Standing within a vast glinting open structure of grids comprising 5,008 small chrome balls and 13,318 chrome tubes, it is impossible not to feel awed by USM’s booth at this year’s edition of Salone del Mobile. It is a powerful demonstration of the endless potential embedded in the brand’s modular design. Made in collaboration with architectural network UNStudio, the installation uses the core components of USM’s Haller furniture system to create a series of intimate spaces that explore the way we live and work. Combining elements that are both playful and absurd (such as working telephones and a golden toilet) the experience contains the unexpected.
We are called upon to physically engage with the installation: to climb stairs, bend under ceilings, listen to sounds, and record our thoughts on mirrors, typewriters and clipboards. Each ‘room’ is labelled with a human quality and a specific question. For example, the bedroom is entitled “empathy” and asks, “What keeps you up at night?” The spaces question what conditions are needed for human qualities to thrive: from collaboration and intuition, to imagination. UNStudio and USM intend to collate the responses to these questions and explore how this data can inform the future of the brand. As President and CEO, Alexander Schärer states, “In a way this is more like decorative play, or the fun part here, the serious work starts the day after tomorrow, after the fair closes.”
USM at Salone del Mobile 2018
It is fitting that USM’s current explorations involve a partnership between engineering and architecture, as Schärer explains, “the product was created between Fritz Haller, an architect and my father, an engineer.” USM began life as a metalworking and locksmith business, founded by Ulrich Schärer in Münsingen, Switzerland in 1885. In 1961, three generations later, Paul Schärer joined the company, steering USM in a new direction that resulted in the brand’s signature furniture design. The story of the company’s early evolution exemplifies the modernist design principles of the era, in which form was to be led by function. Schärer commissioned Haller to design a new flexible factory that could be modified and adapted according to changes in manufacturing processes. Finding no suitable furniture, Schärer and Haller created a new range of modular components specifically for this space. From within this spirit of innovation and adaptation the USM Haller system was born.
The factory still stands in its original location, a light-filled pavilion constructed of steel and large panes of glass that frame dramatic views of the Swiss Alps. Eric Berchtold, Sales Director for the Middle East and Africa, calls the factory a “living showroom.” Indeed the space is a celebration of USM’s modular design. Not only does it showcase the products in action, it also houses every stage of the manufacturing process. A walk through the pavilion reveals precision engineers assembling units by hand, while hidden underground in an area equivalent to the size of over 14 tennis courts, custom-built industrial robots rhythmically and hypnotically produce specialised components.
The Haller System
Ian Weddell, CEO of USM UK, draws an interesting parallel between the origins of the company and the current collaboration with UNStudio, “The product is 53-years-old now and when it was invented all that time ago, it was quite a playful thing really… At that time there was no commercial intent and then it grew, out of this playful idea came this product. So going forward from now, this is the beginning of a journey.” There is no doubt that USM has achieved a certain status due to its classic design: “It’s an iconic piece, people know that we are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. People know that star architects work with our products and therefore it’s like having an Eames chair, it’s like having a Corbusier,” explains Berchtold. What does the future hold for a product with such heritage? USM’s collaboration with UNStudio seeks to explore this question by looking at the role of design now and in the future. Just as USM Haller originated in response to the architecture of its time, USM and UNStudio are responding to a current cultural moment, by exploring patterns of human behaviour and the way in which human qualities might be preserved in an age of digitisation and advancing technology. Ren Yee of UNSFutures states, “We need to find time and technology for us to be human again.”
Recent years have seen USM create new design products such as compressed polyester Privacy Panels, which contain the company’s modular DNA. Haller E launched last year. The design took seven years to develop and enables the existing Haller system to be equipped with light and power. Group Product Development Director, Dr Thomas Dienes explains, “At the end it’s not light, its electrifying a structure without changing the principles and without changing the assembly process.” Dienes is continually working in the background and has already experimented with directing slow digital signals through the modular system. He elaborates, “If we can realise this, the world again is totally open. The furniture maybe is no longer furniture; it can be a sensor for something. It can be a sensor in order to give an impulse to an act of doing something. Fascinating things.” However, Dienes is quick to emphasise that technology should be used to increase “human qualities” and asks, “What does it make sense to control?”
The Haller System
The experimental collaboration between USM and UNStudio presents an opportune moment to celebrate the history of USM and explore its potential evolution. The project looks to the future of the design, by responding to a contemporary context defined by new technologies and a blurring of work and domestic life. As Yee summarises,“It’s architecture, it’s products, interiors, it’s storytelling, it’s relevant future topics as well, all woven into one.” Frame awarded UNStudio and USM Trade-Fair Stand of the Year and Best Use of Material for their presentation entitled HomeWork at this year’s Salone del Mobile. The second stage of the project will be held this summer in Berlin. As part of its partnership with the Swiss Design District in Fuorisalone, USM also presented Light Tree: a collaboration with a-project studio, Laure Krayenbuhl.