Creating this overview also constitutes an attempt to conclude this difficult period of transition and to open up future perspectives. This is the impression gained by those who consider in detail the current exhibition "Hannes Wettstein, 1958-2008" at the ETH Zurich and the accompanying catalog raisonné – which depending on the perspective invoke quite different images.
The studio was able to address the question of how to continue together with Hannes Wettstein, who had been diagnosed with cancer, before his death. In 2007 he made architect Stephan Hürlemann, who had been managing operations since 2003, partner and joint proprietor of his company, which he at that point renamed Hannes Wettstein AG. Wettstein was instrumental in shaping his team's work, determining the path they took and having the final say on how things should be done. One could sense his presence down to the smallest detail. That he would not be there forever was something that his employees were already forced to come to terms with during his illness. Everyone pulled together to get through the difficult time before and after his death. Today, Stephan Hürlemann, Britta Herold and Simon Husslein share responsibility for the management of the business, while a few colleagues have now left the studio and set up on their own. There are now 18 people working in the studio, which was represented by eight furniture projects at this year's Salone del Mobile alone.
The challenging task of working with Hannes Wettstein's legacy has placed a multitude of burdens on the team. Not in terms of ideas – they are continuing his work in day-to-day practice and the studio's name. But considered in practical terms: What is to happen to the work that came to an end with Hannes Wettstein's death? How is his legacy to be organized alongside the daily business and without support from a public collection or private foundation? Where are all of the materials left behind by such a rich oeuvre to go? How can they strike the right balance between interest in the artist and classification of the works? And above all, the urgent question remains: How is an oeuvre to be appraised and cataloged which is only now being public received?
Before his untimely death in the summer of 2008, Hannes Wettstein had a good quarter-century of creative productivity behind him. Wettstein, who did not leave behind a well-ordered archive, preferred to orient himself on new things rather than ordering his works retrospectively. 347 defined projects have now found their way into the catalog raisonné – though there were surely many more. This preparatory work was necessary in order to conform to the request to coordinate an exhibition on his work. This request did after all come from high places, namely the ETH Zurich's Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture. Wettstein formally trained as a draftsman and then taught himself design. He went on to lecture in the ETH Zurich Architecture department from 1991 through 1996, teaching "Technical Interior Design", which he readily and permanently renamed "Design and Construction in Interior Design". He pushed for a critical examination of interior spaces and as his student Stephan Hürlemann recalls, he "stuck out like a sore thumb, was chaotic, irritated, fascinating. Someone who makes clocks and chairs but is an architect at the same time, that is what made him so intriguing."
And so, for the first time the Institute has dedicated an exhibition in the ETH Zurich's main hall not to building construction, but to design. But how to arrange such an exhibition? Simon Husslein believes in grand gestures. A white carpet lines the hall, leading up at one end to the second gallery. On this soft platform he presents, atop brightly-lit glass plinths and on interspersed screens, a selection of 44 projects – the highlights, from the "Snodo" luminaire for Belux, which immediately proved to be a great success for the then 22-year-old designer, to the thousand-fold imitated "Metro" lighting system, from the "Juliette" chair to bicycles for Est, pens for Lamy, watches for Ventura and Nomos to work on the Grand Hyatt in Berlin. Projections of hundreds of enlarged sketches float across the walls, displaying how the assiduous illustrator developed and reviewed his ideas. This glistening, strictly sequenced arrangement conveys an exaggerated astringency, and not every object profits from conservation in a glass container. This impression is however countered by the most interesting exhibit in the showcase: Hannes Wettstein's desk, upon which there is a collection of devices, machines, found objects and rather kitsch pieces, which inspired the passionate collector in his own designs.
We also get this feeling we are looking over the shoulder of an inspired and inspiring designer from the catalog raisonné, published to accompany the exhibition by Lars Müller Publishers. "Seeking Archetypes" brings together the outcomes of Hannes Wettstein's tireless search for the core of things. The sheer abundance corresponds to the book's design concept, which uses visual material to lead us through his work, skillfully interlaced over 130 pages. These are illustrations originating from the initial design period, resulting in effortless contextualization: Images of products that speak the visual language of the late 1980s through to the 2000s, sketches, construction drawings, portraits, editorial pages. Sprinkled in amongst these images, quotations from Wettstein that express the designer's stance in a nutshell lose their apodictic effect. We recall his quiet, warm voice, his far-reaching method of argumentation. Many, in part very personal recollections from a number of people who knew Hannes Wettstein – whether professionally or privately, closely or more remotely – paint a picture of a deeply passionate person. Above all, we get the impression that he incessantly contemplated things and shared this knowledge. The extent of such knowledge is illustrated by the catalog raisonné, which is definitely worth a browse and contains many a surprise.
The openness to be found in the works is conveyed more effectively in the book than in the exhibition itself. An openness because it cannot be traced back to a style, but to a stance held by the designer, who as he himself emphasized had a great interest in the essence of things. It remains to be seen what direction the reception of his work will take. But the first step has been made. For the staff at Studio Hannes Wettstein one thing is certain: "The search continues", as is stated on the final page of the book. They are certainly well-equipped to take on such a task.
Hannes Wettstein, 1958-2008
From October 7 to November 3, 2011
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich)
Publication accompanying the exhibition:
Hannes Wettstein Seeking Archetypes
Edited by Studio Hannes Wettstein
Hardcover, 292 pages, German/English/Italian
Lars Müller, Baden, 2011