Modern Systems
BY Jörg Stürzebecher | Oct 30, 2012

Product design from Switzerland has now spread across the globe, associated at least from an outsider’s perspective with everyday design: the train station clock recently revived by Apple, the potato peeler, or the master of all combination tools, the Swiss Army Knife, to name but a few examples. The latter deserves a special mention here by dint of its impressive alignment of life, work and recreation in its various components; they didn’t just think of a screwdriver but a corkscrew too. Swiss design: this doesn’t imply anything extravagant but great precision, quality and durability, longevity, values that are even applied to products made from recycled materials such as the bags and containers in the “Freitag” product range”. For years now, these qualities have been bundled under the label “Swissness”, also used to describe the font “Helvetica” or the typographic grid.

One of the most successful products to be awarded the accolade of “Swissness” is the furniture system by Münsingen-based steel smiths USM, developed since 1962 by the architect Fritz Haller, who passed away on October 15. The term USM Haller denotes a standard akin to the Eames aluminum chairs, a quality that competitors may succeed in matching but will never surpass. From Zurich to Toyko, USM Haller is omnipresent, financial service providers employ the systems on a large scale as do architectural firms, galleries use it to present their catalogs and since the beginning of the 1990s it can also be found in the private, residential sphere; allowing for a further comparison with the Eames chairs by dint of its numerous applications.

The system’s success hinges upon Fritz Haller’s (1924 - 2012) triumphant combination of possibilities for manufacture afforded by industry with Modernist concepts on aesthetics to create an integrative entity. Spherical connecting elements, steel tubes and suspended surfaces all adhere to Kandinsky’s dictum “point and line to plane”, while the system’s compliance with the membri e ossa (skin and bones) construction principle is a nod to Modernist architecture by Mies van der Rohe. Furthermore, industrial, state-of-the-art production techniques give rise to mass production and thus unlimited extension options and at the same time forge a connection to Swiss constructive and concrete art, as seen in exemplary models by Richard Paul Lohse. From a technical standpoint, Fritz Haller took his cue from Richard Buckminster Fuller’s buckyball and similar concepts by Konrad Wachsmann, as well as the Mero system by Max Mengeringhausen, convincingly integrating their engineering prowess into the genre of a harmonious industrial aesthetic. In terms of function, by separating membri from ossa, he improved on the idea of disbanding set conceptions of furniture such as cupboard, shelf or sideboard (a well-known concept since Hans Gugelot’s M 125) in favor of bearing-loading and open-closed components assembled according to a building block principle.

It bears mentioning that this major engineering achievement could in fact be considered something of a by-product. After all, Fritz Haller was actually an architect with a career that stretched from 1949 to 1962 and often involved collaborative work with his father. He focused chiefly on school buildings, whereby he treated one-off buildings as test-runs to eventually be made in series. These buildings provided an alternative to the reinforced concrete aesthetic that emanated from Le Corbusier’s work, which had a sustained influence on Modernism in Switzerland and was favored for the design of sculptural buildings. They are indicative of prefabrication and modularity – characteristics that could be counted among the hallmarks of the so-called Solothurn School (as it was dubbed post 1969), where alongside Alfons Barth, Franz Füeg, Max Schlup and Hans Zaugg, Fritz Haller was perhaps assigned something like the role of a primus inter pares.

In 1961, Fritz Haller then arrived at what was to be the central theme of his creative career – expandable modular systems in the fields of architecture and furniture. Münsingen-based metal processor, Schärer, had commissioned him to design their new production facility, the components for which would be manufactured in the company’s own workshops. The commission gave rise to the “Maxi” modular system, to be followed by the smaller “Mini” and Midi” systems. Then new furniture was needed for the administrative wing and USM Haller was born. Initially produced exclusively for in-house use, the system experienced a breakthrough in 1969 with the contract to furnish Bank Rotschild in Paris. In 1988 a German court finally confirmed the system’s consideration as a work of art, a designation that very few design products can lay claim to.

Beyond this, Fritz Haller also worked as an author and teacher. In 1968 he published “Totale Stadt”, outlining an ideal type for a carefully planned urban system. Moreover, he also worked on networking models and in his capacity as a professor in Karlruhe on environmental forecasting for outer space. In spring of this year, the ETH Zurich (which now holds his estate) held a symposium in tribute to the architect. Following major exhibitions in Solothurn, Munich and Zurich at the end of the 1980s, the event’s clear focus on the diversity of his ideas and achievements was certainly impressive; and now, the exhibition on product design in Switzerland to be held in the Museum of Design Zurich in 2013 will soon provide another extensive appraisal of his life’s work.