Sometimes you don’t need to look far to find a design classic. Often, in fact, it is right in front of you. Or, if you are Mateo Kries, right under you. The Aluminium Chair he sits on at his desk was designed in 1958 by Charles and Ray Eames. The chair’s details hold an enduring fascination for the art historian: “You see this screw that holds the leather upholstery taut? It’s a brilliant idea – and was a very innovative one in its day.” Together with commercial director Marc Zehntner, Kries has been at the helm of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, in southwestern Germany, since 2010.
We’ll come to the topic of design classics in a moment, if we may. But first, would you mind telling us a little about the museum. What were its aims when it was founded in 1989?
The idea was to tell visitors what design is all about. You have to remember that the idea of design was not as widely appreciated in Germany in 1989 as it is today. Before that time, design was more of a niche phenomenon that only specialists had the keys to.
What are the focal points of the collection?
We collect anything that has a connection with interior design, that is to say, mainly furniture from the 20th century – of which we have gathered together some of the finest examples in the world. However, our collections also include electrical devices like the classic Braun products designed by Dieter Rams, as well as architectural models and textiles. In addition, we have works by famous designers such as the American husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames and Denmark’s Verner Panton.
What role does design play today?
A different one to when the museum was first founded. When we talk about design nowadays, we’re referring to more than just individual products: The design of processes is also part of the debate. It’s clear from the ways in which Facebook is used and how certain television formats work that people even shape their own identity using design methods. Medical engineering, smart materials and nano-design provide us with other good examples. Design now features prominently in areas beyond the gaze of the naked eye – it’s a central factor in our contemporary culture.
You recently hosted an exhibition, Das Bauhaus #itsalldesign, on the legendary Bauhaus art school established by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. Almost a hundred years later, why is Bauhaus still relevant?
The interdisciplinary work that this movement pursued is more relevant than ever today. The idea of an architect working with an artist, of bringing scientists into the equation and of forging closer relationships with industry was revolutionary at the time. Marcel Breuer, for example, turned to the aircraft manufacturer Junkers for advice in developing his famous tubular steel furniture. The Bauhaus involved extensive experimentation, and here we can find any number of parallels with how innovations make the journey from drawing board to reality in our time.
How does the exhibition illustrate this link with the present?
We’ve sprinkled works and comments from contemporary designers throughout the exhibition. These range from an interview with British architect Norman Foster to a very beautiful model of a car interior by Mercedes-Benz. The idea behind it is to showcase how the Bauhaus managed to attain its legendary status and its brand-like identity. We’ve set the exhibition up like a studio display, as if the Bauhaus students had quickly pinned a few things on the wall on their way out the door. All in all, we’ve got around 250 objects on display.
Which Bauhaus exhibits are you particularly proud of?
I’m delighted that we’re able to include the Lattenstuhl (slatted chair) in our exhibition, which Marcel Breuer created in 1923 shortly before he designed his first piece of tubular steel furniture. It’s reminiscent of an abstract painting by Piet Mondrian, only in sculptural form. The exhibition also contains a series of photographs by contemporary Berlin artist Adrian Sauer, which I personally like a great deal. There’s this big misunderstanding that the Bauhaus was primarily about a style: angular, heavy on chrome and covered in black leather. Or featuring white walls and a flat roof. Sauer set about reconstructing Bauhaus interiors and photographed them in colour. And that completely changes the way you perceive them; after all, the original pictures we’re so familiar with were black and white.
What has to happen for a design to become a classic?
Time is one factor. Two or three decades on, one design may have disappeared from view, whereas another still comes across as modern. The authenticity and cohesiveness of a design are also important. Good design is the result of a rigorous selection process. You can tell whether a product has been subject to this meticulous procedure – or if it is conspicuous by its absence. And you shouldn’t forget that the things we view as timeless today represented a radical statement when they were first created. If, in retrospect, this radicalism looks more like far-sightedness, you’re very likely to have a classic on your hands.
Objects we view as timeless today represented a radical statement when they were first created.” Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum
The professors and students at the Bauhaus school didn’t design vehicles, but to what degree have their fundamental principles influenced car design?
In the 1920s, there was a strong push toward functionalism, but the cars designed during that decade were still rather unwieldy in appearance. That changed after the Second World War, when automotive design took on a more pared-back, functional character and Bauhaus ideas were back in demand. And we mustn’t forget the theme of speed as a central element of the avant-garde. In the cars of the postwar era, speed was given an exterior form. Aerodynamics was playing an ever greater role, and not only as a means of keeping fuel consumption down. Since then, the focus has been on finding a form that genuinely suits a particular type of car.
Are there examples of car design influencing design in general?
Yes indeed. The architect Le Corbusier, for example, was a big automobile fan. He owned a French Voisin, which he always parked outside his buildings when he was having them photographed. Back in its day, the car embodied the state of the art, and Le Corbusier wanted to use it to show that his architecture was likewise at the leading edge. It was for good reason that he referred to his houses as machines à habiter (machines for living in). And, at the time, the car certainly represented the very epitome of a machine.
If Walter Gropius, the first Bauhaus director, had to choose a Mercedes-Benz model today, which one do you think he would go for?
Gropius was an elegant guy, and well-connected socially, too – a member of the establishment. He’d choose something from the upper end of the product range, for sure.
DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY
A C-class of its Own
Even before the accelerator has moved a muscle, it’s clear the C-Class Coupe is a finely tuned athlete – the front end with its diamond radiator grille, the long hood and a low-slung silhouette flowing into an eye-catching tail see to that. Then the driver climbs in, casts an eye over the sporty yet cosseting interior, and waits as the automatic seatbelt feeder turns the mundane task of buckling up into an experience to be savoured. Rarely has a sports car offered so much in terms of comfort.
The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe brings together two worlds usually found a considerable distance apart: the sporting world, which demands hard work, sacrifice and endless training, and the world of luxury, which is all about indulgence. Blending the two is what the fine art of coupe design is all about. Mercedes-Benz has certainly come up with some classic examples of the breed down the years, such as the 300 SE from the postwar era and the elegant, executive-class W 123 two-door models, which remained in production until 1985. The new model sets out to build on this tradition.
Thomas Weber, development boss at Mercedes-Benz, puts it like this: “Our new C-Class Coupe is the latest model to embody the philosophy of compelling Mercedes-Benz coupes. It combines captivating design with sporting agility and modern luxury.”
More than a classic coupe
Lending form to a car’s dynamic ability, without going overboard on spoilers and exhaust tailpipes, requires designers to focus on the details. The C-Class Coupe covers that base with features such as freestanding exterior mirrors, frameless doors, a high beltline, a long character line and a 15-millimetre drop in ride height over the sedan.
The body also has contours – nothing too over-the-top, but rather the well-proportioned lines of an athlete. The structured surfaces spark a permanent interplay of light and shadows in the paintwork. As a result, the car appears to be moving in mysterious ways – without even turning a wheel.
Once on the move, the new C-Class Coupe’s full spectrum of experiences is revealed. A mix of aluminium components and high-strength materials means the new coupe weighs less than the car it replaces – even though it is 95 millimetres longer and 40 millimetres wider.
The feeling of being in a very special coupe only increases when under way, and that’s not only thanks to the integral sport seats or optional head-up display: High-tech systems such as Brake Assist, Steering Assist and Lane Keeping Assist open the door to semi-autonomous, stress-free cruising, while the new four-link front suspension and direct steering generate the grip and lateral stability of a sports car.
The DYNAMIC SELECT switch allows drivers to choose from five different driving modes, and drivers who engage SPORT+ and have an enthusiastic way with the sport pedals (available as part of the Sport Package) get to see a surprisingly dynamic side to the C-Class Coupe.
This two-door Mercedes-Benz also has another set of surprises on board. The climate-control system uses the car’s satellite navigation to spot when it is approaching a tunnel, so that it can close the air recirculation flap in good time and therefore ensure excellent air quality inside the car. Another high-tech feature is the 360° camera, which displays the car from a virtual bird’s-eye view to make parking and manoeuvring easier.