Vitra Design’s director, Mateo Kries, reimagines the role of museums in post-pandemic society

Reflecting on the changing role of museums. According to Mateo Kries, they should not only reflect social evolutions, but also play an active role in society

Matteo Kries

«I’m rarely curating exhibitions anymore. What I’m curating now is the program, choosing the right partners, the right topics and trying to bring that together». Despite holding a PhD, Matteo Kries explains that directly after school he started work at a Museum in Marrakech, Morocco, before meeting the former Director of the Vitra Design Museum and being offered an internship. Matteo Kries started working there in 1995. By 1997, at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed as a curator. Describing himself as «trained in the Museum practice», he notes,«I was already working at the Vitra Design Museum when I studied Art History and Sociology and later for my PhD».

In 2006 he was appointed as Chief Curator and in 2011 he assumed his current role as Director. Today, Kries tries «to support people with a more practical approach». Topics are chosen by Kries for their relevance on a global scale and reflect contemporary issues; future technologies, sustainability and social responsibility, he keeps asking questions that create discourse. «We try to not only react but also be forerunners and to push other institutions to do the same».

Vitra Design Museum

Founded in 1989, the Vitra Design Museum started from the private collection of Vitra CO, Rolf Fehlbaum. «In the 1990’s the discourse on design was about product and individual figures». With early exhibitions the Museum’s focus has remained on furniture and designs relationship to everyday culture. Under Kries tenure the Museum has seen an expansion of its collections as well as exhibitions and events. «Design today is not about furniture. It’s about society and the world in general. Today the public is critical. They want to know about context, so the evolution that our Museum has gone through runs parallel to the evolution of design debates». This has seen a shift from object focused towards context focused design exhibitions.

The main Museum building, which annually hosts two major temporary exhibitions, was designed by architect Frank Gehry. Kries describes it as «a practical and functional Museum space. From the outside it’s sculptural but from the inside it has flat, white walls and beautiful skylights». Having been designed and built in the Eighties, Kries asserts «it has kept it’s timelessness and that helps us to put on exhibitions that have a contemporary feel».

Vitra Shaundepot Herzog & de Meuron

Matteo Kries’ expanded program is set within a wider Campus with the introduction of new buildings including the Vitra Design Museum Gallery. Having opened in 2011, it hosts smaller exhibitions that tend to be experimental. The Vitra Shaudepot designed by Herzog & de Meuron which, having opened in 2016, presents key objects from the Museum’s collection. Besides its Architecture, another unique aspect of the Museum is its non-urban location. It is located on the periphery of Germany, in Weil am Rhein – just one kilometer from Swiss and French borders.

Lampoon, Exterior view Vitra Schaudepot
Exterior view Vitra Schaudepot, Image Vitra Design Museum, Ph Mark Niedermann

Matteo Kries travelling exhibitions

Matteo Kries, who also grew up on the periphery of Germany. He spent a significant part of his childhood traveling and living in Madrid, Spain, says «My interest is in a global or international perspective». In 2021, the Vitra Design Museum featured an exhibition about German design looking at the years between 1949 and 1989. Whilst Kries recognizes national Institutions and Museums for their role in the preservation of national heritage, rather than viewing this topic from a singular perspective, the exhibition was «an experiment» in the involvement of international perspective.

«It’s the problem with national histories that the writers are native to the country. Let’s look at German history with international experts, using a change in perspective today to discover new things from the past». From its conception, the Vitra Design Museum has championed this international perspective. «My predecessor, the founding Director Alexander von Vegesack, built up the travelling exhibition model from the beginning». Von Vegesack’ system of travelling exhibitions, which have continued under Kries, influenced the curatorial process to this day.

Working with external designers to explore narratives

Matteo Kries explains «we look at topics that are relevant on a global scale. Therefore, the scenography has to be dismantle-able to allow for traveling. Either we knock it down, pack it and ship it with the show or, because of cost and sustainability issues, we send the plans and the Museum builds it anew».

This is a technical process that requires heavy administration and expert knowledge in insurance, logistics, customs and transportation. «A lot of museums do this  every few years. At our Museum we have five people who do nothing else but organize this so it is something we build up to». Having established the Museum’s own publishing house, Kries continues «it’s a working business model for the catalogues». Aiding their distribution, «it helps us to spread our projects and make accessible what we have done on a content or research level to a broader audience».

A new opportunity for Matteo Kries

In 2020, the global pandemic put a pause on many of the Museum’s activities with Kries having to make difficult decisions, cancelling and postponing projects. Despite its challenges, Matteo Kries looks back on the past years as yet «another phase of growth». Since becoming Director, Matteo Kries has built up a successful educational program on the Campus into which he has poured many resources. This broke down shortly into the pandemic, however the potential that digital channels offer helped to keep it running.

As Director, «you have to show your staff that you have the creative power and ideas to move the Institution forwards». This saw the initiation of new projects. «In the first week after the lockdown in March last year I started to do Instagram live talks».

One of the first of these talks was with Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi in April, 2020. He proved to be effective in reaching a global audience. «Before it was always dependent on who was able and could afford to travel to the Campus with a carbon footprint and a lot of costs to our Museum».

Having experienced the first technological shift back in 2011, Matteo Kries recalls how «the iPhone, YouTube and all these social media platforms were just emerging». Moving forward, Kries plans to continue these online educational activities. «When the pandemic is over we will restart activities on the Campus. but we will also have this parallel thread».

Lampoon, Interior view Vitra Schaudepot
Interior view Vitra Schaudepot, Image Vitra Design Museum, Ph Mark Niedermann

Museums’ new role

For Matteo Kries, the global pandemic has also increased his «awareness of the fragility of ecosystems and personal interaction». In addition to the pandemic, «we shouldn’t forget about the societal discussions and tensions that were already there». Matteo Kries continues, «Museums are rather slow institutions because they are linked to collections which may include 10,000 objects. You can’t change the character or disbalance of a collection from one year to another. However, the first step is to acknowledge there is a misbalance».

For many years Kries has been speaking on the necessity for Museums to acknowledge the ways in which they have catered to western male designers. In 2003 the Museum organized an exhibition on design from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and in 2013 it showcased a new generation of designers from the African continent with each exhibition acquiring new objects for the Museum’s permanent collection. «We’re going to do an exhibition where we look at the role of the presence of female designers. It will be self-critical, because in every design museum, there in a lack in women representation».

The role of women in design

Paying homage to Paula Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research and Development at the Museum of Modern Art, Kries credits Antonelli as a relevant figure in the design world when it comes to realizing critical exhibitions, further stating his ambition for the Vitra Design Museum to not only reflect social evolutions but to «see itself as an active part in society».

The exhibition at the Vitra Schaudepot was dedicated to ‘Gae Aulenti: A Creative Universe’. Although Italy dominated the field of product design, Matteo Kries acknowledges that «the success story of Italian design in the post-war years is told as a story of men», listing Ettore Sottsass, Vico Magistretti, Alessandro Mendini and Joe Colombo amongst the most well known. «When you look at this history closer you see that there is also Cini Boeri and Gae Aulenti,» neither of whom have ever had a solo show. 

Gae Aulenti: a Creative Universe

Matteo Kries and his team chose to host a retrospective on Aulenti who was an influential Italian architect and designer. Aulenti was renowned for her transformation of a Parisian train station into the Musée d’Orsay from 1980 to 1986. She also designed furniture like ‘Locus Solus’ series (1964), and her ‘Giova’ lamp (1964). Using bold forms and silhouettes, oversized dimensions and materials including glass, laminated plastic and metal, Kries proposes «it’s interesting to look at her work because it’s bold and breaks with this cliché that women do things that are subtle and fragile».

Presenting thirty-five items from the Museum’s collections with additional loans from the Gae Aulenti Archive in Milan and other lenders, ‘Gae Aulenti: a Creative Universe’ showed «that our collection can bring about exhibitions on female designers». 

Mateo Kries

German curator and writer, primarily known for his appointment as Director of the globally renowned Vitra Design Museum in 2011. Kries grew up between Germany and Spain. He first gained experience in the Museum practice in Marrakech, Morocco. In 1995 he started working at the Vitra Design Museum. Kries suddenly became the curator in 1997, and chief curator in 2006. During this time he also studied Art History and Sociology and completed his PhD. He is responsible for the expansion of the Vitra Design Museum’s collections, campus and program of exhibitions and events.

Amelia Stevens

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.