1 July 2014 -

Corey Evans Martin: Student Travel Award Report

With the generous support of the Design History Society via the Student Research Travel Grant, I was given the opportunity to travel to Basel, Switzerland and Weil am Rhein, Germany to conduct research for my MA dissertation titled 'Vitra Contemporary Design for the Domestic Market'. My focus was on contemporary furniture produced by the Vitra Corporation over the last thirty years. The journey to the Vitra Campus, with research conducted primarily at the Vitra Design Museum's extensive Archives and Library, was of vital importance to the completion of this project.

The primary aim of this research was to better understand Vitra's history of engagement with contemporary domestic design, focusing mostly on the relationships between Vitra and the designers it has worked with over the years. Although office pieces and design classics are important components of the Vitra product lines, the research, analysis and assessment of contemporary works produced by Vitra for this dissertation was limited to domestic furniture.

Much of the material analysed at the Vitra Design Museum Archives included recorded interviews with past designers, letters of correspondence, photographs, out-of-print catalogues, brochures and past marketing material, not only documenting Vitra's contemporary furniture production but also important information and notes surrounding the 1987 and 2007 Vitra Editions, unavailable for analysis elsewhere. During my visit, additional access was authorized by the Collection's Curator to view the Vitra Collection. The Vitra Collection is the Vitra Design Museum's permanent body of more than 6,000 important contemporary furniture pieces, including, but not limited to, pieces produced by the Vitra Corporation.

Research at the Archives allowed me to more thoroughly explore a dissertation topic that, in this specific context, had never previously been investigated. While much has been written on the extensive and varied architecture of the Vitra Campus and the Vitra Design Museum, the topic of Vitra's Contemporary Design for the Domestic Market including both its history and its future trajectory had not yet been examined to this extent.
My research focused on how a furniture company such as Vitra, with a foothold in the office and contract market and a catalogue of 'design classics,' engages with contemporary practice. To assess Vitra and its evolving relationship with contemporary design, it was necessary to look to the past to understand not only the foundation of the company, but also the modifications it has made over the years that have enabled it to stay relevant in an ever-changing design market. A combination of exploring the history of Vitra as a business, the development of the company's mainstream contemporary design, and finally an assessment of the evolution of the company's experimental contemporary design including its specific design process, as well as the development of new designer relationships, was the crux of the investigation.

Beyond the significant archival research, one of the key components in completing research for this project was a revealing interview with Rolf Fehlbaum, the son of the founder of the Vitra Corporation. Vitra is a family-run business of nearly sixty years, and Fehlbaum continues to steer the company as co-owner and an active member of the board after more than thirty years of leadership.

Ultimately, with his assistance in an engaging and candid interview, I was able to assess Vitra's stance on its current balance between mainstream and experimental contemporary design for the domestic market and further, better understand the reasoning behind the company's chosen path in the past and probable course of growth in the future.

My research trip was vital to the exploration and understanding of design for the domestic market created by Vitra, a significant and influential producer of contemporary furniture, distributed worldwide. Though Vitra's origins lie primarily in mid-century modern pieces and the company is best known for its office and design classics, the contemporary furniture division has been growing significantly since the 1980s, and is important to consider in terms of the history of design.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Design History Society for awarding me this grant allowing me the unique opportunity to travel to Weil am Rhein, Germany to conduct research at the Vitra Design Museum Library and Archives.

Corey Evans Martin completed her MA in Contemporary Design from Sotheby's Institute of Art in London, in association with the University of Manchester.


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