A talk with Rolf Fehlbaum
Thinking that Vitra is partly still a “family-run” company is quite extraordinary. How do you feel about have being part of the very same furniture brand your parents made back in 1957 and now having your niece working there?
Initially I did not think that a family business was a good idea. When I hesitatingly joined it I thought it would be just for a few years. In the meantime I am convinced that the family business constellation in principle is very good for a design company as this type of company needs a long time horizon and a cultural-commercial perspective. A family company can include non-commercial criteria. All depends of course whether within the family there are persons with the necessary competence and character. We are very lucky at Vitra that my niece Nora fullfils all the necessary criteria and therefore Vitra continues to operate as a family business.
What is your best memory linked to the history of Vitra?
If I have to pick one during my leadership period it is the memory of the opening of the Vitra Design Museum in 1989. It was Frank Gehry’s first building outside the USA and the installation of a design museum with an independent status was important for Vitra and very satisfactory for me personally.
Your dearest encounter?
My dearest encounters have always been the ones with the designers, from Charles Eames and George Nelson to Antonio Citterio, Alberto Meda, Jasper Morrison, Hella Jongerius, Konstantin Grcic, the Bouroullec brothers and others. Well, I should also mention some encounters with architects: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Alvaro Siza, Renzo Piano, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. And unforgettable: the encounters with Tibor Kalman.
My dearest encounters have always been the ones with the designers.
Do you remember when you first met Massimo Orsini and the Mutina team?
Yes, I remember very well. It was after the vernissage of the Bouroullec exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. It was love at first sight. We immediately bonded and I cherish the friendship. Professionally, for me it was the discovery of ceramics as a big theme. I had not been really aware, but when I received the literature of Mutina – which by the way is beautifully done – I felt the full impact.
Which is your life motto?
If I have to give an answer without much reflection I would say: “Make the best of it!” This means, for instance, that you accept willingly that you are good at certain things and not good at others and therefore concentrate on your strengths and compensate your weakness by working with people who have complimentary skills. So you use your weakness to create new productive bonds.
Where do you see yourself in the next year?
I made the step from leading the company to being a senior advisor (and a board member). I enjoy that role and the new freedom that is the consequence of having much less responsibility.
Professionally, for me it was the discovery of ceramics as a big theme.