WEIL AM RHEIN, GERMANY — ROLF FEHLBAUM of Vitra Industries began his chair collection in the early 1980s. It seemed only right that a furniture manufacturer should want to document the company's history, but the aim also became to research design development and the role of the chair as an expression of the times.
The collection, now one of the world's most important, started with the work of architects Charles Eames and George Nelson from the United States, whose chairs Vitra had been producing since the late 1950s.
As the collection grew, Mr. Fehlbaum asked California architect Frank Gehry to build a home for the chairs, so that they could be made accessible to the public. In 1989, Mr. Gehry's Vitra Design Museum, a swirling assemblage of white forms, opened.
The museum's exhibitions always focus on furniture design, and for the most part on chairs. (An exhibition of African seats will begin in the summer of 1994.) This month a new show opens documenting the evolution of the chair since the 1820s.
One hundred and fifty of Vitra's collection of about 2,000 chairs are on exhibition, with color-coded labels to denote each decade. The earliest piece in the exhibit is a cast-iron chair that was used in the Charlottenburg Palace gardens in Berlin.
Michael Thonet's ``Chair No. 14'' (1859) is the most well-known of factory-made chairs.
Still in production today, ``Chair No. 14'' was revolutionary in its time as Thonet had found a way to use bentwood for mass-produced furniture that was sturdy and affordable.
The turn of the century was marked by the designs of Viennese architects such as Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos. Two handsome chairs in bentwood are exhibited, both made for the noted Viennese establishments Cafe Museum and Cabaret Fledermaus.
The period during and immediately after World War I was an exciting time for furniture design: Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld created the famous ``red-blue chair'' in primary colors on a black frame while another Dutch architect, Mart Stam, invented the cantilever chair using tubular steel.
Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and others perfected the cantilever chair and architects such as Le Corbusier were able to manipulate tubular steel to create more refined chairs.
The Vitra Museum owns a particularly rare 1942 prototype by Rietveld (one of only two existing chairs) made in aluminum from a plane wreck.
During the 1940s and '50s some of the most progressive furniture was designed, and here the museum can show off its important collection of Charles and Ray Eames prototypes, many of which are based on the concept of a contoured, upholstered chair.
A major retrospective of Eames designs is already being organized for late '94 or '95. After opening in Weil am Rhein, the show will travel to several major US museums.
In the '60s, plastic took the place of the wood and fiberglass materials used by Eames and his wife. Verner Panton's ``Panton chair,'' molded from a single piece of plastic, is an example of the possibilities that the material afforded designers at the time.
Chair design over the next 20 years was characterized by its individualistic style - the chair became less functional and more of an objet d'art. Italian designers took center stage with movements such as Alessandro Mendini's ``Alchymia'' and Ettore Sottsass Jr.'s ``Memphis.''
The exhibition includes some exceptional pieces from this period - Mendini's ``Poltrona di Proust,'' a huge rococo armchair covered in a wild mosaic of colors, or Gaetano Pesce's ``Golgotha,'' a chair recalling an ancient shroud. Berlin designer Stiletto used a supermarket cart to create his ``Consumer's Rest'' chair in 1983, and Shiro Juramata's ``Miss Blanche'' Plexiglas armchair ingrained with flowers (1989) was one of the late Japanese architect's last designs.
What comes as a surprise when viewing the collection is the number of chairs that are familiar; with the exception, perhaps, of the more recent designs.
``People come to see chairs that they've seen throughout their lifetime,'' says Serge Mauduit, the museum's curator. ``They want to recognize chairs. This exhibition should be satisfying to them.''
* The Vitra Design Museum is located in Germany, several kilometers over the Swiss border from Basel. The hours are 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There are guided tours (in German) of Zaha Hadid's and Tadao Ando's buildings every day at 2 and 3 p.m. Tours in English and French are available by appointment. Write: Vitra Design Museum, Charles-Eames Str. 1, 7858 Weil am Rhein, Germany. Telephone: 49 7621 70 22 00.