Iconic Design Destinations To Visit In Europe
Zoe Ikin, from the Alt Group, defines design tourism with a compact itinerary through Switzerland, Germany and Italy
"Sometimes I wonder what travel would be like if I wasn’t a designer, also married to another one,” Zoe Ikin, design director at brand agency Alt Group (although temporarily on maternity leave), muses. “Is being compelled to fill an itinerary with design a blessing or a curse? Others might relish a change of headspace while on holiday, but designers are different. We don’t switch off.”
Although that attentiveness might not make for the most restful of holidays, it does make for great travel reporting. When Zoe and her small family took a recent trip to Europe, she visited a series of iconic design destinations that despite spanning three countries, lay within just a few hours’ drive of each other. We asked her to sketch out the highlights of her trip for Viva.
THE ART OF ALPINE LUXURY
Therme Vals, Switzerland
On paper, Therme Vals is a five-star hotel and luxury spa buried in a Swiss valley, a two-hour drive from Zurich. In reality, it is a complete sensory experience of light and shadow, hot and cold, water and stone. Designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, the quarry-like structure is built from the quartzite stone of the alpine slope it emerges from, capturing mineral water in a sequence of thermal baths.
The entrance feels ceremonial. A slowly descending ramp shifts you from reality to an underworld of cavernous stone rooms where the light is low, the water azure and the only sound is trickling fountains. Shafts of natural light fall on bronze detailing set into the stone — numerals showing a pool’s temperature, or a small clock the size of a wristwatch. Low windows puncture the deep walls, revealing compositions of the alpine hillside opposite when you lie down on one of the chaise longues.
Each spa room offers a different sensory impression. Adjacent hot-and-cold baths are lined in pink and baby blue terrazzo respectively. Another is filled with rose petals and an aromatic scent. There are many others, best left to discover on your own.
Connected to the Therme via a walkway is the House of Architects Hotel. Here, you can choose from a range of unique rooms designed by renowned architects — from Zumthor to Tadao Ando and Thom Mayne. We chose the room by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, a cocoon of layered oak panels that frame views up the valley.
A DESIGN PLAYGROUND
Vitra Campus, Weil am Rhein, Germany
Vitra is a family-owned Swiss furniture company known for classic design items by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames and Jean Prouve, as well as an iconic contemporary collection. The Vitra Campus is located close to the border where Germany, France and Switzerland meet. It is a field of experimentation for architecture and design, featuring an unrivaled collection of commissions by the most distinguished architects in the Western world. Even the utility buildings aren’t exempt — the fire station was designed by “starchitect” Zaha Hadid, and the bus stop by industrial designer Jasper Morrison.
The Vitra Design Museum is unmistakably Frank Gehry. A cluster of interconnected forms, all painted white so that the building is read through the play of light across each surface. The Museum is dedicated to the research and presentation of design, past and present.
The most recent addition to the Campus, designed by Basel-based architects Herzog & de Meuron in 2016, is the Vitra Schaudepot. This “exhibition warehouse” presents a selection of Vitra’s 7000-piece archive, ranking it among the most important holdings of modern furniture in the world. Iconic tubular steel chairs by Le Corbusier sit alongside original fibreglass castings by Verner Panton and A Laminated Glass Chair by Shiro Kuramata, worth nearly $100,000 on its own. The building is a material experiment itself: constructed from hand-split bricks, its monolithic, windowless form emerges from a plaza of the same red material.
Last stop is the VitraHaus flagship store (Herzog & de Meuron, 2010) — an iconic “stack” of extruded Monopoly houses that has become the campus landmark. The archetypal house motif is both universal and unique — much like the human-centred furniture, objects and brand that resides within. Meander through five levels of curated vignettes from the Vitra Home collection, stopping to read books, trial a sofa or purchase from the physical lookbook.
THE CITY WITHIN A CITY
Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy
The Italians are known for their art, architecture, impeccable presentation and a penchant for bling. Fondazione Prada, a cultural organisation dedicated to film, art and philosophy, is no exception. The campus is the love child of architect Rem Koolhaas of OMA, and Miuccia Prada — a transformation of a former gin distillery, which combines warehouse spaces with purpose-built architecture. Situated alongside a railway in the southern outskirts of Milan, it is a polished jewel in an otherwise industrial wasteland.
A century-old building finished in 24-carat gold foil lures guests inside but, not before they’ve stopped for a selfie. Beyond this, a vast courtyard is bordered on one side by the “Cinema”, camouflaged against the sky by its mirror cladding. The most recent addition by OMA, a 60m-high white “Torre”, holds installations from the Fondazione’s collection over nine levels and views across the campus and the city.
One of the seven upgraded historical buildings is the “Deposito” or warehouse, a volume so vast that it dwarfs its visitors. During our visit, this space displayed 10m-high suspended banners which held projected images, a scale unachievable in conventional gallery spaces.
Koolhaas’ agenda was to broaden the typologies of architecture in which art can be displayed. He has not only achieved this, but also added an incredible collection of architecture to the Fondazione’s repertoire.
Zoe’s tips for a design tour through Switzerland, Germany and Italy
1. Delicious food is hard to miss in Milan, however one of our favourite lunch stops was Princi, where strong espresso accompanies fresh pizza, cut to order with a pair of scissors. Princi.com
2. Stay at the House of Architects Hotel at Therme Vals. The experience is unique in every room, during any season, something most hotels can’t offer. 7123.com
3. Send a travel memento back home in the form of a piece of Vitra furniture. The hardest part is resisting the temptation to buy it all. Vitra.com
4. While in Milan, be sure to visit Fondazione Prada — a polished jewel of a cultural institution, presenting art, film and architecture in an otherwise industrial wasteland on the outskirts of Milan. Fondazioneprada.org
5. Car fans should include Stuttgart on their route. The Porsche Museum and Mercedes Museum epitomise German design in their immaculate and technical displays. Porsche.com