A tad cheeky, perhaps, to claim the fabulous Vitra Design Museum for Basel as it lies just over the border in the German town of Weil am Rhein. But no art lover visits the city without making the peasy 30-minute city bus pilgrimage, and with good reason. Established by the eponymous Swiss furniture design company in 1989, the museum shares a sprawling campus with striking buildings by Zaha Hadid – her very first – and the Japanese boxer-turned architect Tadao Ando. The main building, a gleaming white deconstructivist tangle of curves and angular boxes, was Frank Gehry’s first European commission. And along with the Vitra House, a cantilevered stack of glass-ended longhouses by the Basel-based Tate Modern alchemists Herzog & de Meuron, it’s home to one of the world’s largest collections of modern furniture and lighting designs. This hinges mainly on bequests from the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto and Dieter Rams, and is beautifully presented across the two main spaces. Informative architectural and collection tours and a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions place the showcased designs and buildings in ever-evolving broader contexts.
Whether you like your art ancient or modern, classical or contemporary, applied or outsider, there is an eye-popping array of world-class Swiss art galleries and museums. From the Paul Klee and Vitra Design museums to prestigious events like Art Basel, the Swiss art scene is vibrant. With both a collecting culture that stretches back centuries and the planet’s most important annual contemporary fair, Basel city has traditionally been the Swiss scene’s Chanel-clad grand dame, snapping up Warhols and Bacons for her Rhine-side apartment. But worldly Zürich has hit a bold new stride in the last decade, with the immaculate regeneration of the city’s former industrial zone serving up a bevy of cool white cubes where cutting-edge contemporary art from every end of the Earth is making itself right at home. Nor are Geneva and Bern art slouches. Their venerable palaces of painting and plastic arts have long earned their global reputations, and each city also has its own flourishing crop of temples to the contemporary, both civic and indie. And the national art appetite keeps on growing. While Renzo Piano hasn’t been called upon just yet to turn the spectacular Fondation Beyeler he built in Basel and Bern’s Zentrum Paul Klee into a megamuseum hat-trick, major institutions are adding new extensions and taking over bigger buildings, while art spaces are breathing vital new life into urban industrial edifices.