Rolf Fehlbaum has been shaping the design world with vitra for decades. Whether Charles Eames was in a good mood, what makes the classics so powerful and why he misses figures like Peter Noever in the field of design.

RONDO, 11 August 2017, Vienna.
Interview by Michael Hausenblas
Photo by Lars Petter Pettersen

“A Classic is no Coincidence”

Interview by Michael Hausenblas
Translation by Christopher Roth

Vitra’s Rolf Fehlbaum has been leaving his mark on the world of design for many decades. We paid a visit to the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany to ask him whether Charles Eames was cheerful, what the power of a classic really is, and why he feels that the design world is missing figures like Peter Noever.

We’re sitting here in the conference room at a table designed by Jean Prouvé. It’s absolutely neat—not a piece of paper in sight. But you’re said to be a total pack rat.

You should see my office! It doesn’t look anything like you’d imagine a manager’s office looking. It’s full of books and all kinds of other stuff, and the walls are covered with photos.

Speaking of photos: you’ve had the opportunity to get to know lots of great design personalities. Can you tell us about your first encounter with Charles and Ray Eames, back when you were just 16?

What I remember there is more of a general picture. My encounters with Charles Eames were very challenging. He was a brilliant and fascinating figure … and very, very critical. You were always careful what you said. I was very young at the time. I was the pupil, Eames the master.

The Eameses always look so unbelievably happy in photographs. Were they?

In both architecture and design, you have individuals who seem iconic not just thanks to their works, but also thanks to their personalities. Charles cut a very dashing figure, and Ray was full of character. But as relaxed as they may have come across, it was always all very well thought out. Their way of designing was about engendering satisfaction in as many people as possible. And that’s a challenge that can also be conveyed and staged via one’s own persona.

Charles Eames said that design can’t get too personal because the all-too-personal is a manifestation of the designer’s vanity. But isn’t a designer’s own personal handwriting precisely what one wants to sense?

Eames put that very well. If a designer displays a certain consistency among his designs over a period of time, such that a sort of relatedness becomes recognizable, the result is a style. The Eameses didn’t want to create a style, nor did Jean Prouvé, but their languages did become recognizable over time all the same.

How does it look nowadays with designers and self-presentation?

Just take a look at Philippe Starck with his public appearances and one-liners like, “I design in 30 seconds.” Starck does, in fact, have a brilliant mind. On the other hand, an antipode to Starck and a textbook example of restraint would be Jasper Morrison. He’s just as he seems; he neither seduces nor allows himself to be seduced. He’s not fond of being photographed, he avoids public appearances—and even so, his identity as a figure is clear.

One of the exhibitions currently being shown on the Campus is called Project Vitra. Vitra got its start 60 years ago producing furniture by the Eameses and by George Nelson. Today, many of the classics from back then are more popular than ever. Why? Do they give people a sense of security?

It’s difficult to say. it would be oversimplifying things to attribute the success of a classic to customer insecurity. It does help, of course, if you can say: “This has held its own for so long that it will continue to do so for a long time to come.” That’s helpful above all for people who aren’t that into furnishing and decorating.

But why does one thing become a classic while another doesn’t? You’re certain to have some way of answering that.

It’s neither a coincidence nor a matter of marketing. It’s much rather about surviving in the constant battle between the new and the old. Every new product seeks to prevail over an existing one—if it doesn’t, there will be no market for it. So when an older product keeps winning such battles, it means something. One could also put it bluntly and say it’s “survival of the fittest.” But even classics eventually get superseded.

And become antiques?

No; unlike antiques, classics reach into our own era. So if someone who doesn’t know much about design were to come in here and see this table by Jean Prouvé, they’d believe me immediately if I told them that it’s our newest product. Even though this table is decades old. The same thing, by the way, goes for literature. Why so some books still get read while others don’t anymore?

What classics would you take along with you to a desert island?

Why would I take furniture with me to a desert island? I’d be needing other stuff more, I should think.

Let’s shift gears and talk about design consciousness. Lots of people don’t know Eames or Prouvé at all; at best, they’ll know Philippe Starck. The grand old man of Austrian furniture dealers, Peter Teichgräber, says design should be taught in schools. If you were a politician, what would you do for design?

Teichgräber’s a good guy with interesting positions, and he’s had a big influence. But in Vienna, there’s one person who’s done more for the discourse on architecture and design than anyone else: Peter Noever, as director of the MAK, managed to effect a degree of progress that was unbelievable even far beyond Austria’s borders. The daringness of those exhibitions…

... But Noever also had to take a lot of criticism.

Oh, you’ll always have petty, small-minded people like that… Back to your question: If I were Minister of Design, people like Peter Noever are precisely the ones I’d support. Personalities who set things in motion, not random bureaucrats who want to offer this or that design course in schools. Design is a young, lively discipline that has to succeed on its own merits. Sure, it would be better if our visual culture were more developed. And a contribution to that is made by your work as a journalist and mine here at the Vitra Campus, with 350,000 people visiting our various locations each year. I view the campus as a place to school people’s sensitivity to the topic.

Mr. Fehlbaum, you’ve got a great number of the best furniture designs in your product range. So let’s talk about interiors. What mistakes do people make at home?

I don’t get to see that many apartments. But what I do notice is how magazines present home living in an overstyled manner. These giant apartments with the beautiful women, some cute kid sitting around, maybe a cat, too, have nothing to do with reality. I think that good interiors come together over time; they’re collages made up of all sorts of things. Interior decorating really should be paid more attention as a topic in its own right.

Why isn’t that happening?

It used to be that architects were also interior designers—just think of Adolf Loos, Josef Frank, etc. This connection has since been broken. A great many architects no longer give any real thought to interiors. There’s no discourse. And any full-fledged discipline turns into an ancillary one if there’s no discourse. Either of us could name 20 architects—easily 20 designers, too—right off the top of his head. But try that with names linked to interior design!

The interviewer traveled to Weil am Rhein at the invitation of Vitra.
Photograph: Rolf Fehlbaum and two of his favorites: the chair is by Eames, the table by Prouvé.


Rolf Fehlbaum was born in Basel in 1941. He is the son of Vitra founders Erika and Willi Fehlbaum, spent many years as Vitra’s CEO, and is now its Chairman Emeritus. Vitra collaborated with greats such as the Eameses, George Nelson, Jean Prouvé, and Verner Panton. More recent collaborators have included Antonio Citterio, Jasper Morrison, the Bouroullecs, and many others.

The exhibition Project Vitra, at the impressive Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, can be visited until 3 September 2017.