Design for Everyone

In the context of the ongoing Masterpieces of Furniture Design by Qatar Museums in collaboration with Vitra Design Museum, the design director of Vitra Museum, Dr. Mateo Kries speaks to SCALE in an exclusive interview about design’s most important undertaking right now. He says that in order to secure humanity’s survival on this planet, we need to come up with new design solutions that are more sustainable and responsible.

Dr. Mateo Kries, Director of Vitra Design Museum has answers to as many questions that was being asked at the opening of the Masterpieces of Furniture Design exhibition at M7. With his years of practice as a curator and then the design director of Vitra Design Museum, where he has spent most of his career, Dr. Kries is quite thorough in his knowledge of furniture and design. He also looks at furniture design as a means to societal change and he views this mandate quite responsibility from his position as the design director of a museum dedicated to research and presentation of design, past and present, examining its relationship to architecture, art, and everyday culture.

Dr. Mateo Kries, Design Director, Vitra Design Museum.

“We are no longer just collecting beautiful things, but we have to play an active role in assuring that design is used for the best of humanity and the planet,” he says.

This exhibition by Qatar Museums and the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, showcases one of the world’s most renowned collections of furniture. Curated by Dr. Kries, the exhibition explores the evolution of what modern furniture has achieved over the past 200 years.

Masterpieces of Furniture Design showcases work from the most influential names in modern design such as Le Corbusier, Charles and Ray Eames, Zaha Hadid, and Virgil Abloh, and explores a number of styles and artistic concepts ranging from Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, and Postmodernism, as well as the influence of the digital era on furniture.

Each one of the 50 most dynamic pieces showcased at the Masterpieces of Furniture Design are revolutionary not just from the aspect of design but for the value they have added to history through the messages imparted; be it in the mimicking of nature in design, through symbolism of the power of the chair, or through sustainable materials used.

The Manga Chair by Oki Sako of Nendo which was exhibited at the 2016 Salone Milano.

Dr. Kries has a few favourites though he acknowledges that every piece has a story to convey, a message to impart to society.

“The first pieces as you enter the Exhibition, is a contemporary piece of furniture by Oki Sako, the chief designer at Nendo, called the Manga Chair.  With the abstraction of manga comics in mind, physical aspects such as colour and texture are avoided in this piece. Instead, a complete mirror finish is opted for, which generates new spatial layers as the mirror surface reflects the real world, just like manga does. This piece represents dynamism, movement and reflects the need to innovate and move forward,” says Dr. Kries and thus seems the perfect piece to be in focus, for a museum that is all about history and research to arrive at the best designs.

Some original pieces featured in the exhibition include the iconic Panton Chair by Verner Panton, Eileen Gray’s E 1027 Side Table, Mesa table designed by Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher, and MR 10/2 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

The exhibits are grouped according to seven principles that define excellence in design – from design’s close ties to art to its potential at reaching socially or ecologically sustainable solutions. The seven principles are: Innovating Crafts and Technologies, Designing Sustainability, Learning from Nature, Comfort Zones, The Social Question, Less is More, and Dialogues between Art and Design.

SCALE engages with Dr. Kries for a long dialogue on his career, on his ongoing relationship with design and the previous exhibitions at Vitra Design Museum.

“Design today is not about furniture. It’s about society and the world in general” : Dr. Mateo Kries. Design Director, Vitra Design Museum.

SCALE: You have been with Vitra Design Museum since 1995; from being a curator of the same since 1997 and in 2011 as the Design Director, how do you look back at your career at Vitra? How have your roles changed and how has Vitra helped in your journey in design?

Dr. Kries: Being the director of the Vitra Design Museums since 2011, my role has obviously changed towards more responsibility for the museum as a whole and its strategic development. Between 1995 and 2010, I have worked as a Curator and Chief Curator of the museum and have curated many of the exhibitions myself. During this time, the exhibitions of our museum – and of the design world in general – have changed from very object-focused exhibitions towards more contextual and critical approaches. Today, cultural diversity and gender equality play a much bigger role in any exhibition than in the 1990ies, which is a great achievement.

SCALE: Which were the initial exhibitions you have curated and tell us about your experience through these incidents?

Dr. Kries: My first exhibition at the museum was actually the predecessor of the current show in Qatar. It was called 100 Masterpieces and included 100 key objects from our collection in 1995, when the museum was still in its very early beginnings. Exhibition making was much less organized by then, and a bit more chaotic – but also very creative and innovative. Today, our museum employs about 50 staff members and is extremely professional on every level, from curating to conservation and project management. This makes the production of international traveling exhibitions much easier and we can realize collaborations on a high level like the one with Qatar now. However, from my very first exhibitions I have learned how complex exhibition making is, as it involved a lot of expertise on many levels, from logistics and insurance matters up to media design and background research.

SCALE: What is the directive of Vitra Design Museum now? How do you align with the current design environment?

Dr. Kries: We want to show that design is concerning everyone of us, and that it is not a luxury but a bare necessity. In order to secure humanity’s survival on this planet, we need to come up with new design solutions that are more sustainable and responsible in the past. I am an optimistic person and I believe in the power of innovation and creativity among designers, but we need to speed up things. With our exhibitions and our books, we can contribute to more responsible approaches in design. In our projects, we work closely with many contemporary designers, and it is very important to be up to date about their latest works in order to choose the right exhibits or acquisitions for our collection.

SCALE: You have said earlier in another interview that: “Design today is not about furniture. It’s about society and the world in general.” Can you explain this?

As I said earlier, the focus of the whole design discourse has shifted – while a few decades ago, there was more concern with aesthetic and styles, today there is much more awareness for issues of sustainability and diversity. The public opinion has become much more critical, also through digital media, and this changes people’s expectations as to what design and a design museum should be. We are no longer just collecting beautiful things, but we have to play an active role in assuring that design is used for the best of humanity and of the planet.

How important are traveling exhibitions for the Vitra Design Museum. Tell us about your collaboration with Qatar Museums and M7. How will it benefit both?

Dr. Kries: Traveling exhibitions are very important role for our museum, as the investment in an exhibition is huge and it just makes sense on every level to show the exhibition not just in one place, but in several. To realise traveling exhibition, it always needs a great partner to host an exhibition, and Qatar Museums / M7 are a great example for this. Qatar has a very lively and emerging creative scene, and it is amazing to see how an exhibition can resonate with a local audience. The exhibition can inspire local designers and make them see objects as originals which otherwise they could just see in very few museums around the globe. I believe in cultural exchange, and this is only possible with such collaborative effort.

B.V. Doshi and his talk at Vitra Design Museum is one of Dr. Kries most inspirational moments in design. Balkrishna Doshi, Sangath Architect’s Studio, 1980.

Balkrishna Doshi, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, 1977, 1992, © Iwan Baan 2018

SCALE: One of the turning points for Vitra in the aftermath of Covid was the talk with BV Doshi in connection with his exhibition. Tell us how this was important and what were the lessons from this great architect that you were inspired by.

Dr. Kries: We realized an exhibition with Doshi in 2019 and this was a life-changing experience. He had an incredible charisma and it was an honour to exhibit his work for the first time outside of Asia, and to make it available to a few other museums around the globe. For the opening talk with Doshi on the Vitra Campus, we had more than 1,000 guests, which was the largest talk we ever hosted. When the pandemic came, museums were closed and we immediately shifted towards digital media to stay in touch with our audience. The talk with Doshi was very touching, as this wise old man was able to give people hope and energy in a very difficult time for all of us. This fall, the exhibition about Doshi will open at ICO Foundation in Madrid.

Chair by Danish designer Grete Jalk, one of Dr. Kries favourite furniture designs for its traditional sense of the craft and its non-tradtional distinction between seat, back and legs and letting the wood take the shape of the functions.

SCALE: Of all the great design and architecture personalities associated with Vitra, which are the ones who have made a major impression on your mind.

Dr. Kries: Well, certainly Doshi because of the fact that he was so charismatic. He was like a kind of guru to many people, not just in architecture, but as an amazing human in every sense. Another similar personality was Issey Miyake, with whom we realized an exhibition in Berlin in 2001. Also, Issey was an incredibly warm-hearted personality and it was a wonderful journey to collaborate with his team. If there is trust on a personal level, the result of any exhibition is much better, as creativity needs a positive energy. From the many contemporary designers, I have a high esteem for Sabine Marcelis and Konstantin Grcic.

Chairs that have an agenda or a cause to stand for.

SCALE: Tell us more about your insights about Qatar that what has surprised you most and its design environment.

Dr. Kries: Qatar has a very ambitious design policy, and M7 is a symbol for this. It is a great initiative to offer a space for the local and international creative industries to meet and collaborate. I also sense there is a lot of energy and pioneering spirit among the young generations of designers. They are curious to learn about the history and the heritage of design, but they are looking for their own design identity at the same time. This is a great thing, as we need diversity also in design, and the Qatari and Arab world offers a multitude of design tradition to connect with and to learn from.