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Art: In 'Vitra,' design celebrates itself

'Vitra - Design, Architecture, Communication: A European Project With American Roots," is an awkward name for the slick, sophisticated (though unsatisfying) exhibition on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building.

Alexander Girard's wooden dolls, designed in 1953, are in the Vitra show at the Museum of Art's Perelman Building.
Alexander Girard's wooden dolls, designed in 1953, are in the Vitra show at the Museum of Art's Perelman Building.Read more

'Vitra - Design, Architecture, Communication: A European Project With American Roots," is an awkward name for the slick, sophisticated (though unsatisfying) exhibition on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building.

Using objects, photographs, videos, and extensive wall texts, it chronicles and celebrates Vitra, a family-owned Swiss furniture company that has, in recent decades, emerged as a cultural force.

Vitra has revived some classic modern designs, and produced distinguished new work, both pragmatic and experimental. It has also commissioned significant buildings by many of the world's leading architects for its campus at Weil am Rhein, Germany, and created a museum of design whose shows are seen throughout the world.

The company's impact reflects the enthusiasms of its chairman emeritus, Rolf Fehlbaum, who was honored here in November with the 2014 Design Excellence Award, given by Collab, the group that supports the Art Museum's design programs.

The exhibition is entirely celebratory, which is to be expected because, as has become customary with these Collab award exhibitions, the honoree is almost entirely responsible for it. One way in which Vitra has been influential far beyond its size is its mastery of branding, marketing, and advertising, an expertise that the show both documents and exemplifies.

This exhibition is skillfully presented so that whether you spend just a few minutes looking at the furniture and other objects or instead scrutinize each text and video, you can come away with a good idea of what Vitra is about. Still, looking at much of the same material on, the company's excellent website, is easier and more illuminating than looking at it in a gallery. The problem with the show is that, while many of its contents are excellent, it feels more like a corporate presentation than a museum exhibition.

Vitra first became associated with high-quality design when, in 1957, it acquired the license to produce the designs of Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Alexander Girard for the European market. In contrast to the severity that often characterized European modernism, these Americans eschewed austerity and embraced a certain pragmatic playfulness. The Eameses' plywood elephant and sensuous floating chaise are designs that Vitra produced after they ceased to be made here.

Girard is a less familiar figure, but his 1963 painted wooden dolls embody a humorous energy and decorative brio that is too often lacking in contemporary re-creations of midcentury modern style. It would be good to see a whole show that explores modernist ornament.

Fehlbaum, 71, became aware of these American designers when he was a child, but he did not join his family's company until 1977, and began to have an impact a few years later. In addition to the American classics, he began to produce some European classics, such as Jean Prouve's "EM Table" (1950). Its base looks like a piece of a bridge, but its wooden slab top makes it unexpectedly sensuous.

Early in his tenure, Fehlbaum commissioned a master plan for the company's campus, which he subsequently abandoned in favor of hiring star architects to create a campus that is an architectural pilgrimage site. The company has also become known for Vitra Editions, a program to commission experimental, sometimes wildly impractical designs, such as Ron Arad's 1986 sheet metal parody of an easy chair and Philippe Starck's 1990 impossible stool. These have been widely published and exhibited, but mass production was never the goal.

Also on view is a fairly large selection of contemporary pieces that are intended for the marketplace. For most people these works, by designers including Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, will be the most revealing. The Bouroullec brothers' "Slow Chair" (2006) a very generous easy chair made from mesh stretched over a steel frame, evokes classic designs. But its materials, which make it lightweight, and - so it is claimed - comfortable, make it a product of our time. Their "Vegetal Chair" (2008), a plastic stacking chair inspired by natural branching, is interesting too.

Shows like this one that consist largely of chairs are inherently frustrating, unless you get an opportunity to try out at least a few of them. Alas, there are no floor samples here.

Putting design on a pedestal is an inherent problem of design shows. Design objects are not art. To confuse the two, as Fehlbaum noted when he was here in November, "produces bad design and bad art." Design objects are meant to be used. They must be able to be produced with reliable quality at a price people will pay. What designers do is compromised, and that is a large part of what makes design interesting.

Even though the Philadelphia Museum of Art (originally the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Art) had its origins in the desire to humanize industrial production and improve consumers' taste, such institutions often seem most comfortable focusing on designers as artists and manufacturers as patrons. The Collab show is almost always the year's major design show here, and its policy is generally to let the honorees decide how their work should be shown. Indeed, this is a point of pride with the group.

There is nothing wrong with that, if it is part of a mix of shows that offer various ways to look at the stuff of our ordinary life. Some might be historical, others focused on new materials and technologies. Still others might invite visitors to look critically and historically at important things in their lives - their smartphones, or even their garbage.

When the Perelman opened and the design department finally had a decent space for exhibitions, there was reason to hope that the museum would offer a greater variety of design exhibitions. However, it seems not to have fully committed itself to design, so Philadelphians subsist on a steady diet of designers and corporations paying tribute to themselves.


Through April 26 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylania Ave. Tuesday–Sunday

Admission: $20; 65 and over, $18; students, $14; 13–18, $14; 12 and under, free.

Information: 215-763-8100, philamuseum.orgEndText