Swiss design has long been overshadowed by the country’s engineering prowess. Can a national drive to bring the two cultures together spawn a new era of innovation, asks Laura Snoad
If you line up the icons of Swiss design – the Swiss army knife, the Rex potato peeler and even typeface Helvetica – they are not the work of loudly celebrated designers. Innovative and conceptually rigorous, what they have in common is utility, precision, nifty engineering and ‘Swiss-made’ quality rather than shouty amboyance. But this firm adherence to the modernist concept of quality, coupled with an intrinsically Swiss delight in incremental improvement over ‘expeditious paradigm shifts and the vagaries of public taste’, as Museum für Gestaltung Zürich curator Renate Menzi puts it, means Swiss design has had a bit of an image problem.
So useful are its design innovations, so well integrated into the everyday, that from the outside its reputation can feel, well, a little dull.
Footsteps of Le Corbusier, Yves Béhar et al
Part of this ambivalence towards fanfare, says Nicole Chebeir Ragy, the curator of Geneva’s NOV Gallery, which champions and sells work by emerging Swiss designers, is cultural. ‘Switzerland has such a strong history in design but it’s not necessarily put forward – or recognised – internationally because we tend to be a very discreet nation,’ she says. ‘That discretion is part of our DNA.’ Understandable then, why your most famous offspring – Le Corbusier, Yves Béhar and even Vitra – may have sought notoriety elsewhere.
But, partly out of necessity, the culture of modesty is coming to an end. The strength of the Swiss franc (no longer pegged to the euro and booming as a safe haven currency post-recession) has decreased the competitiveness of Swiss exports and caused a considerable slow in the growth of the country’s GDP. All hands are on deck to promote the idea of ‘Swiss designed’, hyping its principles of quality and invention abroad and encouraging a better understanding of design thinking at home, in a culture dominated by engineering.
‘Switzerland has one of the strongest innovation scenes,’ says Andréa Muller of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, ‘and it’s important that this very vivid space opens up to designers, to forge new approaches to problem solving.’
Socially useful products
Of course the idea of Swiss quality – and innovation – is nothing new. By the 19th century a reputation for precision had catapulted watchmaking (born in the Jura region two centuries before) to the country’s second biggest export. And by the 20th century the idea of ‘die Gute Form’ had been engrained in the country’s psyche.
A term coined by the Swiss architect, sculptor and designer Max Bill and propagated by a national exhibition of the same name in 1949, Gute Form hinged on developing (often socially useful) products with a strong harmony between form and function. Just as for Hannes Mayer (a Basel-born radical functionalist who was director of the Dessau Bauhaus during Bill’s studies there), engineering was integral to Bill’s vision, believing then – like now – that design could create a new society in collaboration with science and engineering.
Browse the gallery above for some of the best examples of contemporary Swiss design.