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April 30, 2009

The morning weather in Madiswil at the Hotel Baeren was gloomy at best. Rain fell sideways as our driver Herr Muster helped us load up the van. We’d been told that sunnier skies awaited us in Basel, and then just across the German border at the Vitra Design Museum, but the hour’s drive suggested otherwise.

The Frank Gehry Design Museum at Vitra HQ
The Frank Gehry Design Museum at Vitra HQ
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This wall of George Nelson's graphic design, photos, books and exhibition work was one of the most impressive elements of the show.
This wall of George Nelson's graphic design, photos, books and exhibition work was one of the most impressive elements of the show.
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Le Corbusier's 1923 Villa Le Lac
Le Corbusier's 1923 Villa Le Lac
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The Frank Gehry Design Museum at Vitra HQ
The Frank Gehry Design Museum at Vitra HQ

Passports at the ready, international borders in the time of swine flu being worrying things, we passed through Basel and into Germany. The Vitra Design Museum, on Charles-Eames-Strasse, did not disappoint. Not only was the exhibition a massive retrospective of the work of Dwell-hero George Nelson, but our tour guide Carol Bandmann gave us the proper VIP treatment, gushing about Nelson, rhapsodizing about the1994 Frank Gehry building that houses the museum and generally playing mother hen to an unruly, easily-distracted clutch of design chicks.

The Vitra campus—showrooms, factories, a conference center and several architectural prestige pieces—is a who’s who of post war design. Gehry did the museum (his first building outside the US); Zaha Hadid’s first ever building is a fire station-cum-exhibition space; a young Nicholas Grimshaw built a pair of factory buildings; Tadao Ando’s House of Silence conference center is his first outside of Japan; Herzog and de Meuron have a building under construction and Jasper Morrison, Alvaro Siza, Jean Prouvé and a Bucky dome round out the unassailable cast of starchitects. Add a massive Claes Oldenurg sculpture and you’ve got the most architectural bang for your buck that I’ve ever seen.

We then had lunch at the Vitra café with Design Museum director Alexander von Vegesack and a passel of professors from the Academy of Art and Design in Basel. As you might expect, the cafeteria was all clean plastic, bright colors and cream-sauced beef. Ah Deutschland.

Once back on the bus—each of us laden with souvenirs—we set out for the two hour drive to Lausanne. We stopped in Bern, an incredible 15th century city, for ein bier by the Aare River. We hit the road again, forsaking a stroll around the Swiss capital for the shot at visiting Villa Le Lac, a small house in Vevey Le Corbusier built for his parents in 1923 on bucolic shores of Lake Geneva.

We showed up too late—the house closes at 5:30 and we got in at 6:00—but that didn’t keep me from scaling walls, climbing across mossy rocks and ultimately hoisting myself over the seawall that separates the yard from the lake to get inside. Architectural trespassing aside, the visit was splendid, the scale of the place subservient to the sublime mountains and lake.

From there it was off through the terraced vineyards of Lausanne to the Beau Rivage Palace hotel. Swish digs, indeed, though any airs put on at our posh lodgings were promptly undercut by a dinner next door at the hilariously-named Creperie D’ouchy.

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