Marc Zehntner (since 2011), together with Rolf Fehlbaum, and it now numbers among the largest of its kind worldwide. Hence what was originally a private collection gained an institutional framework with the founding of the museum, and it has been systematically built up over the years since. The passion that drove and drives this process is still perceptible today, exerting a unique influence on the collection.

What are the focal points of your work with the collection?

By definition, along with collecting, research, exhibiting and education, the core mission of the museum also includes preservation of the collection. As soon as a piece enters our collection, we regard it as a museum piece, treating and conserving it with the appropriate level of care. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mass-produced furniture design, manufactured many times over, or a piece from a limited-edition series. We remove the furniture item or lighting object from the cycle of everyday use and/or alteration by users and seek to protect and preserve the material substance as long as possible.

"Among these objects are early bentwood pieces, icons of classic modernism by Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto or Gerrit Rietveld, but also colourful plastic objects from the Pop era or recent designs made with 3D printers."

Could you give an example to illustrate this?

One example is the so-called Leonardo Sofa by Studio 65, an iconic piece from 1969, which has been on tour as part of our Pop Art Design exhibition since 2012, with showings at such venues as Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Louisiana Museum in Denmark or currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The sofa is a seating cluster consisting of twelve individual elements made of painted foam with the motif of the American flag. Foam is one of those synthetic substances that undergoes material-specific aging processes over a relatively short time span, causing the material to become yellowed and brittle. Instead of trying to restore the object to its original condition, we give it a thorough cleaning and reattach any loose pieces to prevent further deterioration. This is more time-consuming than returning it to its original condition, but we want to preserve the patina, which is part of the object’s identity and character.

With the Vitra Schaudepot designed by the Basel-based architects Herzog & de Meuron, a new building will open on the Vitra Campus. How is this change influential on your work?

The main building of the Vitra Design Museum designed by Frank Gehry, which opened in 1989, was originally conceived as a venue for the collection, yet today it is used for the presentation of major temporary exhibitions. Up until now, the museum collection has never been on permanent display. After 27 years as a museum that has acquired and maintained extensive holdings, the initial idea for an ongoing presentation of the collection is finally becoming a reality – and in the form of the Schaudepot, it is virtually unique.

Another important aspect that the Schaudepot will surely bring into clearer focus is the accessibility of the museum’s collection and archive to scholars and researchers.

How is the collection presented in the Vitra Schaudepot?

The central focus of the Schaudepot is a permanent exhibition of over 400 key pieces of modern furniture design from 1800 to the present day. Among these objects are early bentwood pieces, icons of classic modernism by Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto or Gerrit Rietveld, but also colourful plastic objects from the Pop era or recent designs made with 3D printers.

This presentation will be complemented by smaller temporary exhibitions on themes related to the collection, beginning with a survey of the Radical Design movement from the 1960s. Views into the lower level of the Schaudepot will give visitors an impression of other focal areas of the collection, such as Scandinavian and Italian design, the lighting collection, or the estate of Charles and Ray Eames.

For this and with the help of freelance colleagues and students enrolled in conservation programmes, we have handled almost 6000 pieces of furniture during the past three months – examining, cleaning and relocating them. Holdings that were previously stored elsewhere, due to space constraints, were also finally integrated back into the collection. All of these efforts have already proven worthwhile, since from the perspective of conservation, the conditions for the objects in the collection have been significantly improved.

What still has to be accomplished prior to the opening?

Over the past weeks, we have been working on the basement area, where windows will afford visitors a view of the collection. We still need to fine-tune our selection of objects for this purpose, and the relocation of objects within the collection is not yet complete.

The ‘Schaudepot Lab’ also brings a new conceptual approach to the presentation of the collection: it comprises an assemblage of materials and objects that exemplify various materials and technologies in furniture construction – many of which are common, but others that are highly innovative or unusual. We are not quite finished with this area, and several prototypes are still underway. The preparation of the objects for the presentation of the collection on the main floor is complete, and now we’re waiting with great anticipation for the moment when we can begin to move the pieces into their new location.


Publication Date: 19.5.2016
Author: Vitra
Images: Florian Böhm, Andreas Sütterlin, Vitra Design Museum