Q+A: Alexander Von Vegesack

Entrance to Boisbuchet (c) Sergio Mendoza

Ron Arad’s done it. So has Jaime Hayon. For 20 summers running, the world’s top designers and architects have descended on 370 acres in the Poitou-Charente province of southwestern France to lead weeklong workshops in a setting that feels a lot like summer camp and nothing like school. Horses, badminton, a former butchery-turned-nightclub called Porky’s—Boisbuchet is an idyllic setting that encourages free thought and creativity and lures designers and students back year after year. Last August, I.D. had the opportunity to spend a week on the grounds, observing workshops with CuldeSac from Spain, Harri Koskinen and Timo Salli from Finland, and Jiri Pelci from the Czech Republic. Boisbuchet owner and Vitra Design Museum director Alexander Von Vegesack took a few moments to speak with us about the history and future of the camp

Tell me a bit about the history of Boisbuchet.
I bought Boisbuchet in 1986, but it was immediately occupied by squatters, and it took three years to get them out. Around the same time, I met Rolf Fehlbaum through Ray Eames, with whom I had worked before. Rolf had purchased a part of my personal collection and had been asking whether I could build up a collection with the Vitra Design Museum. I agreed, under the condition that I could work with the collection. I wanted to use the museum to help start a workshop program at Boisbuchet, but the grounds weren’t in great condition. So while we worked on restructuring Boisbuchet, we began to host international workshops on the campus of the Vitra Design Museum.

The problem we faced in Weil-am-Rhein was that we had to house people in pensions, youth hostels, and so on. They left at 6 o’clock in the evening and, coming back the next morning, they didn’t start at zero, but rather at 40 percent of what was left when they left the previous evening. The other problem was that the invited designers were often more interested in meeting with Vitra and gaining entry into the company. They were never fully paying attention to the students. So when the situation allowed, we came to Boisbuchet. But it was all still very improvised. We started the first season with only 40 or 50 students, and while it slowly developed, it took 20 years to put Boisbuchet in the condition it is now.

Over the years, Boisbuchet has become an experimental ground for design and architecture. For the students, it’s interesting, because in one week you cannot create a perfect product. But you can learn about the way the designer who’s running the workshop organizes his process of design and you can learn a lot from different people from different cultures during this period.

There seems to be an enormous sense of loyalty to the place: More and more designers who came to Boisbuchet first as students are returning as teachers, and there are students who return year after year. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s the site. Being on the countryside, not being disturbed or pulled away. Here the focus is on the group, and hardly anyone is saying, oh, I would like to go shopping or to Limoges. They don’t want to miss an hour of what’s going on in the group. People are relaxed when they arrive because there is no formality. It’s very helpful to have this environment for concentrating on the work, but it is always in a playful way. I think that’s very important. Something like a party is important. With a party, there is a different exchange of human knowledge, of sentiments you would not experience if you only worked together.

CuldeSac’s Alberto Martinez (c) Sergio Mendoza

When you are brainstorming which designers to invite each summer—besides their body of work, is there something else you’re looking for?
The problem is how to figure out whether designers are really capable of teaching. Because even if they do teach, if you called the universities, they would not say something negative. Another problem is that often when we ask designers to do a workshop, they tend to want to do a crazy, intellectual project they never could do with a company. But this is the opposite of what the students are looking for. Students don’t want to discuss. They discussed for three years at university! So, we always have to explain to the designer, “Please, be hands on and choose a subject where the students immediately get the feeling that they’re finally doing something.”

Can you think of a workshop in recent years that’s been particularly successful?
I remember one workshop where the theme was natural light. A group of students wanted to do something in the lake, so they took normal wine bottles, cut off the bottoms, sealed the necks, and then tethered them to a rope fixed with a stone. They put a candle inside of each bottle so that the bottles were swimming in the lake, but the candles were burning under the level of the water. Beautiful idea. In the same workshop, they wanted to guide people through, I think, 200 meters by using only one candle. They positioned the candle somewhere along a trail and then fixed little mirrors to the trees to guide you the entire way. I mean, this is not a product. But what we do is give students a way to play and experiment without too many borders, and it inspires them to develop fantasy.

Shigeru Ban pavilion (c) Jill Singer

All around the Boisbuchet campus, there are built works from past workshops: bamboo huts by Colombian architect Simon Velez, pavilions by Shigeru Ban. How often does the work done during the week live on on the grounds of Boisbuchet?
Most of the design pieces—especially if they are voluminous, we can’t keep. The pavilions, though—I’m very interested in the nomadic and sedentary parts of our life, because I think everything we do is between those two borders. I would like to do an exhibition with major known architects and engineers and artists to create a pavilion that could be used for 20 or 30 years.

Boisbuchet wasn’t initially only about design and architecture. There were theater workshops in the beginning, for example. Is there an artistic medium that Boisbuchet hasn’t yet explored that you’d be interested in?

I would love to introduce a music program in collaboration with IRCAM, the French Institute for Research in Acoustics and Music. I would like to do a project with architecture and sound. I have plenty of ideas. It may happen if I meet the right people in the right moment and it works. But we are very limited because everything is only financed by my income. I’m running a cultural institution and that’s limited. So we need people who do it without being paid, because they have the passion, they share the interest. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Jill Singer is the managing editor of I.D.