Alexander Schärer – Necessity-Driven Solution Becomes a Design Classic



Located at the foot of the famous Eiger and Jungfrau mountains, USM Haller has been producing modular furniture for offices around the globe for over half a century. It is a versatile shelving and storage system that consists of colored metal insert panels, chrome tubes, and chrome ball joints – and it is a master at adapting to the continual changes of a modern lifestyle.

Hundreds of bright chrome ball joints in a plain plastic box compete to outshine each other. With a diameter of only 25mm, each is pierced by six threaded holes and reflects the overhead lights, much like brilliant little stars. Every little ball resembles a gleaming jewel – and rightly so. After all, they are the linchpins that hold together the heavy steel panels and chrome tubes – the masterstroke that allows a Swiss company to employ some 400 people worldwide. And they are the key element of one of the best-known furniture systems in the history of design.

USM Möbelbausystem Haller, or simply USM Haller, is a modular shelving and storage system that can be adapted seamlessly to changing needs and lifestyles, and extended almost endlessly where required. Consisting of chrome tubes, colored metal insert panels, and the remarkable chrome ball joints, the versatile modular furniture can easily be converted from, say, a sideboard to a bookshelf. It can be fitted under sloped ceilings or serve as a room divider in overly large spaces. And, should an element ever be damaged, it can easily be replaced.

A place in New York’s MoMA

Thanks to its flexibility and durability, USM Haller was awarded a place in the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2001. With its admittance to this sterling collection, the modular furniture took its rightful place in the annals of design history – despite its necessity-driven origins.

In 1961, Paul Schärer joined the company his grandfather had founded in 1885: an erstwhile locksmith’s shop with an attached hardware store that had most recently specialized in metal window fittings. The company was expanding so rapidly that it was in urgent need of larger premises. Schärer hired architect Fritz Haller to build the new production site in Münsingen, a small town some 15 minutes away from Bern. Haller designed a functional steel construction frame that could be extended at will and thus grow with the company.

Schärer and Haller couldn’t find any furniture to match the airiness of the construction. So they built it themselves.

“At the time, my father and Fritz Haller couldn’t find any furniture that matched the airiness of the construction. So they built it themselves,” Alexander Schärer tells us. “Architecture was less constricted back then.” Schärer’s desk stands at one end of an extensive open-plan office that takes up about a third of the huge hall. Production takes place under the same roof, and the factory premises are separated from the offices by a simple modular steel-glass wall. The outer walls of the hall are made entirely out of glass and reveal green meadows and a vista of the Bernese Alps featuring the peaks of the Eiger and the Jungfrau. The iconic modular furniture is distributed across the office division in an almost playful manner and apparently rearranged regularly. “The filing cabinets are so sturdy that they can be moved with the files inside them,” the CEO tells us proudly.

Headquarters that outshine any showroom

No showroom could demonstrate the versatile design classic’s advantages better than here in the brand’s headquarters, with its ever-changing workspaces.
And so all the reps and brand dealers are invited regularly to the headquarters, where company philosophy, quality demands, and the flexibility of the products are best displayed. How important this can be is demonstrated by an anecdote Alexander Schärer shares with us: “After patenting the product in 1965, the trade media in the USA wrote about us. One of these articles fell into the hands of Baroness Rothschild, who at the time was looking for something new for her bank in Paris. She came, she saw, and she ordered on a large scale. That was in 1969. Had some small Swiss bank ordered USM Haller, it’s possible that nobody would have ever heard of us.”

This major order and the furniture’s subsequent presentation in the Parisian private bank put the modular invention from the small town of Münsingen on the map in one fell swoop. Many other enterprises, including airlines, universities, and public administrations began furnishing their offices with USM Haller. Today, the modular system can be found both in a hospital in Nagoya, Japan and at the St. Tropez yacht club. And although commercial usage makes up two thirds of the turnover, the share of orders destined for domestic living space is steadily on the rise. This is largely due to the efforts of current USM director Alexander Schärer, who joined the family company in 1993 and took on the difficult task of making the 50-year-old design classic fit for the future.

The only thing that has never been changed is the ball joint

“Other than the ball joint, we have changed every part of the system at least once if not more often,” Schärer tells us. “At first everything was hand-made, but today’s production is almost fully automated. We now use a second generation of steel panels. And the doors were added at a later stage, too. In fact, the new door hinges are completely different from the old ones. And yet we guarantee that all the new pieces also fit with the old system.” At USM Haller they refer to this tight-rope-walk between new and old as “backwards compatibility.” As the furniture is virtually indestructible, nobody at Münsingen is surprised when customers want to extend their existing piece of furniture decades after their initial purchase. “Many of our clients originally bought their furniture in the seventies and are now ordering new pieces, 40 years later.

Alexander Schärer’s answers are detailed and precise; he clearly knows his product intimately. In fact, he was literally raised with the modular furniture system: USM Haller and Paul Schärer’s eldest son, Alexander, were born in the same year.

If you place a work of art on a USM Haller unit, you see the art and not the furniture.

Young Alexander learned to walk pushing around an USM Haller caddy on wheels, and his career choice to become an engineer fit in well with the technical orientation of a company that places function over design. “From a visual point of view, my father and Fritz Haller attempted to reduce everything as far as they could. This automatically resulted in a minimalistic style. If you place a work of art on a USM Haller unit, you see the art and not the furniture.”

Now fifty-one years old, the current Chairman of the Board is quiet and reserved. Boasting about the family company’s achievements is clearly not his style. Instead, he professes surprise at how well the brand is known and how high the resale value of the furniture is. The other products of the house, such as the USM Kitos tables, the USM Inos boxes, or the 2016 launched USM Privacy Panels that reduce visibility and noise contribute only insignificantly to the turnover, and their main purpose is to enhance the original product. He also readily confirms that the average order amount is less than 2,000 euros.

And yet, at USM Haller, 2,000 euros hardly buys much more than a low board with a metal divider, a drop-down door, and a little side table. It is no secret that the design classic “Made in Switzerland” comes at a price. And that is the way it will remain.

Production in Switzerland is also a question of sustainability.

Relocating production to a low-wage country has never been a consideration. Instead, in 2013, Schärer invested several million Swiss francs in a new powder-coating facility. Equally, the steel that USM Haller uses is still sourced in Germany, and every single, newly produced element is controlled by an employee. The final assembly is done to a large extent by hand.

“Production in Switzerland is also a form of sustainability,” says the CEO, pushing a strand of hair from his broad forehead. “Steel furniture lasts for generations and our products easily adapt to any new demands in the workplace.” New trends such as telework, shared workspaces, efficient space management, increased mobility, high demands on ergonomics, and employee wellness in the office are topics that are tracked and analyzed closely in Münsingen. The future of the workplace dictates the future of the Swiss enterprise because USM Haller continues to be associated mainly with office furnishings. Yet good design is timeless, and the modular versatility of the system and its legal recognition as “applied art” – which brings long-term copyright benefits – are all factors that underpin USM Haller’s place in the furniture market of the future. And they are factors that will help Alexander Schärer manage his design classic for the next 50 years.

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