A Day at the Vitra Design Campus

Written by Tom Greenwood - September 8, 2017

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany, just over the border from the Vitra headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. As soon as we arrived, it became obvious why they referred to it as a campus and not a factory. Spread over many acres, the campus is home not only to a large production and logistics facility, but also to a Design Museum, a flagship store, conference spaces and a slide tower with a giant rotating clock. This place is something truly extraordinary! I learned a lot from our visit, and the following are my top three takeaways.

Vitra Slide Tower
Vitra Slide Tower with rotating clock

1. Live The Brand

I’ve always believed that brands can add real value to the world and provide a foundation for business success when they are rooted in a genuine vision and not simply an empty marketing exercise. Wholegrain did after all begin life as a branding agency, and although we are now focused exclusively on web, my interest in brands is as strong as ever. Vitra is not a furniture brand, but a company that believes in the power of good design to improve the world we live in.

This passion for good design is evident in every detail of what they do, from their collaborations with world renowned designers, through pushing boundaries of what is possible to manufacture, to the creation of their own design museum, and most notably of all, their collaborations with world renowned architects to design an entirely new factory complex after the original factory was destroyed by fire in 1981. Most companies would have quickly thrown up some new generic factory units to get production going quickly after such a disaster, but not Vitra.

They took the time to imagine how to create something positive from the tragic fire and together with architect Nicholas Grimshaw, they created a master plan for a new campus, in which not only could the operations work efficiently, but employees and customers could enjoy spending time and being inspired by the very best of design. A campus that is the living symbol of what the Vitra brand stands for, executed to such a high standard that it’s hard not to be impressed. It now contains a huge collection of breathtaking buildings by architects such as Frank Gehry and Hertzog & de Meuron, many of which are filled with objects of design classics.  They even built their own spectacular fire station to help prevent a repeat of the disaster.

The Vitra campus Fire Station

2. Timeless Design

Vitra is famous for its modern designs, but what is incredible is that many of the products that they produce were designed in the 50s and 60s and are still just as good decades later. Not only that, but many of the original pieces are still in use and in good condition. It’s a testament to the incredible vision of the Vitra team and the designers that they partnered with. A vision that was influenced heavily by the early collaborations with the wonderful Charles and Ray Eames, who believed that longevity of aesthetics and durability of function were fundamentals of good design and sustainability. What better proof could there be that they were right, than in the long term sustainability of the Vitra brand? The continued popularity of their designs and in the ever growing number of manufacturers copying them today.

Charles and Ray Eames on their Lounge Chair designed in 1956

3. Shared Space

The Vitra Design Museum is a space dedicated to hosting exhibitors on what good design means, particularly in how it impacts society and the environment. The current exhibition is called “Together! The New Architecture of the Collective” and explores the history and benefits of shared living and work spaces to create a society that’s more inclusive, more resource efficient, more collaborative, and that fosters stronger communities.

As we’ve been based in a modern coworking space at Impact Hub Westminster for around six years now, it was interesting to trace the origins of this concept back to free-thinking Utopia and radicals in the late 1800s.  It charted the history of successful and failed social experiments over the past century and a half, and to reflected on where we are now with thriving social work spaces, services like Airbnb and new experiments in home design that combine small spaces with shared public and private living, eating and working spaces, making homes more affordable, strengthening communities and encouraging small businesses. Where will this movement take us next?

There was so much to see and learn at the Vitra Campus that we didn’t even get round half of it.  What better excuse to plan a trip back there?