In the German countryside, Vitra is a Xanadu for modern furniture fans

In the countryside where Germany meets France and Switzerland, modernism superfans can live out their most indulgent aesthetic fantasies. They can put their feet up in a sprawling model home furnished with Panton chairs, Noguchi tables and other designer furniture. They can have an Eames lounger custom-built in front of them. And they can marvel at buildings designed by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Prouvé and other internationally renowned architects.

This is the 61-acre production campus of Vitra, a high-end furniture company that’s like a Herman Miller of Europe. Vitra has built its products in Weil am Rhein, Germany, since 1950, but in more recent years, this industrial park has grown into a Disneyland for the kind of people who watch “Mad Men” mainly for the sets.

Forty-five minutes by streetcar from Basel, Switzerland, the campus draws about 350,000 visitors a year. Its emergence as a tourist attraction has coincided with a rising interest in design, especially the clean mid-century style that inspired a number of Vitra’s pieces. “It’s not such a niche anymore,” says Isidora Rudolph, spokesperson for Basel Tourism.

“Knowing about design has become important social capital,” says Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum. “It’s also a tool of identity building. And I think social media has really increased that, because on social media, now you have the platform to show off.”

You know you’re headed in the right direction when you see the tiny chairs. Scale models of designer seating spin on platforms that line the trail from the Weil am Rhein tram station to the Vitra campus. There’s an Eames lounger, of course, but also an Eero Aarnio Ball chair and an MR20 designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In the distance, a clock tower designed by the artist Carsten Höller marks the campus. As you get closer, you’ll notice the tower’s other defining feature: a 125-foot spiral slide that carries visitors from an observation deck back down to the ground.

Within 15 minutes, you’ll reach the campus, which comprises five factory buildings, two museums and VitraHaus, the model home and store that’s essentially Xanadu for aesthetes. Between all these buildings, Eames side chairs dot thick lawns growing untamed with wild leeks and dandelions. The grounds are free to explore, while a 21-euro admission fee covers entry to both museums. You can roam around on your own or take a tour, as I did one mid-March morning.

The campus is a showcase of famous architects’ work. “We have a lot of premieres here,” my guide Christiane Spiegelhalder explained, as we passed debuts from big names such as Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid. Her first finished building is the campus’s fire station, completed in 1993. The angular creation now hosts events, since the surrounding municipality has taken over fire services. Revered Japanese modernist Tadao Ando’s first building outside his home country is the campus’s minimalist conference center. SANAA, the Japanese firm known for otherworldly buildings such as the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, has its first industrial building here — a gigantic factory where workers do the final assembly of Vitra’s furniture. (Though with its rounded shape and practically glowing white facade, it looks more like a slab of white sky dropped to earth.)

Famous Canadian American architect Frank Gehry’s first buildings in Europe are here, too, including the Design Museum, a swooping structure that looks like “a sculpture in the landscape,” as Spiegelhalder described it. It hosts rotating exhibits about all aspects of design, while the campus’s second museum holds an extensive collection of notable furniture.

My tour ended at VitraHaus. The building, designed by the Basel-based firm Herzog & de Meuron, looks like a stack of smaller buildings that each evoke a child’s drawing of a house — a square with a triangle on top.

Walking through the model rooms inside feels like touring a life of excellent taste and an even more excellent bank account. All are appointed with Vitra furniture, of course, and flooded with sunlight. There’s a floor of home offices, multiple living rooms and a kitchen that looks like the set of a Nancy Meyers-directed sci-fi movie. Photo opportunities abound: A deflated disco ball looms above a twisting staircase; a pinwheel of bright plastic Eames chairs twirls in one of the floor-to-ceiling windows; next to yet another window, you can snap selfies in an Ultrafragola mirror. The library invites you to pause at a long study table and peruse monographs on artists such as Maarten van Severen and Álvaro Siza. On one floor, you can look down into the Lounge Chair Atelier, where workers guide buyers through the process of customizing and building the iconic Eames armchair.

Part of the joy of visiting VitraHaus is the lack of pressure to buy anything. Guests can lay on an $11,000 Polder sofa or a $28,000 Panton “living tower,” children slide down the banisters, all without a salesperson in sight. I saw someone knock over a potted succulent, then gently kick the dirt and clay shards into a pile and stroll on to look at a design by George Nelson.

Though the prices might be eye-popping, the furniture at Vitra is built to last a lifetime. To protect your investment, the company offers repairs; I met a couple from Munich who were looking for paint to touch up a chair they bought years ago. For the more budget-conscious visitor, Vitra has opened a second shop on the campus called the Circle Store, where it sells showroom pieces at a discount.

Creating a modernist Disneyland wasn’t always the plan. After a fire destroyed a large swath of the campus in 1981, Vitra worked with architect Nicholas Grimshaw to reimagine the whole place in his British high-tech style, characterized by its use of prefabricated parts and cutting-edge manufacturing techniques. Grimshaw finished two artful factories coated in corrugated aluminum, but the rest of his plan would never come to be.

In 1984, Vitra’s CEO met Frank Gehry, then working mainly in California, and eventually hired him to design yet another factory, plus the Design Museum and a gatehouse. As the campus grew, the company abandoned Grimshaw’s vision and commissioned more architects. They also imported buildings, adding a geodesic dome from Detroit and a Prouvé gas station from France, among others.

The Design Museum opened in 1989, marking the beginning of Vitra as a destination for outsiders. It was a new idea not just for the city, but for the world. “There had been design departments at MoMA, there had been a design department at the Centre Pompidou [in Paris] since the late 1960s, but besides that, the typology of a design museum didn’t really exist,” Kries says, noting that the London Design Museum opened the same year.

Kries says the museum’s exhibits have become more detailed over the years to cater to an increasingly design-minded public. During my tour, it featured an exhibit on the intersection of energy and design. The displays included a wind-powered streetlight, solar cars and a room where guests pedaled bikes to produce energy. Next, Kries is planning a show focused on Nike and another on American Shaker furniture.

Since the campus has evolved into a true tourist attraction, other companies have tried the same thing, building parks around their manufacturing centers to attract visitors. Vitra, says Kries, “became a kind of model.” For instance, Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany, is a Vitra-esque park for Volkswagen (they also have a slide tower).

Sitting on the patio of the VitraHaus cafe, as children play on Panton chairs near an old Airstream trailer, Kries says not every attempt at a corporate tourist park has achieved the “charm of this site.” The decision to abandon Grimshaw’s master plan and let architects like Gehry and Hadid reshape the campus has given Vitra a looser, more whimsical feeling. “Every building has a very individual and sometimes unplanned history,” Kries says.

The campus plays as a great advertisement for not only Vitra furniture, but the lifestyle and philosophy that goes along with it. It invites fantasies of having a stunning living room, of every chair and building being a work of art, of a world where everything is comfortable and looks nice, too.

This carries through even to the exit. At the bus stop in front of the Vitra campus, instead of wood, the seats are made of wire Eames chairs.

Gabe Bullard is a writer who covers culture and technology.


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