ADVENTURES WITH OBJECTS | April 7th 2008
As the first-ever "World Design Capital", Turin is exhibiting Alexander von Vegesack's personal collection of industrial design objects. Vendeline von Bredow learns what makes the director of the Vitra Design Museum so keen on the things of everyday life ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
"You simply fall in love with things," says Alexander von Vegesack. The tall, bearded, bespectacled director of the Vitra Design Museum, in Germany, has fallen in love with lots of things in a lifetime of travelling and collecting. The bounty of his exploits is now on view at the Pinacoteca Giovanni and Marella Agnelli in Turin, from March 20th to July 6th. The exhibition consists of more than 300 objects from his personal collection, including furniture, architectural models, textiles, saddles, plates and glasses, books, photographs, film and documents. The result is a primer on 20th-century design.
Though the Pinacoteca is dedicated to fine art, the museum's board decided to put on this show in honour of Turin's place as a "World Design Capital"--the first ever--named by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Turin, a city in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, was anointed for its success in reinventing itself, evolving from an industrial city into a more diversified, cosmopolitan economy. Throughout the year the city will become a showcase of urban design, architecture and innovation, with plenty of exhibitions, seminars, films and conferences. These include an open-air show of 80 iconic design objects (such as the first Swatch watch), and exhibits dedicated to cars, books and furnishings. Piedmont-based design companies will feature prominently, such as Alessi (home products), Giugiaro (cars), Pininfarina (more cars), Bialetti (coffee machines) and others.
The main theme of von Vegesack's show is industrial furniture. On display are mass-produced pieces, single pieces and prototypes that became milestones of 20th-century design. These include the first curved wooden furniture from Thonet (pictured above); chairs designed by Jean ProuvÃ©, Charles and Ray Eames and Alvar Aalto; the domestic architecture of Le Corbusier; the first experiments with tubular-steel seating by Mies van der Rohe; and works from contemporary designers, such as Ron Arad and Fernando and Humberto Campana (pictured).
Like many collectors, von Vegesack was not born to wealth and privilege. He hails from an aristocratic family from the Baltics, which lost everything during the war and had to start anew in western Germany. His early collecting was tough. After a failed apprenticeship in a private bank in Hamburg, he dabbled in second-hand eccentric clothes, property deals and counter-cultural theatre, and he organised riding holidays in southern Spain and Morocco. Yet he was always driven by a burning desire to see the cultures of the world and the objects people use in everyday life.
During one of his frequent trips to flea markets, he found his most enduring love: bentwood furniture made by Thonet, a company founded by Michael Thonet, who began twisting steamed wood into chairs in 1830. Von Vegesack's passion for these objects led him to research and write the definitive book on Thonet, whom he considers the founding father of industrial furniture design. It also earn him an unexpected friend in Hollywood. While travelling in California in 1981, he read in a newspaper that Billy Wilder, the director of "Some Like It Hot" and other award-winning films, had died. As he knew that Wilder had an important collection of bentwood furniture, he immediately called Wilder's home and asked to speak to his heirs. "Why on earth do you want to do that?", asked the man who had answered the phone. "You can speak to me directly."
Wilder was so amused by the mix-up that he wanted to meet von Vegesack, and they became friends. Von Vegesack ended up organising a joint exhibition of their collections of bentwood furniture, after which Wilder gave him a rare rocking chaise longues by Thonet. The chair now sits in the Thonet Museum in Boppard am Rhein, the first museum set up by von Vegesack, in the 1980s. (He began overseeing the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein in 1989, the year it opened to the public. It has since become a leading institution.)
Von Vegesack is a colourful storyteller, and his collection is full of such personal encounters and anecdotes--such as the time he crossed the Atlas Mountains on Arabian thoroughbreds with Lala Amina, a Moroccan Princess. (She has since become a friend; everyone seems to.) He is proud and passionate about design, though he is wary about overstating its significance. Design is not art, he confirms. The former is all about functionality, while the latter is a means of self-expression and contemplation. Yet his exhibition reveals the ways the two influence each other. Pop art, for instance, with its dotted prints and depictions of soup cans and other consumer goods, took much of its inspiration from industrial design, while the voluptuous fauteuil by Ron Arad (pictured) looks as if it had been made in Henry Moore's atelier.
"I am conservative and so is Alexander," says Mathias Schwartz-Clauss, the show's curator. Digital media and technological gadgets are essentially absent, as are objects reflecting the big new trends in design toward social responsibility and environmental sustainability. Yet the exhibition is not merely a retrospective of designs from the last century. It is a very personal voyage through the history of industrial design.
In this sense, von Vegesack's private collection of objects he "fell in love with" occupies a nice niche among the year's "World Design Capital" events--it illustrates our intimacy with practical possessions, and the power of beauty even in some of the most banal objects of everyday life.
"Adventure with Objects: Alexander Von Vegesack Collecting Design" will be on view at the Pinacoteca Giovanni and Marella Agnelli until July 6th 2008.
(Vendeline von Bredow is a business correspondent of The Economist.)