Mateo Kries and Vitra Design Museum

Our new columnist and Saint Germain gallerist Robert Murphy talks to Vitra Design Museums’s Director Mateo Kries about how he preserves and grows the world’s 
best private furniture collection and where he sees design going next and which names he respects in the fashion world.

Situated in the German border town of Weil am Rhein, the Vitra Design Museum holds one of the most important collections of its kind with more than 7,000 seminal pieces of furniture and thousands of other important objects. In 2016 it inaugurated a tremendous building by famed architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron to display part of the vast collection, which ranges from furniture by Verner Panton and Charles and Ray Eames to Modernist masterpieces by Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé. The building complemented an already remarkable structure by American star architect Frank Gehry, which the museum uses for the exhibitions it organizes every year. Achtung Mode caught up with the museum’s erudite director, Mateo Kries, 44, who splits his time between Weil and Berlin, where he lives, to talk about the collection, the direction of design, and cross-over from the world of fashion.

Mateo Kries, Vitra Design Museum Director, by Benedikt Frank

Mateo, you are the director of Vitra Design Museum. What makes the museum unique?

We are a private institution, meaning we are not a public museum. However, we are a non-for profit organization and act like a public institution, which means we are not connected to Vitra regarding our content. We choose independent topics which deal with design and architecture for our exhibitions, many of which travel to other museums after they have been presented here. So we run quite an international network.

Of how many pieces does the collection consist?

We have around 20,000 objects in the collection.

Is there a focus on the 20th century?

We cover more than 200 years of furniture design. Our collection starts with the first examples of industrially manufactured furniture, which was built in the late 18th century. For us, that is the beginning of design.

Das Tischmodell Horns table aus dem Jahre 1985, zusammengesetzt aus mehreren Metallgestellen
und einer großen asymmetrischen Glasplatte, vom israelischen Produktionsdesigner Ron Arad stammt aus den Anfangsjahren seiner

Most people would be surprised that design started as early as the 18th century.

We see aspects of mass production already then. For example, we see the division of labor. We see the pre-fabrication of certain components. The process starts in the late 18th century, when industrialization begins in the United Kingdom, and then it continues throughout the 19th century, when the word “design” starts to appear in the UK, around 1840/1850.

Does some of it start with military furniture?

Military furniture and also hospitals that used materials like metal that were not considered adequate for the private space in the 19th century. In the military or hospital context, metal furniture was already being used and then metal was discovered in the 20th century by the avant-garde and was transferred to private space. Also outdoor furniture: Karl Friedrich Schinkel was making cast-iron outdoor furniture in the early 19th century. The big revolution of metal furniture came with the 1920s.

With the designers of the Bauhaus?

Yes, Bauhaus, also Le Corbusier and Gerrit Rietveld.

How do you think the perception of design has changed over the last few decades? It has become a big buzzword.

Absolutely! I have written a small book a few years ago in which I spoke about the inflation of the word “design”, because today anything can be seen as design. Nowadays you have studios for nail design or hair design. Whatever. I think the word design or the discipline is constantly in danger if you define it like that because everyone claims to deal with it. Design is something that requires a high degree of professionalism, skills and knowledge.

I think what we’ve seen is that in the mid-20th century design was still very much linked to the industrial world and to designing actual objects – industrial products. That has changed in the second half of the 20th century when more people discovered that design does not only concern objects, it can also cover communication between people, interactions, processes in society.

Design strategies can be applied to anything, which, per se, is an interesting point and it’s really relevant to speak about. But it doesn’t mean that design can be completely trivialized and anything can be called design.

It seems to me in some ways that the market place has a negative impact on design today when you think that many of those we consider the greatest designers of the 20th century had a utopian aim of how to improve peoples’ lives. Today it seems to be about how to move merchandise.

I think this observation was even more true in the 1980s and 90s, maybe even in the early 2000s. There was a commercialization of design that really worked against the initial idea of making the world better and creating something relevant. In the last ten years I’ve noticed a lot of designers who are rediscovering these utopian und visionary aspects. Currently, there is a big process of politicizing design, of seeing design as a kind of activism and now there are a lot of debates about social design, critical design, open design, and all these tendencies that we’ve seen in the last ten years show that there is an awareness among designers that design has to make a contribution to society.

Who do you have in mind?

They are not very famous, but some of the people influencing the field are Dunne & Raby and Superflux design studio, both of whom are based in London. There is Jerszy Seymour from Berlin. Also Forensic architecture, which is a community that works between architecture, arts and design. These studios have a more experimental bent but follow this approach to design I just described.

Do you think this is the biggest new trend in design today? Engaging in social responsibility?

It’s a major trend and then, of course, if you look at the more classical fields of design, there are always new trends, new colors appear, new materials. But they are not trends we are going to remember in 20 or 30 years. They don’t give design a new direction. I think, what I just mentioned is an important tendency and there are others who are, for example, using or thinking about digital technologies. How can you use them to manufacture a product, what influence does that have on the way we use design? It’s not only 3D printing. There has been a lot of hype about that we may be able to print our objects in the copy shops in a few years. But I think that’s not the main point of digital culture in design. Or designers that align design with biotechnology, who think about new material research and how you can create materials that are sustainable.

Let us return to the collection of the museum. Are you still actively buying pieces at the museum?

Yes, we are.

And what are you looking for today?

On the one hand, we still buy historical pieces from the 20th century. We also try to buy pieces to balance the representation of certain countries in our collection because every design collection has an over-representation of western countries and male designers. We try to find the pieces by female designers of the 2Oth century who are underrepresented in the collection.

We are also looking at contemporary design. It’s very complicated because you really have to go to the fairs, to the designers. You have to look at the studios. You have to see what designers are actually doing to buy new things, to buy prototypes or study models. There is not a real market. There is a market for historical pieces in auction houses or galleries but contemporary designs are often bought directly from the designers.

Der Wiggle Side Chair von Starachitekt Frank Gehry aus den Jahren 1969 bis 1972 besticht mit seiner Schlangen- linienform und seiner robusten Haptik aus Wellpappe und Hart- faserplatte.

What do you think about the prices for design today, the prices for the big names of the 20th century at auctions? Have they exploded in the recent years?

It’s quite absurd sometimes. I don’t think that it is a good thing because design always has been meant for the public. When design pieces reach a value of several hundred thousand euros it becomes very prohibitive. I think in some cases the design work is just so outstanding that high prices are justified. Yet we have to observe that very critically. Of course, at the museum, we don’t appreciate that because it also has become very difficult for us to compete with these prices. And somehow, we have created these problems ourselves because we have been very active in collecting throughout the last 30 years, creating a collector’s market and feeding the hype with exhibitions and books. For sure, this has contributed to the popularity of design and the consequence is rising prices. So we have to blame ourselves but I think we still have to do our job to popularize design and the knowledge about design and to show that this really is an equally important part of our culture as the arts and architecture.

In the art world there is a trend right now for rediscovering artists of the recent past that were significant but maybe forgotten. Have you made any recent discoveries that would be similar in the world of design?

We constantly make new discoveries. I don’t want to mention them all because we are planning exhibitions. But one person, it is not a discovery, but it’s someone who has been really influential in the 1980s is Ron Arad. He’s been working on an industrial level for the last ten years. We did an exhibition on him this summer in our collection space to show again the early works from the 1980s. So even someone like Ron Arad can be reconsidered today and we see that the sculptural experimental work that some designers are doing today was very much influenced by Ron’s work.

And, of course, the female designers – there are some Italian women like Gae Aulenti and Nanda Vigo, who I think merit much more attention.

Im Jahr 1992 kreierte der Industriedesigner Ron Arad seinen aus- gefallenen Klassiker London Papardelle aus Stahl.

Mostly from the 1970s?

From the 50s to 70s. And somebody like Osvaldo Borsani. Some Italian designers from the post-war period, maybe not the first row but extremely important and still very fresh and not dated. Another example is Dieter Rams. We did an exhibition on his furniture design. Dieter Rams is known for the Braun designs he created. But in fact, he created great furniture that isn’t known as well as the Braun designs.

What are a couple of your very favorite pieces in the museum?

There are a few really rare pieces. For example, there is a wardrobe by Eileen Gray that she created for her own house at the Mediterranean coast. It’s a unique piece covered with cork. Then there is another piece by Gerrit Rietveld: a chair made of folded aluminum from the early 1940s that is also quite outstanding.

You mention Eileen Gray, which makes me, in some way, think of Yves Saint Laurent because he had that famous dragon chair by Eileen Gray that sold at Christie’s for 21.9 million euros. A lot of fashion designers have been interested in design. Do you feel there is an overlap between fashion and design?

I think there is a lot of influence or a lot of dialogue. Product designers look very much at fashion to understand which new materials are being discovered, which new colors you can work with. And vice versa. I think a lot of fashion designers look at design and if you look at people like Martin Margiela for example, I think he is someone who also looks at fashion as if it was product design. He used to discover standard pieces that were already there and brought them into fashion or made them into fashion items. Sometimes there is a new contextualization of certain objects like, for example, a sneaker that becomes high fashion.

Are there any fashion designers that you are particularly interested in or that you look at as being innovative in their field?

I like what Dries Van Noten does. He is someone that I follow personally and have a lot of interest in. For his Spring/Summer 2019 collection, Dries Van Noten was inspired by Verner Panton’s textiles. That’s a very direct example for this kind of dialogue between design and fashion.

Do you know if any fashion designers today are significant design collectors?

Of course we know Karl Lagerfeld is a design collector but I don’t know what he’s currently collecting because he has been changing his focus from time to time. Collecting and creating are often closely associated, so I am sure many other fashion designers have collections that serve as a source of inspiration.

You have written a few books. Do you have anything in the pipes?

Yes, I work on several books with our museum’s team. One is about Victor Papanek, who, in the 1970s, was a pioneer of the whole social design movement. He basically translated the thinking of the 1968 student movement into design and wanted to create design that considered the socially excluded third world, etc. It is the first retrospective on him, opening in September, and we are doing a beautiful book. Another book I’m working on is a book about the relation of surrealism and design, based on a show I am doing in 2019. We are going to juxtapose works from the art by people like René Magritte etc. and designers. It’s striking how surrealism and design have influenced each other. There will be a lot of examples from fashion because people like Elsa Schiaparelli or today Iris van Herpen took influences from surrealism into fashion design.



All pictures by Benedikt Frank for Achtung Mode Nr. 36.

This article appeared first in Achtung Mode Nr. 36 (September 2018), column Depesche der Mode.