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Domaine d’Excellence - discover Boisbuchet

Domaine d’Excellence - discover Boisbuchet

Drive through the sleepy village of Lessac on your way to Confolens and you may think you are one of only a handful of visitors each year to this pretty Charente village set back off the main roads. But follow the small blue signs to the Domaine de Boisbuchet and within minutes you enter one of the region’s best kept secrets, a world of cutting-edge design accompanied by the persistent murmur of teams of international students creating, building, designing and experimenting…

Alexander von Vegesack-boisbuchet “We wanted to find somewhere with a natural buffer between us and the outside world,” explains Alexander von Vegesack when asked why he chose to buy Boisbuchet twenty-five years ago. “With so many students on site, we didn’t want to disturb our neighbours and we also knew we needed the space and peace to encourage creativity. Originally we looked further south where we ran an equine tourism business but prices were very high. Within an hour of visiting Boisbuchet, I knew this was the ideal setting. The buildings sit centrally in their environment, each at a respectful distance from one another and the River Vienne borders one side of the property. There was a natural valley where we could create a two and a half hectare lake and the whole estate was surrounded by forest...I knew I had found the place where I wanted to live and work.”

However, unlike many other ex-pat buyers, instead of renovating the eighteenth-century château and settling in to enjoy the calm and tranquil surroundings himself, Alexander began to develop his vision. His plan was simple but ambitious: to offer young students a stimulating, community-based learning environment led by the foremost designers of the day. In so doing, he would give them a unique opportunity to develop creatively as they became better acquainted with themselves and their abilities.

Born in Germany to Latvian parents forced to flee during the war, Alexander quickly decided that an apprenticeship in banking, favoured by his parents, was not for him, instead he opted to open a vintage clothes shop in Paris at the age of 21. He supported this foray into the fashion world with property deals and car sales, and within four years had moved to an old factory in Hamburg where he established a forum for experimental theatre and film. It was here that he organized his first exhibition devoted to modern furniture design, a field that was fast becoming his passion, specializing in bentwood furniture. As his own collection grew, Alexander began to curate and coordinate collections for museums. After researching and writing the definitive book on Thonet, one of the leading makers of bentwood furniture, he developed and opened the Thonet Museum in Germany in 1989. It was through his search for Thonet furniture that he met fellow collector Billy Wilder, the director of ‘Some Like it Hot’ and other award-winning films. Wilder introduced him to designer Ray Eames, a friendship which resulted in Alexander being offered the opportunity in 1988 to create a museum for world-leading furniture designers and makers Vitra in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

Through his work with the Vitra Design Museum and its partnership with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, plus the development of his own extensive collection,  Alexander was able to build up a network of contacts that have brought Boisbuchet to life, but his personal vision and quiet determination are clearly the backbone of the project. The sale of his prized furniture collection to the Republic of Austria and the City of Vienna provided the funds for the purchase of Boisbuchet and he admits that the first few years were not easy. “We had squatters in the Château who were protected by the many archaic laws - we could not move them while they had crops in the ground, there was a pregnancy or even if their cow was in milk, and this went on for three years whilst the project grew around them.” It was not until November 1989 that Alexander was finally able to gain entry to the Château, “I remember the month well - the Vitra Design Museum opened its doors for the first time, the Berlin Wall fell in my home country and Boisbuchet was finally freed too.”

He also had to contend with suspicious local residents. “They simply couldn’t understand why, when their children were leaving the area, we were bringing in coach-loads of foreign students,” says Alexander.   The gendarmes were regular visitors, searching for drugs and other illegal substances, and they were suspected of running a cult. Despite becoming an active member of the conseil d’administration de l’Université de Limoges and opening the Domaine to the public each year on the Journée de Patrimoine, relations remained strained with both the local authorities and residents. However, little by little, Alexander’s persistence and hard work began to pay off, and today the Domaine is recognised as a Pôle d’excellence rurale and is known the world over, drawing in students from America, Asia and across Europe.

The Château du Boisbuchet is an imposing building, sitting high on the banks of the Vienne River. The renovated slate roofs are the result of a collaboration with a Lithuanian University looking for work experience on historic buildings for their students. The Mill (now a café/bistro and shop which is open to the public) and several barns have benefited from the attention of Ukrainian students, and it is this spirit of collaboration and hands-on experience which underpins the project. The Château itself is no longer lived in; once it had been made structurally sound the inside was left in its original condition to form an atmospheric exhibition space, while the façade forms the backdrop to many of the end-of-workshop presentations.

All activity is centred around The Dépendance - still largely unchanged from when it was constructed in the 1860s to house the stables, laundry and granary used by the Domaine’s many farms. Today it is home to the internet facility (in the original stables), several conference and meeting rooms as well as sleeping quarters for the students, plus the all-important kitchen. Not to be missed are the enormous Rudolf Steiner oak doors, donated after their original home was destroyed by fire, and the many pieces of Vitra furniture alongside works by other leading designers.  

The list of summer workshop leaders reads like a Who’s Who for the design world this year including  Simon Vélez, Rogers Strick Harbour + Partners Architects, Ulrike Brandi, Max Lamb, Sigga Heimis, Corning Museum of Glass, Jaime Hayon and Sou
Foujimoto and other luminaries.

All leaders, whatever their discipline and fame, receive the same fee of a thousand euros to cover expenses, including their travel, and are expected to concentrate solely on the students during course hours – no phones or other distractions are allowed. In return, leaders are invited to bring their family to enjoy a holiday at the Domaine, staying in one of the experimental bamboo-framed houses on site. Many of today’s tutors were workshop students themselves only a few years ago and Alexander has a knack of inviting new tutors to lead workshops just before they become well-known. It’s a testament to Alexander and his team that the same leaders are happy to return year after year to share their knowledge and experience.

Domus castle brainstormLuis-Urculos-group

Fees for students are intentionally kept low, requiring the project to be run on a tight budget, as it receives no external funding. Companies such as Bosch, Ikea and 3M provide invaluable materials and tools, although many of the materials used on the courses are sourced from the grounds of Boisbuchet. The Domaine consists of 90 hectares of forest with another 80 hectares of meadow, and the two and a half hectare lake which provides a popular setting for many workshop installations. A full time farmer (one of only three full time employees) is employed to manage the grounds and the hundred-strong flock of sheep, but in the summer months the staff levels swell to 20, including 12 student volunteers who receive a free workshop of their choice in return for
their labour.

Communal living is an important feature of the workshops. Meals made from home-grown and local ingredients are taken together - outside whenever possible - allowing participants to mingle and share ideas. as at any one time there are three to four workshops on site.  The comfortable dormitories sleep between four and twelve students, so the creativity and learning can continue day and night – especially when using the on-site kiln which requires twenty-four hour attention!

In addition to the workshops, each summer the Château hosts an exhibition which is open to the public, and there are daily tours around the Domaine and the pavilions set in its ground. These range from a traditional 1860 Japanese Guesthouse to experimental structures, including the Paper Pavilion, Log Cabin and bamboo-framed domes and houses. A new arrival is the bamboo-framed conference centre capable of seating one hundred people. Designed by the German architect Markus Heinsdorff, it was presented to Boisbuchet as a gift from the Goethe Institute and the People’s Republic of China.  Between workshops, Boisbuchet can also be hired as a unique wedding venue seating up to 250 guests and, to extend the season further, the Domaine has entered the Corporate Training market.

The Domaine de Boisbuchet continues to evolve and develop – this year two ateliers are being constructed to provide year-round facilities, a new, upgraded kitchen is planned and Alexander’s private library is being relocated from the Vitra Museum to Boisbuchet’s extraordinary porcherie (the former piggery). There are plans to help talented young designers by offering them year-long use of the facilities, as well as to extend the experience of Boisbuchet into the region through visits to nearby design attractions.

Welcoming visitors, families and schools to the Domaine is high on Alexander’s list, and after spending time in his company one thing is clear: the last twenty-five years are simply a prelude to what he has planned for the future…

15 japanesepav generalJAPANESE GUESTHOUSE

Constructed in the same period as the Château du Boisbuchet, this 1860 Kyakuden once formed part of a large estate in the Shimane prefecture in Western Japan. Gifted to the Domaine by the Japanese Kominka Research Society, it was dismantled, documented and restored in its original location before beginning its journey to  Charente. Here it was faithfully rebuilt by a team of Japanese craftsmen using only traditional techniques without the need for nails or screws. Housing two large rooms with a corridor separated by sliding, wooden-framed panels covered with Japanese paper (shojis) the guesthouse is used as a venue for small exhibitions.
Tel:  (+33) 05 45 89 67 00
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