Vitra: A Swiss Family Business

On Thursday, May 1, Rolf Fehlbaum spoke to the TASIS Architecture and Design and Economics classes in the Palmer Cultural Center. Mr.Fehlbaum is on the board of directors of the company his father founded in 1950. The Vitra furniture manufacturing company is located in Basel, Switzerland, and the Vitra Design Museum is located just across the border in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. The TASIS Architecture and Design classes travel up to Weil each year in October and in January to increase their understanding of contemporary design and architecture.

Mr. Fehlbaum’s talk was inspirational, as he recounted growing up in the midst of some of the greatest designers of the 20th century: Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Verner Panton, and others were personal friends of his parents, and members of the Vitra company’s private “stable” of furniture designers. Mr. Fehlbaum also spoke about his passion for contemporary architecture, and the close correlation of architecture with design. Finally, Mr. Fehlbaum addressed the issue of business and profit making. Here, too, his remarks were direct and clear, targeting students whose careers will most likely include business involvement.

The most memorable thing he advised them was to remember that businesses are not just profit-making concerns, but rather, the most successful ones exhibit a deep knowledge of their craft. In the case of Vitra, this means a thorough understanding of chair making, but the same advice goes for any business. His example was of a bakery in Paris where people line up daily to buy bread. “Why do they do this?” he asked. The answer was that the bread is produced by bakers whose detailed, artisanal knowledge of the craft enables them to make the very best bread available. “Of course a business must be profitable”, he said, “but the money is not the only thing that counts.”

Attention to detail, commitment to excellence, deep knowledge of the field, and a commitment to contemporary culture: these principles are all characteristic of the Vitra company, and indeed of Swiss contemporary design.

 Rolf Fehlbaum speaks to students and faculty in the Palmer Center.

Rolf Fehlbaum speaks to students and faculty in the Palmer Center.

 TASIS students visit Vitra in October 2013.

TASIS students visit Vitra in October 2013.