Ones to Watch

Swiss Design Insights

Design Miami

Zurich-based creative director Rudolf Schürmann offers an inside look at design in Switzerland and shares his ones-to-watch list

Design Miami/ Basel 2021 opens to the public today, offering an array of historical and contemporary design from around the globe. As we enjoy our time in this charming berg on the Rhine, seeing amazing things and eating delicious sausages, it’s only right to shine a light on Switzerland’s home-grown design culture.

For insider insights, we turned to Zurich-based creative director Rudolf Schürmann, who cofounded Neutral Zurich, dedicated to uplifting brands through strategic alignments with architecture, art, and design since 2001. The roster of major creatives he’s collaborated with over the years is seriously impressive.

“During Design Miami/ 2018,” he mentions, “I visited an inspiring talk about urban design, and an idea came to me: great art should be accessible and potentially owned by everyone.” So he and his partner in Neutral, curator-entrepreneur Michelle Nicol, asked icon Ai Weiwei to design a sculpture that anyone could make themselves, suitable for both indoors and out. He goes on: “Together with one of Europe's largest DIY retailers, Hornbach, we realized a Europe-wide venture. Anyone could buy the material at the store and build the sculpture according to Ai Weiwei's manual. The campaign reached 70 million people.”

We asked Schürmann to scan the Swiss design landscape and tell us who are the ones to watch in Switzerland. Here's what he had to say.

Safety Jackets Zipped the Other Way by Ai Weiwei. Photo © Ai Weiwei | Rudolf Schürmann. Photo © Neutral Zurich

How would you characterize the contemporary design scene in Switzerland?

Brimming and exciting. Thanks to the Swiss design heritage, a strong industrial sector, and world-class art and technical colleges, there is a lot of talent here. And a lot of challenges. Architecture, art, design, fashion, landscape architecture, society, and technology all have an influence on each other more than ever. While transdisciplinarity was still an empty marketing term ten years ago, today it is no longer possible to create meaningful work in the design sector without collaborating. This development is the main driver of the current Swiss design scene. And, crucially, designers have understood that they must construct meaning—purpose—into their objects.

Regal Shelves by Andreas Christen for Lehni. Photo © Lehni

Who are some contemporary Swiss designers that we should all be watching?

I would like to mention 3 generations.

Andreas Christen for Lehni: the old master of minimalism yet still contemporary. His work is reduction to the maximum, produced in high-precision aluminum—quintessentially Swiss-minimalist, on the fine line between soulful and austere. Incidentally, Donald Judd also designed furniture for Lehni. The architecture of the Lehni factory by Ernst Gisel (completed in 1975) is just as timeless and reduced.

Atelier Oï: masters of ceremony. This La Neuveville-based design studio is currently celebrating 30 years of atypical solutions in architecture, urban planning, exhibition design, furniture design, and product design. Their work has a cinematic narrative—see their Breathing Lamps—which is based on a precise technical script. Other specialties: versatility and a unique exploration of innovative materials.

Panter & Tourron: these ECAL-istes are the masters of today’s neo-nomadic life. ECAL, the art school in Lausanne, is one of the world's most innovative talent forges for designers. Stefano Panterotto and Alexis Tourron who founded the eponymous firm are proof. Their TENSE Lounge is designed for a lifestyle that’s on the move. With minimal materials, they create high comfort and full recyclability—a contemporary alternative to upholstered furniture. The chair is nominated for the Swiss Design Award.

Oiphorique (Breathing) by Atelier Oï. Photo © Atelier Oï & Parachilna | TENSE Lounge by Panter&Tourron. Photo © Panter&Tourron

Is there a thread that connects design from Switzerland past and present, from the modernist era to present?

The expression of a minimalist aesthetic—for which Swiss design is so well known—is the common thread. The love of precise technical construction and sophisticated functionality is born out of Swiss pragmatism and modesty intersecting with innovation.

Switzerland has been among the top five in the global innovation rankings for many years. Functional simplicity without banality is the result: the concrete bridges by Robert Maillart; the furniture by Andreas Christen; the National Park Museum by Valerio Olgiati.

How would you define Switzerland's design legacy?

Still influential. Let's think of classic Swiss goodies like typography, book design, poster graphics, or signage: Apple is a global trendsetter when it comes to design, and its corporate typography is strongly influenced by Swiss typefaces like Helvetica, Frutiger, or Univers.

Chäserrugg Summit Restaurant by Herzog & de Meuron, 2015. Photo © Atlas of Places

What is your favorite work of architecture from Switzerland?

The Chäserrugg cable car station and restaurant, a stunning wood construction by Herzog & de Meuron. This building stands on the mountain top in absolute solitude. People look forward to arriving and contemplating the architecture without filters. This is an effective education in quality architecture for everybody with a respectful attitude towards the environment.

In 2019-2020, Museum für Gestaltung Zürich hosted an exhibiton dedicated to the design achievements of the Swiss rail system. Photo © Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

What is your favorite work of furniture design from Switzerland?

The aluminium bookshelf by Andreas Christen for Lehni: sturdy, light, timeless. Beautiful in almost every context.

What is your favorite work of graphic design from Switzerland and why?

The identity and signaletics system of the SBB, the Swiss railways. It's so functional, practical, and convenient that you no longer notice it. ◆