Swiss industrial design has for decades been recognized for its robust functionality and simple elegance. But the playfulness and imagination of a new generation of designers is leading to a fresh outlook on Swiss design.

Atelier Oï, Danseuses, 2009 , Polyester and metal, variable dimensions, edition of 25, photo atelier oï and gallery mitterand

Article published on 30 September 2012 by in the following languages:
Swiss design moves from functional to fun
Design: weg vom Funktionalen, hin zum Spass
Design suisse: du fonctionnel à l’imagination
Da funzionale il design svizzero si fa divertente
Objetos con ingenio suizo
El diseño suizo pasa de funcional a divertido
Design suíço troca praticidade por estilo
التصاميم السويسرية.. من القيمة الوظيفية إلى الإبداع الخيالي

Publication was accompanied by an audio interview:
Tales of form and functions
Find out what’s special about Swiss industrial design:

“Design can no longer be defined according to national characteristics,” Patrick Reymond, one of the founding partners of Atelier Oï, a leading Swiss design agency with an international following, told me. In addition, Reymond has chaired the Swiss Federal Design Commission since 2008.

“Designers today must think on an international scale,” he said, stressing how this is particularly true for Swiss designers who work for too small a market in their own country.

The result, according to Reymond, is that Swiss industrial design has evolved radically, shedding its functional identity in favour of a more imaginative approach shared by designers abroad, one that also “calls upon emotions and that can tell a story”.

On the other hand, what continues to set Swiss design apart, he said, is the closeness of designers with the production process of their own designs. “We are involved in all the stages of the manufacturing, which allows for greater attention to detail, and occasionally, to adjustments in the design.”

Reymond believes that the continued quality craftsmanship of Swiss design reflects the agrarian roots of its people: “We like to think with our hands,” he said.

This in turns leads to the investigation of new materials and their potential. Atelier OÏ, for instance, is constantly expanding its materials library.

“We learn a lot simply by working with new materials,” he said, pointing out that the second co-founder of the company, Armand Louis was in fact originally a naval constructor. The third, Aurel Aebi, trained as an architect, as did Reymond.

Because the needs of clients have expanded, the role of designers has as well, Reymond said: “We are often called upon to stage environments or orchestrate events.”

A greater degree of collaboration between different disciplines, for example architecture or graphic design, has therefore become the norm, a particular advantage in a country as small as Switzerland, he highlighted.

He dates the pluridisciplinary approach in design to the Italian architect, Alberto Sartoris. Sartoris, who lived and taught in Lausanne, defended the concept that an object must be designed in response to the space that it will occupy.

Chantal Prod’Hom, who directs mudac, Lausanne’s design museum, agrees that the blurring of frontiers between disciplines extends to national identities as well.

Swiss industrial design used to be characterized by minimalism, she said, which was in direct relation to Switzerland’s industrial rigorousness and remarkable ability to miniaturize. In fact, many iconic objects, such as the Rex vegetable peeler or Swiss army knife, grew anonymously out of the industrial process.

The right questions
Proh’Hom confirms that increased exchanges between designers from different countries has now released a story-telling approach in younger designers.

“Design is a great way to keep asking the right questions,” she said, which is why she has positioned mudac firmly on the scene of contemporary design.

This approach differs from that of the mudac’s sister museum in Zurich, the Museum für gestaltung, dedicated to a more historiographic line on design.

The differences between these two institutions can be said to amusingly summarize the different approaches to design in the regions in which they are based, one forward looking and the other still impregnated with the past.

Patrica Crivelli heads the department of design promotion at the Swiss Federal Department of Culture. For the past 15 years, she has had a bird’s eye view of the situation in Switzerland.

She pointed out that the simple elegance for which Swiss design was known was about “finding answers to problems in simple ways.” In the German-speaking part of the country, designers continue to be influenced by the industrial design of the fifties, one that Crivelli describes as “straightforward” (see names below).

Designers in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, on the other hand, are “more open and playful,” she suggested. “Borders are now open and the cross-fertilization with international designers has infused imagination into Swiss design.”

Playful new generation
With ECAL, the Lausanne University of Art and Design, first under the stewardship of the magnetic, but somewhat imperious Pierre Keller, and now with the talented and urbane Alexis Georgacopoulos, a whole generation of designers “is getting a fresh start”, according to Crivelli.

“They don’t take themselves too seriously,” she expanded.

Asked how the manufacturing industry has responded to their avowed playfulness, she cited the example of furniture manufacturer Pfister, who sponsors a programme of New Swiss Design that edits funky furniture and textiles and that sells well,

She also mentioned the Swiss Design Prize, sponsored by Swiss manufacturers, that acts as a production springboard for young designers. It is useful leverage to the government-sponsored Swiss Federal Design Award that she organizes.

“Design is Switzerland is little by little becoming a motor to success,” declared Patrick Reymond, citing the examples of good design ideas, like tarpaulin bags by Freitag and sports luxury watches by Hublot, that have actually fuelled the creation of companies.

“The next step is that we must become better known and increase our visibilty,” he said, adding that the presence of four different cultures within a same country – and the particular dynamics that it creates – can be an advantage when learning to export.

“We have the ability in Switzerland to follow an idea right through from beginning to end. That is our greatest strength,” he concluded.

Swiss design prizes

–      The Swiss Federal Design Award organized by the Federal Department of Culture (BAK) awards 18 prizes of Sfr, 25’000 each year. Scholarships for six-month studio residencies in New York and Amsterdam are also offered.

–      Design Preis Schweiz, sponsored every two years in Langenthal (the next one is in 2013) by the manufacturing industry, sees its role as encouraging “adventurous ideas” in fashion, product, textile, interior and furniture design.

Swiss design museums

–      mudac in Lausanne (Design and Contemporary Applied Arts Museum)

–      Museum für gestaltung Zürich (Museum of Design Zurich) will present an exhibition on “100 years of Swiss design” in 2013 which will showcase many pieces by the iconic designers listed below.

Swiss design schools

–      Basel School of Design (Schule für Gestaltung Basel) specializes in visual communication, particularly in graphic design.

–      Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD) combines fine and applied arts and offers media design at the Masters level.

–      Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL) is an internationally renowned university of art and design which ranks regularly among the 10 best performing institutions in the world. It attracts high caliber professors and now offers a Master of Advanced Studies In Luxury Industry And Design. The EPFL+ECAL Lab on its premises fosters innovation at the crossroads of technology, design and architecture.

–      Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) is one of the Europe’s largest arts universities established by merging the School of Art and Design Zurich (HGKZ) and the Zurich School of Music, Drama and Dance (HMT). It houses the Swiss artists in labs programme designed to promote collaborations between art and science.

Iconic Swiss designers from the 40s, 50s and 60s, darlings of the vintage world today

–      Max Bill was the design grandee, architect and artist whose geometric clarity of design continues to influence designers today.

–      Jürg Bally: best known for his three-legged table adjustable to 7 heights.

–      Susi and Ueli Berger: best known for their Wolkenlampe (cloud lamp) and the Schubladenstapel, stacked drawers with a rosewood veneer

–      Hans Coray: best known for his perforated stackable Landi chair.

–      Will Guhl: best known for his Loop chair and Eternit garden furniture.

–      Jacob Müller: best known for his “Plio” stool with uplifted corners.

–      Kurt Thut: best known for his folding screen and Shears bed.

Armin Hofmann and Joseph Müller-Brockmann contributed to the renowned “Swiss international style” in typography and graphic design. Hofmann’s Graphic Design Manual remains a reference book for all graphic designers.

Contemporary Swiss industrial designers (selection)

Adrien Rovero – Renens/Lausanne

Alfredo Häberli – Zurich

Atelier Oï – Neuville

Big Game – Lausanne

Boris Dennler (Boris Lab) – Fribourg

Frédéric Dedellay – Zurich

Fulguro – Lausanne

Jörg Bonner – Zurich

Lifegoods  – Lausanne

Marc Haldemann  – Aarau

d’Esposito & Gaillard – Lausanne

Moritz Schmid – Zurich

Nicolas Le Moigne – Cheseaux/Lausanne

Sibylle Stoeckli – Lausanne

Celebrity architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have also designed objects.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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