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You have to fight for good ideas

Im Gespräch: Jürg Zumtobel

3/7/2016
Now almost 80 years old, Jürg Zumtobel, who originally studied radio engineering, joined the family company back in 1963. Photo © Zumtobel Group

Jürg Zumtobel is aware of the fascination his stories often have for other people. Whatever he relates, be it from the world of business or architecture, his personal experiences or technical developments, his stories provide fascinating insights into the construction industry, the lighting industry, and into contemporary events as a whole. What is more, he enjoys refining his stories and anecdotes with a portion of humor and a touch of authority. Now almost 80 years old, Jürg Zumtobel, who originally studied radio engineering, joined the family company back in 1963. In 1991, he became Chairman of the Board and had a habit of pursuing policies his colleagues initially ridiculed but later had to concede were pioneering strategic decisions. One such startling idea concerned annual reports, previously drawn up for internal purposes only. Zumtobel decided to commission renowned architects, designers and artists to design artistic annual reports specifically for the public domain.

Adeline Seidel: Mr Zumtobel, do you actually like annual reports? Or would you prefer to initiate and publish art books?

Jürg Zumtobel: No, I have no desire to do art books, that is a completely different business. (laughs) But I have to backtrack quite a way to explain how our annual reports came about. Zumtobel was founded by my father in 1950. He was an engineer with a feel for technology through and through, and unlike many people today still had a very positive attitude to progress as the product of constant technological innovation. In the 1980s, the lighting business became considerably more complex and we began to realize it was no longer enough to simply focus on innovation and deliver good product design. The emphasis was no longer just on the product but on light itself – and this meant our target group changed accordingly. After all, architects are the only people who truly take a universalist and holistic outlook. They have a very wide range of interests encompassing aestheticism, structural engineering, social aspects, adapting a building to the environment, and so on. And we not only offer architects a product, but also a solution for their ideas and concepts. Hmm! This shift in emphasis prompted us to alter our own strategy, no longer focusing solely on technology and innovation, but on light per se. And we also decided to adapt the design of our annual reports to better reflect this change in mindset. The editor of an architecture magazine, Otto Riewoldt, gave us some very far-sighted advice back then. He later joined the Zumtobel Group, working in communication and marketing.

The Annual Report 2014/15: "Extraordinary Ideas" - designed by James Turrell. Photo © Zumtobel Group.

So is the annual report more of a marketing instrument for you than it is a personal passion?

Jürg Zumtobel: It is both. For one thing any type of marketing instrument – and that goes for any product – expresses a certain passion. I am personally very interested in architecture and culture, and for me everything that is connected with aesthetics and attractive architecture is of decisive importance for Zumtobel.

Do you collect art yourself?

Jürg Zumtobel: Yes, I collect art, too. And like everyone who has no special training in art, say as an art historian or curator, I simply collect what I like because I want to surround myself with works that I can live with.

Do the annual reports have their own separate shelf?

Jürg Zumtobel: No, they don’t. They stand where I feel that they fit best, in other words among all sorts of other books on art and architecture. But I am probably the only person who has kept copies of all the annual reports. (laughs)

The work of Turrell gets, of course, a special attention. Photo © Zumtobel Group.

The list of people you have commissioned down through the years to design your annual reports is as long as it is varied, and includes the likes of David Chipperfield, Bruce Mau, Olafur Eliasson, Hani Rashid, Stefan Sagmeister, Sanaa, Snøhetta and Gerhard Merz or James Turrell, to name but a few. How do you decide who to approach next?

Jürg Zumtobel: Well, I have known James Turrell for a long time, basically since seeing an exhibition of his in Kunsthaus Bregenz almost 20 years ago. And we both love flying. Or rather I loved flying. When you have a professional pilot’s license like I did, 65 is the end of the road, unfortunately. Hmm. To turn briefly to how we select people and what influences our choice: Architecture is incredibly complex and architects themselves are people with a diverse range of interests such as art, graphic design, photography, and, of course, architecture. And we want all those aspects to be represented in the reports and for them to look attractive. After all, books like this only make sense if you look at them, thumb through them and read them. We collaborated with graphic designer and artist Mikhail Anikst for the first report we did covering business 1991-2. He comes from a background in Constructivist Russian painting and we simply found his work very exciting. Each year we draw up a short list of offices or people from different professions whom we find interesting. Often we have already worked with them and know them well from the joint projects – and then we just decide.

Was it a given that the tradition of artistic annual reports be continued under the CEO Ulrich Schumacher?

Jürg Zumtobel: Well, for one thing, this kind of report is now inextricably linked with the company, meaning it would be hard to imagine the firm without them. Moreover, CEOs tend to think in entrepreneurial terms. They are aware of the value such reports have for the firm. After all, the reports do an excellent job in enhancing our brand image. And we have always succeeded in persuading people within the firm that this kind of report is important. Believe me: You have to fight for good ideas, they are not always simply accepted! Basically tenacity and continuity are the two most important principles. You have to stick with it.

Is the elaborate design intended to distract people’s attention from the figures?

Jürg Zumtobel: (laughs) Ms. Seidel, in addition to the annual report we also have a financial report and that is destined specifically for people interested solely in figures. We present ourselves through our annual report, it shows our network, our friends, and we involve them in it, too.

Of all the reports you have produced is there one you particularly like?

Jürg Zumtobel: Now that’s a tough question. Variety is the spice of life, after all. So I can’t really say I have a favorite report. I just love the concept!

The annual reports of Zumtobel are comparable to high quality art books. Photo © Zumtobel Group
"Flowers in the light" was the title of the Annual Report 2001/02, designed by Stefan Sagmeister. Photo © Zumtobel Group
Annual Report 2001/02, designed by Stefan Sagmeister. Photo © Zumtobel Group
Annual Report 2001/02, designed by Stefan Sagmeister. Photo © Zumtobel Group
Olafur Eliasson designed the Annual Report 2007/08, entitled "Life in Space 3". Photo © Zumtobel Group
"Live in Space 3" by Olafur Eliasson. Photo © Zumtobel Group
"Live in Space 3" by Olafur Eliasson. Photo © Zumtobel Group
For the Annual Report 2008/9 Zumtobel committed Francois Roche & Team from the studio R&Sie(n). The architects named the report "Laboratories for light and night".
Photo © Zumtobel Group
"Laboratories for light and night" by R&Sie(n). Photo © Zumtobel Group
"Laboratories for light and night" by R&Sie(n). Photo © Zumtobel Group
Anish Kapoor and Brighten the Corners were responsible for the Annual Report 2011/12. Photo © Zumtobel
The Annual Report 2011/12 of Anish Kapoor and Brighten the Corners. Photo © Zumtobel Group
The Annual Report 2011/12 of Anish Kapoor and Brighten the Corners. Photo © Zumtobel Group
David Chipperfield Architects (DCA) and John Morgan studio, London designed the Annual Report 2012/13. Photo © Zumtobel Group
The architect chose a very functional design. Photo © Zumtobel Group
Jürg Zumtobel and James Turrell have not only the interest in light in common, the both share a passion for flying. Photo © Zumtobel Group
Turrell’s work on Skyspaces began in the 1970s and today there are 75 public sites around the globe. A Skyspace is basically space with seats along the walls and a large aperture in the roof. Photo © Zumtobel Group
Turrell's work in Roden Carter - Alpha Tunnel in Flagstaff USA. Photo © Zumtobel Group

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