Nº 253
Discussion on Swiss design. Renate Menzi, Simon Husslein, Jörg Boner

The Museum of Design in Zurich is currently preparing the exhibition “100 Years of Swiss Design” that will be the inaugural show at the new Toni Arena venue in September 2014. We spoke to Renate Menzi, curator of the show, as well as product designers Jörg Boner and Simon Husslein, about the specific quality of Swiss design – its strengths and weaknesses, its protagonists and icons, its history and prospects.

Renate Menzi, how would you define Swiss design?

Renate Menzi: I remember Jörg Boner once said in an interview that Swiss design has a “watchmakerly” quality. There’s some truth to that. It’s influenced by precision engineering, like the small hinges on folding furniture. Or tubular steel furniture. Although the Swiss were latecomers here in historical terms, they were more refined, with less bends, more reduced. And in terms of finish, the products have always maintained a high standard of quality.

Furniture, and chairs in particular, will play an important part in your show. Is Swiss design culture shaped primarily by furniture making?

Renate Menzi: We have a section on industrial design, but items of furniture, especially chairs, are just very eloquent. They are statements that reveal a great deal about technical possibilities and about the designer as auteur. A hairdryer can be interesting in this sense, too, but the differences between such mass-produced items are becoming smaller and smaller. In the everyday realm, furniture and household devices are what we consider relevant.


Apart from the historical angle, is there still such a thing as typical Swiss design today?

Simon Husslein: I’m generally not so keen on this kind of pigeonholing by nation. The language of design in Switzerland is very diverse. And in my view, it depends more on the shared motivations of design personalities than on any formal common denominator. But I’ve also noticed that appreciation for refinement, meticulousness and accuracy is more noticeable here than in other countries where I’ve not found it to be so conspicuous, or so self-evident.
Jörg Boner: I agree in principle, but I would add this: when one speaks of Swiss design, there’s a huge difference between the French-speaking world on the one hand and the German or Alemannic world on the other. The dividing line runs right through the country. In the French-speaking world, there is a far greater focus on drawing and the line, whereas in the German-Alemannic-Austrian world there is a far greater emphasis on technical aspects. In the latter you need an invention, the idea for a construction, before you are allowed to do anything, whereas in the former, perhaps on account of the Latin influence, a specific line may be considered reason enough to embark on a project. Whether or not it is something new in functional terms makes no difference. Since I began teaching at ÉCAL [École cantonale d’art de Lausanne], this has become clear to me: the same care we would devote to a technical solution is devoted to a line or a colour. This is not so much about playfulness, it’s the same kind of precision, but expressed in a different way.
Renate Menzi: That’s astonishing, it’s as if a form needs to be justified, it can’t just be a gesture for the sake of the form. Assuming there is such a thing as a national design identity over the last hundred years, then I would see the shared quality above all in the period. The differences between decades are often greater than the differences between regions. The formal vocabulary of the 1950s is typically fifties, and the 1960s it is typically sixties, but it’s always Good Design. Around 1968 that stopped and Swiss designers tried to break out of this corset, making furniture that seemed to dismiss functionality – like the “Stuhl-Stuhl” chair by Susi and Ueli Berger – and which was perceived as un-Swiss.

But there are many products whose design has remained unchanged, such as the Swiss Army Knife …

Jörg Boner: There’s a nice example that illustrates the difference between the French- and German-speaking worlds I was just talking about. In France, Opinel is the pocket knife. It is far more beautiful in formal terms than the Swiss Army Knife, technically far simpler, but it works. Of course, the Swiss Army Knife functions perfectly, but it’s so boring, the design with the two semicircular ends, well … the Opinel with the curve up to the back, the shape of the handle, it received a great deal more attention in terms of form.


So if Swiss design exists not as something singular, but as something differentiated by period and region, and if, as Simon says, its only common denominator is an appreciation for that which is good, is there anything – to put the question the other way round – that design in Switzerland lacks?

Jörg Boner: If we look at Denmark or the Scandinavian countries in general, they have similar design DNA to us, but I have the feeling that formal qualities can depend on far broader support within the population than they can here in Switzerland. They have Louis Poulsen lamps at home, their affinity to design is more generalized, design has a broader base there. Here there is a consensus on quality and good finishing, but Good Design is not held in such great esteem among the population as a whole.
Simon Husslein: I would agree. The beauty of objects is not the highest priority. The focus is on technical aspects and functionality.
Jörg Boner: I see an interesting development taking place at the moment. One might claim that postmodernism is now really dead, the strength of Italian design is waning for economic reasons and on account of its content, and Scandinavia is taking over. Sticking with the theme of furniture, Scandinavia is using exactly the same tricks that we know and could also be using, but they are doing it. Take the business plan of Muuto, for example – it’s amazing that the Danish state is indirectly pumping in venture capital (via the Nordic Venture Network). Denmark has realized that it is possible to adopt such a position with regard to the outside world. The same thing happens here, we make large amounts of money available, too, but most of it goes into the fields of innovation, patents, research. Where design is concerned, we need to wake up.

Yes, but there are design-orientated companies. Surely this reserve is not due to a lack of interest on their part?

Jörg Boner: They have no power. In Switzerland, everything is dictated by the production capacity of the larger SMEs. We have no Brauns, no car industry, and we don’t have the products. If we look at potential exhibits, there are no major collections spanning long periods of time, various different products from a single company. We are not an industrial nation.

Does that match your experience, Simon?

Simon Husslein: Many Swiss companies can’t afford to invest enough in design. Swiss manufacturers with an interest in design used to appear together at trade fairs like the imm in Cologne, but today they seem to be keeping an increasingly low profile. Their absence is especially striking in Milan. Many Austrian companies, on the other hand, are represented because their Ministry of Economic Affairs offers them a platform – the companies present themselves as part of a shared exhibition, making the spectrum of Austrian creativity and production visible and tangible.

That’s proof of political will. Is this will lacking in Switzerland?

Jörg Boner: The political will does exist here, but as I said before, it’s directed towards innovation and technical research. Funds are more likely to go to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETHZ). What this country has failed to grasp is that a certain strength can be built up through design, something that can be exported and that reflects back onto the country. The Dutch are well aware of this, as are the British, and certainly the Danish.

Nonetheless, design plays a major role in Switzerland. Or would you disagree?

Jörg Boner: I would say graphic design and typography play a part here. But not product design.

Anyone disagree?

Simon Husslein: I think Jörg is right. For most Swiss people, good design in the sense we are discussing here is of little importance. Renate Menzi: The question is: Who are we talking about? And what do we mean by design? Do we mean a comprehensive definition of product culture? Or the somewhat elite group of designers who operate on an international level with designs that are perceived and discussed? Another question is always: What time are we talking about? If we take the light switch by Feller, which is sadly no longer produced, that was a factory design, and in my view, in the first half of the 20th century factory designs in particular characterized a specifically Swiss quality in design. The switch is functional, but the key difference is in the form. It’s no coincidence that Max Bill chose it for his “Good Design” exhibition in 1949, lifting it out of anonymity. “Good Design” was really about showing that beauty, too, is things are heavily based on the auteur model. Of course some values from classic industrial design are still relevant here. But I would like to see schools training critical thinkers who possess both high levels of expertise and the ability to distinguish between what does and does not matter in design.
Jörg Boner: And what I said about Italy is only half true. Design not only compensated for a lack of innovative force in the technical field, but also began to play a new role. I don’t think design was used just to embellish products in Italy, I think it also made products much more important, more relevant.
Simon Husslein: That’s absolutely right. The Italians focussed on typologies and created archetypes. In some cases they also created entirely new rituals. Many classics that we now classify as such had this kind of persuasive force – sometimes by serendipity – but they often reflect a certain axiomatic quality within their genre. And in many cases, this can be credited to a designer who may not yet have been known as a designer at the time.
Renate Menzi: Our exhibition will remind visitors that this has also existed in Swiss design history. There have been export hits and there have been products like the Rey chair that we are tired of because we have seen enough of them in retirement homes and multipurpose halls. But it is a brilliant chair with a very industrial concept. What we want is for people to look at these things again and regain some confidence in what design can achieve.

Ist das wirklich so? Es gibt doch Unternehmen, die exportieren.

Renate Menzi: Verglichen damit, dass wir so ein kleines Land sind, gibt es schon ein paar Produkte, die auch global erfolgreich sind.
Jörg Boner: Aber nimm die Freitag-Taschen. Die sind ein Autorenresultat, und die Autoren haben die Firma gebaut, die vorher nicht existiert hat. Das ist gut, aber es ist ein großer Unterschied zu Braun. Wenn man dagegen ein Unternehmen wie ABB (früher Brown Boweri) betrachtet, die im Prinzip Designer verpflichten könnten, da behaupte ich, dass die technologisch der technisch so gut und innovativ (gewesen) sind, dass sie keine Designer brauchen, um erfolgreich zu sein. Man sagt ja etwas polemisch über die italienische Wirtschaft, dass sie seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg nichts Neues erfunden, sondern sich nur mit Design über die letzten 60 Jahre gerettet habe. Ich glaube, unsere Wirtschaft, die technische Produktion, hat über die letzten 60 Jahre ohne Design funktioniert.
Simon Husslein: Hier sehe ich eine große Chance für die Designhochschulen in der Schweiz, genau das mit zu verändern. Wozu benötige ich eine Hardcore Industrial-Design-Ausbildung, wenn es den Bedarf für diese Designer lokal fast nicht gibt? Der Fokus auf der Industrie in dieser Form hat doch im mitteleuropäischen Kontext nur für bestimmte Länder eine Berechtigung. Und in der Schweiz eher nicht. Anders sehe ich eine ÉCAL, die sehr autorentypologisch funktioniert. Natürlich haben gewisse Werte aus dem klassischen Industrial Design auch hier noch ihre Berechtigung. Aber ich würde mir wünschen, dass sich in den Schulen kritisch denkende Persönlichkeiten entwickeln, die neben einem hohen Maß an Fachwissen vor allem unterscheiden können, was im Design Relevanz hat und was nicht.
Jörg Boner: Und das, was ich über Italien gesagt habe, stimmt ja nur halb. Design hat ja dort nicht nur fehlende Innovationskraft im technischen Bereich wettgemacht, sondern es hat auch begonnen, eine neue Rolle zu spielen. Ich glaube nicht, dass Design dort Produkte verschönert hat, sondern es hat Produkte auch viel wichtiger, relevanter gemacht.
Simon Husslein: Das ist absolut richtig. Die Italiener haben sich mit Typologien auseinandergesetzt und Archetypen geschaffen. Sie haben zum Teil auch ganz neue Rituale geschaffen. Viele Klassiker, die wir heute als solche bezeichnen, haben diese Art von Durchsetzungskraft gehabt – manchmal auch durch irre Zufälle –, aber oft bilden sie eine gewisse Grundsätzlichkeit innerhalb eines Genres ab. Und das ist nicht selten einem Designer zu verdanken, der damals vielleicht noch gar nicht Designer genannt wurde.
Renate Menzi: Unsere Ausstellung will daran erinnern, dass es das auch in der Schweizer Designgeschichte gab. Es gab Exportschlager und es gab Produkte wie den Rey-Stuhl, den wir natürlich nicht mehr sehen können, weil wir den in Altersheimen und Mehrzweckhallen zur Genüge gesehen haben. Aber das ist ein genialer Stuhl, der sehr industriell gedacht ist. Uns geht es darum, dass man diese Dinge wieder einmal anschaut und auch wieder das Vertrauen in die Designleistung gewinnt.

Is that really the case? There are companies that export. Renate Menzi For such a comparatively small country, there are a certain number of products that are also successful globally.

Jörg Boner: But think of the Freitag bags. They’re a signature product, by auteur designers who built a company that didn’t exist before. That’s good, but it’s very different to Braun. By contrast, if you look at a company like ABB (formerly Brown Boweri) that could in principle hire designers, then I would say they are (or were) so good and innovative technically or technologically that they don’t need designers to be successful. People rather polemically say that the Italian economy has invented nothing since World War II and that it has survived the last 60 years on the strength of design alone. I think that our economy, our technical production, has functioned over the last 60 years without design.
Simon Husslein: Design academies in Switzerland have the opportunity to help change this. Why do we need hardcore industrial design training courses when there is almost no local demand for these designers? In the mid-European context, such a focus on industry only makes sense in certain countries. And not so much in Switzerland. This is different at ÉCAL, where things are heavily based on the auteur model. Of course some values from classic industrial design are still relevant here. But I would like to see schools training critical thinkers who possess both high levels of expertise and the ability to distinguish between what does and does not matter in design.
Jörg Boner: And what I said about Italy is only half true. Design not only compensated for a lack of innovative force in the technical field, but also began to play a new role. I don’t think design was used just to embellish products in Italy, I think it also made products much more important, more relevant. Simon Husslein That’s absolutely right. The Italians focussed on typologies and created archetypes. In some cases they also created entirely new rituals. Many classics that we now classify as such had this kind of persuasive force – sometimes by serendipity – but they often reflect a certain axiomatic quality within their genre. And in many cases, this can be credited to a designer who may not yet have been known as a designer at the time.
Renate Menzi: Our exhibition will remind visitors that this has also existed in Swiss design history. There have been export hits and there have been products like the Rey chair that we are tired of because we have seen enough of them in retirement homes and multipurpose halls. But it is a brilliant chair with a very industrial concept. What we want is for people to look at these things again and regain some confidence in what design can achieve.

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