Hidden below a 1960s sawtooth factory building on the Vitra Campus is a 5,000 m2 large, 3.5 m high basement area, which for years has been used to store a steadily growing number of chairs, armchairs, sofas and lamps originating from many different designers and manufacturers across the globe. This collection of items, owned by the Vitra Design Museum and dating from 1800 to the present, is stacked three layers high on modular wood and metal racks. This minimally lit storeroom is not open to the public: the purely functional storage layout is entirely unsuitable for presenting the collection in a manner appropriate to its significance. It was, however, the client's wish to provide public access to part of the collection in a new space and, at the same time, to rethink the storeroom concept.
How best to store? (Interior)
We visited this basement on several occasions, always in search of inspiration for a better and more appropriate way of displaying the furniture items. For a long time, we considered the creation of a large open space for various activities to be the best solution. The large space concept was good, but we had to find a way of displaying the furniture. One idea was to use a U-shaped perimeter rack system to present the collection. It was felt, however, that this conventional room layout would downgrade the items to pure wall decoration. There would be no sense of the mass, density, immediacy and nonchalance experienced in the existing basement. We realized that the new storeroom should essentially remain open to allow on-the-spot experimentation with different layouts for storing and displaying the exhibits, and the flexibility for modification and reorganization. This was the only way of safeguarding the "vitality" of the collection pieces and allowing them to be perceived in an ever-new light.
But how would it be possible to convey the fact that the pieces on display in the new room are merely a selection from a much larger collection? Various options for making reference to the collection were analysed. The solution entailed the incorporation of a large horizontal wall opening in the new Schaudepot hall that reveals the existence of a basement level, accessed via a stairway. There, four large windows offer views of the storeroom housing the items not on display.
What does a depot for a furniture collection look like? (Exterior)
The original plan was to locate the new storeroom below ground as a spatial extension to the existing storage basement below the sawtooth factory building. With the VitraHaus by HdM and the SANAA-designed factory building only recently inaugurated, Rolf Fehlbaum did not want to make any new architectural statements on the Vitra Campus. Moreover – particularly in the wake of the financial crisis – an extravagant eye-catcher seemed inconsistent with the depot concept. Instead of a conspicuous architectural feature, Rolf Fehlbaum initially wanted, at most, an entrance or stairway leading down to the originally planned underground storeroom extension. Yet, we managed to convince the client that an above-ground facility would be a less costly and, for this reason, more sensible option. Furthermore, due to the possibility of converting for this purpose an existing factory building directly adjoining the Vitra Design Museum storeroom, the exterior impact would remain unchanged.
Former steel warehouse
The existing industrial shed – the former steel warehouse – would have been ideal on account of its size and restrained architecture. However, there was no cost-effective means of repairing the cracks in the structural fabric. The client thus opted for a new-build structure to replace the existing shed. We had already started work on designing a new building with similar modest dimensions and restrained architectural language to the original warehouse. We adopted its prototypical house form, which we modelled in clay brick masonry like the immediately adjoining sawtooth factory building dating from 1963. Hence, both form and material are "indigenous" rather than "invented" and thereby meet the combined aims of exercising restraint, fulfilling the technical demands for furniture storage and presentation, and offering an unpretentious expression of function. Moreover, reading as more than just a simple wall, the masonry itself assumes a storage and presentation function of sorts – as a stacked "display" of bricks, each visible and distinctive due to its unique fracture pattern. These open fractures accentuate the materiality and lend the brickwork a vibrant presence. Indeed, they are the only features of the Schaudepot which, to the casual onlooker, would distinguish it from any other brick building.
Herzog & de Meuron, 2016