ALEXANDER VON VEGESACK. COLLECTOR OF IDEAS

INTERVIEWER: WOJCIECH TRZCIONKA, PHOTOS: WOJCIECH TRZCIONKA

BOISBUCHET 10.4.2016

ARCHITECTURE ART DESIGN EVENTS LIFESTYLE PEOPLE TRAVEL

He ended his education when he was 13, but has created one of the most outstanding design collections in the world, co-founded and directed one of the first design museums and initiated the famous design workshops at Domaine de Boisbuchet, France. „In your life you need to have ideas, values and determination,” argues Alexander von Vegesack during an interview with Design Alive Magazine.
There are places you don’t want to leave for all the world. Boisbuchet is a beautifully situated estate in southwestern France, around which summer design workshops conducted by the world’s most influential designers, architects and artists have been organized for 25 years. The place was created by Alexander von Vegesack – one of the most famous collectors of design and researcher about the development of industrial design such as in bentwood furniture by Michael Thonet or tubular steel and other materials allowing an industrial production. Vegesack is also the creator of Vitra Design Museum and its former long-time director.

We meet over a late morning coffee in an old mill converted into a bistro, opposite a chateau built in 1860 which houses Vegesack’s collection. It is an idyll, where I can hear the chirping of birds and the swoosh of the river. Alexander, as everyone calls him here, is a dignified and very peaceful elderly man who decides to tell me about his life.

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You were born in March 1945, when World War II was nearly over. What did the life in post-war Germany look like to you and your family?
– A part of my family came from near Wrocław in Lower Silesia, while the other part had lived near Riga. After being resettled to Germany we were put in transit camps and were not warmly welcomed. Afterwards we often moved among our relatives’ homes and various farms. It was extremely hard for my parents to get a job. People were very suspicious of refugees from the east and considered us as intruders. We were treated really badly as refugees and I felt that in school later on.

Did you feel German?
– Yes, we considered us as Baltic or Silesian Germans, but the Germans from the west considered us as people form the east in a negative way.

You established your first business already at school – it was a school employment agency.
– I did little at school. I didn’t  believe that school was supposed to help me – it was my nightmare. I had terrible dreams associated with that place until I was 30 and I made it a tough time for my parents as well. I always had my own ideas and projects instead. My parents couldn’t afford anything - we were very poor. We had lost everything and certainly had no accounts in Switzerland. If I wanted something, I had to find money or another solution by myself. That’s why I established a school employment agency, which, by the way, was the reason they expelled me from school. Contrary to my parents though, I was extremely happy. I did a real lot of various things afterwards, but it was always something I was greatly interested in. I had no particular skills, but I would always take the plunge, sacrifice myself and try to learn everything fast by myself.

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When did you end your education?
– I left school when I was 13. I don’t intend to advise others to do the same, but if young people have problems with school, can’t make it and end their education, it doesn’t mean that their life has ended and their future will be terrible. They should be patient, ready to fight for their values and carry out their ideas – or search for other ways if their plans don’t work out. You must always consistently search for your own way. I had never wanted to work in a bank or open a meat shop. I had always known what I wanted to do: I loved objects and their history, visited flea markets and started collecting things.

But before that passion appeared there had been the famous Fucktory episode in Hamburg…
– When I left school, my parents sent me to Hamburg for an apprenticeship in a bank. I quit after three months, so they told me to fend for myself. I decided to renovate old flats as a business together with my friends. Although we were doing quite fine I didn’t have the faintest notion of conducting a business activity and doing the accounts, so at some point we went bankrupt. I and my eight friends then moved into a former factory hall which we had rented. There we organized experimental theatre, pantomime and ballet, held film shows and invited various artists. We lived together in an open community, which in those times just became accepted in Germany. The whole thing gave me enormous joy. Financed mainly by a weekend discotheque, Fucktory was very popular: it was a beautiful old hall with a wooden floor (today we would call it a loft) and we lived in the same hall where the discotheque happened. When our guests left the place, we spread our mattresses and went to bed. We also had a kitchen and an open bathroom. Actually, all our life was really open. The local authorities closed the Fucktory every couple of weeks because we didn’t have any license to run such a club. Nevertheless we kept evading the ban by proving that this was a private place. What also helped us was the fact that the judge who decided about our case was a regular guest of our cultural program. It was an incredible time which influenced all of us greatly as we were no more than 18-25 years old.

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And how did you become a collector?
– We needed chairs for our theatre performances, so I searched for them at flea markets. The best ones were Thonet’s chairs (Michael Thonet, 1796-1871: a German-Austrian pioneer of furniture production on an industrial scale – editor’s note). When one of them broke, you could easily repair it by replacing the faulty part with a fragment from another chair. I became interested in those chairs and started to search for literature concerning them but at that time couldn’t find anything. Soon after, I found a large number of Thonet objects in Spain – one of the first countries which had bought bentwood furniture from Thonet after the first World-fair 1851 in London, because they were very light and easy to carry. I used to visit Andalusia in the summertime to travel on horseback with my friends, when the German magazine Stern wrote about us. The text reached Álvaro Domecq Díez (1917-2005) a famous Spanish aristocrat and breeder of Corrida bulls and horses, who asked me to turn my vacations experiences into a business for him: he wanted me to organize trips through Andalusia on horseback and offered a very fair salary. Within a year only I created a tourist company which operated very well. Nevertheless, I decided to leave because the job was incredibly demanding and I was on the go all the time. By the way, that company functions until now and is one of the largest in this tourist field. During my time in Spain I found beautiful bentwood chairs, disassembled them, attached them during my rides behind the saddle. Later I moved to French coast, where I kept buying old carriages to renovate them and invited German tourists on trips. As this was economically quite successful, I was able to do winter journeys to Czechoslovakia, Russia and Poland, where I visited furniture factories and collected documentation about the Thonet factories. I also found a lot of furniture on flea markets, in Amsterdam for example. Again I focused on those objects which best demonstrated the technological progress, got fascinated with the industrial development and found out that furniture is an optimal vehicle to explain in exhibitions our civilisation through the evolution of design.

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Has Thonet’s chair changed so much within 150 years?
– I am able to tell which year a Thonet chair comes from just upon a casual inspection.The industrial production changed because of increasing technical innovations as well as fashion and other influences such as wars, social and economical conditions. Keeping its principle design, this furniture is thus a true witness of time. Later on I also collected tubular steel chairs - a logical consequence, became interested in the Bauhaus and in 1986 conceived the first major exhibition on bentwood and metal furniture for the American Federation of Arts, which after its opening in New York travelled to ten additional venues. Thanks to my hobby, I met other collectors of Thonet furniture as well, most notably Billy Wilder (1906-2002: an American film-director and producer born in Sucha Beskidzka, which is currently situated in Poland – editor’s note - but it is not polish:  Lemberg or Lwiv lies in Ukrania). One day I heard that he had died and interested in his collection I phoned his family. To my astonishment however the phone was answered by Billy Wilder himself who turned out to be alive and kicking. Unintentionally, this funny kind of entry was the best possible way to make his acquaintance. He ordered me to come immediately to his office and we started a many years long friendship during which we realized beautiful projects - he was a fascinating man.

In the meantime you created the Vitra Design Museum, which opened in 1989 - in the same year like the Designmuseum in London.
– We were actually supposed to be first ones but our construction works were delayed and thus our museum opened in autumn instead of spring. Vitra’s owner, Rolf Fehlbaum, wanted to create this museum for his company and hired me to develop the concept for its program and organisation. He allowed me a lot of freedom but had one major condition: The museum was supposed to autofinance all its operations as much a possible. He had already chosen the architect, Frank Gehry, who on that occasion worked for the first time in Europe and created with this building a masterpiece in perfect human proportions. The building was actually one of the key elements for the success of the museum. I ran the institution untill 2010 with a continuously growing staff and a permanently growing reputation - besides the fact that we also achieved to balance the museum’s entire budget.

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During that time you bought the Domaine de Boisbuchet in southern France - an estate with a range of historical buildings which you turned into a place that for 25 years organizes annual design workshops conducted by internationally known architects and designers.
– Selling a part of my Thonet bentwood collection to the Austrian Government, I had the funds to acquire the Domaine. The price was not exorbitant as the region was considered none too fashionable. For the first three years however, I had enormous problems with squatters, who illegally occupied the place. They were finally expelled from Boisbuchet in the same week in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the Vitra Design Museum opened. The renovation and maintenance remained a real challenge but we luckily managed most problems because I have always lived and worked in a group of friends, and in the case of Boisbuchet even with entire classes of students from Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, who joined us to restore the old mill, repair the roof of the chateau, and install rooms in the attic of the Dependance, where today the major part of our guests are housed.

Boisbuchet is a magical place, but it’s also famous for fantastic workshops. Do you organize it for money or for pleasure?
– I am pursuing this project definitely not for money. If you could show me how someone can make a profit with the maintenance of 150 ha and 20 mostly historical buildings by conceiving and organising workshops with approximately 400 students paying very fair student prices, we all here at Boisbuchet would be more than happy. Everyone including me are enjoying our work here, non one receives a real equivalent of her or his engagement and I often have to sell pieces of my collection to secure our budget. But the feedback from participants and tutors is more than satisfying. Furthermore, we are realising educational programs in Asia and organise museum exhibitions as well as competitions for companies in order create income. Let me please refer here to the beginning of our conversation. I don’t want to hold this up as an example for anyone to follow, but I believe that my life does proof that ending a formal education very early does not make the person an immediate looser. You need to have ideas, values and determination to carry out your plans. This place was always my biggest dream and maybe replaces the children I never had. For more than 25 years Boisbuchet inspires thousands of young people coming here from all over the world and influences these people’s lives in a very strong way. They see here not only beauty, but also completely different possibilities of developing ideas.

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The chateau displays your magnificent furniture collection and library.
– The collection includes several thousands of items, but only a few dozen are on display as part of our annually changing exhibitions. The collection and library are important parts of that unique research center which Boisbuchet represents today: placed in and around beautiful historical buildings amidst an outstanding nature, it features numerous experimental buildings, workshops that convey knowledge in a most unusual way, a library with 30.000 items as well as a collection that beautifully explain and demonstrate all major developments in furniture design.

What is the future of this place?
– We are now looking for a partner, such as a university or a company, which would care for this place and its educational project in a similar way. In the end, the future of this estate depends on the fact if we manage to find a method to permanently finance Boisbuchet. After wandering throughout my life, this became now my homeland. Do you have children?

Yes. They’re six and nine years old.
– So please come with them the next time, as do our designers. We’re not able to offer them a lot in terms of money but we can give them a magnificent place for rest and creative development and this is a perfect place for their children as well. They’ll be glad.

Interviewer: WOJCIECH TRZCIONKA

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Meetings of beautiful ideas
Last summer, Domaine de Boisbuchet, which organizes an event considered as the most important summer design workshops in the world, held 25 one-week seminars united by one motto: “Design and community”. They were conducted by i.a. Philippe Malouin, Jamie Hayon, Josh Owen, Go Hasegawa, BCXSY, Philippe Nigro and Studio Rygalik. The participants were, as usual, people from all over the world who held various positions – from a bank cashier to design students. Sigga Heimis from Iceland, one of IKEA’s main designers, led a workshop entitled “Cooking, Eating & Designing”, in which I decided to participate and it was an incredible time for me. Boisbuchet, however, emanates its magic on everyone, lecturers included. “Boisbuchet is an unbelievably charming place with magnificent architecture of old and new buildings. I have visited it for many years – this year I came with my daughter. I discover myself and other people here. Virtually every participant comes from a different country – and there are as many viewpoints as there are countries. We meet people and their beautiful ideas, discuss, create, have fun and work; we’re not afraid of creating new things,” Sigga Heimis says. Every interested person can take part in the workshops, submitting an application via the website: www.boisbuchet.org

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