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Alexander Girard, Wooden Dolls (Designed 1953), Solid fir, handpainted (photo by Marc Eggimann, courtesy of Vitra, Inc.)

Most people view Switzerland as the birthplace of nifty pocket knives, cheese with holes, expensive skiing, and Dadaism. But it also gave us the legendary modern furniture company Vitra, as many of the most enthusiastic and/or pretentious of design lovers know.

Good news for devotees on this side of the pond: the Philadelphia Museum of Art has brought a taste of Vitra’s whimsical sensibility to the United States with Vitra — Design, Architecture, Communication: A European Project with American Roots. The show looks at the history of the company through the playful objects it’s brought into the world: a Frank Gehry–designed cardboard chair fit for Willy Wonka, a George Nelson clock that looks like a prop for The Jetsons, a set of wooden dolls by Alexander Girard, their pink faces frozen in comical expressions. These creations are as much a feast for the mind as they are for the eyes, still as delightfully fresh as the day they were first made.

Established in 1950, Vitra has produced furniture and other objects by some of the world’s modernist heavyweights — Eero Saarinen, Ron Arad, and Verner Panton among them. In 1957, the family-owned company expanded when it introduced Europe to American designers like Charles and Ray Eames through a licensing deal with Herman Miller. It didn’t stop there. In 1981, when a fire destroyed their production facility in the German town of Weil am Rhein, Vitra invited a star cast of architects to design the new campus. The place is now an architecture mecca, with buildings by the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Tadao Ando. All in all, we owe a lot to the Swiss and their sophisticated taste — though we won’t turn up our noses if you still love your La-Z-Boy.

Charles and Ray Eames, “Eames Elephant’ (Designed 1945), C Plywood, 16 1/2 × 16 1/4 × 31 inches (41.9 × 41.3 × 78.7 cm), (Photo by Marc Eggimann, courtesy of Rolf Fehlbaum / Vitra, Inc.)

George Nelson, “Ball Clock” (Designed 1948–60), Metal, brass, Diameter: 13 inches (33 cm), Photographer: Andreas Sütterlin, Lent by Vitra, Inc. © Vitra (

Frank O. Gehry, “Wiggle Side Chair” (Designed 1972/2005), Corrugated cardboard, hardboard, 34 1/4 × 14 1/4 × 24 inches (87 × 36.2 × 61 cm) Height of seat: 17 inches (43.2 cm), (Photo by Hans Hansen, courtesy of Vitra, Inc.)

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, “Model of Balancing Tools” (1984) (Photo by Andreas Sütterlin, courtesy of Vitra, Inc.)

Ron Arad, “Well-Tempered Chair” (Designed 1986), High grade sheet steel, thumb screws, 31 1/2 × 38 3/4 × 31 1/2 inches (80 × 98.5 × 80 cm), Height of seat: 18 7/8 inches (48 cm) (Photo by Marc Eggimann, courtesy of Vitra Design Museum)

Frank O. Gehry, Vitra Design Museum, 1989, (Photo by Thomas Dix, courtesy of Vitra, Inc.)

Philippe Starck, “W. W. Stool” (Designed 1990), Lacquered aluminum, 38 3/16 x 22 x 20 13/16 inches (97 x 55.9 x 52.8 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Vitra International AG, 1997, (Image courtesy of Vitra, Inc.)

Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, “Vegetal Chair” (Designed 2008), Seat and base: dyed polyamide, Glides: plastic or felt, 32 × 23 3/4 × 22 3/4 inches (81.3 × 60.3 × 57.8 cm), Height of seat: 18 inches (45.7 cm) (Photo by Marc Eggimann, courtesy of Vitra, Inc.)

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...