Swiss furniture takes coveted place in New York

The classic lines of USM furniture are not going to change

A classic 1960s design has helped a Swiss office furniture company to gain recognition at New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

This content was published on March 23, 2002 minutes

A product line of the USM modular furniture company, based in Münsingen near Bern, has been formally accepted by the museum's Architecture and Design collection.

The design in question - the Haller system - has been manufactured for nearly 40 years and has maintained its original form by using three basic steel and chrome components: a sphere, connecting tubes and panels.

New depth

"This is an important and critical distinction for our company," said USM's chief executive officer, Alex Schärer. "For USM's Haller system to be in such esteemed company brings a new depth and definition to our products."

"This is a classic. I think it is comparable to other products in MoMA like the chairs of Le Corbusier, for example, and it's one of the peculiarities of classics that they are so touching to everybody that the more you leave the original alone, the better it stays," Schärer told swissinfo.

Paul Schärer, grandson of USM's founder Ulrich Scharer created the Haller system with Swiss architect Fritz Haller. It was based on the modular architecture of the USM factory building, which Fritz Haller designed in 1963.

The system met USM's needs for flexibility and supported the company's then revolutionary non-hierarchical, open-plan office concept.

Design quality

"I think what is special is that even after 30 years everybody would really recognise the design quality of the furniture. In the 1960s there was no part in the furniture that was actually not necessary for its use," Alex Schärer told swissinfo.

"This makes the design so strict, so sleek in a way and so valuable if you look back," he added.

The Haller system has been installed in offices, as well as private houses, around the world and one of its strengths is that it can be adapted to suit changing times and needs.

Mixing old and new

"Companies can take the components they have, maybe buy some new elements, mix the old and new together and create a completely different environment for their offices," Schärer explained.

USM, whose name comes from Ulrich Schärer Münsingen, is now planning to expand its US operation with a new flagship showroom and headquarters in SoHo, New York, due to open at the end of April.

The investment is about SFr5 million ($2.95 million), which is roughly the same amount of annual turnover USM has in the US at present. The company has total annual sales approaching SFr200 million and a staff of 400.

Asked whether the recognition by MoMA will add to sales figures, Alex Schärer is cautious.

Long-term thinking

"There's always an indirect link but people won't select a product because it's in a museum. But the fact that the furniture was developed 30 years ago and is still up to date right now is a selling argument, particularly for companies that have long-term thinking, so indirectly it could create some sales," he said.

The company tries to take a personal approach with regard to employees. "We're a family company so we consider every member of our company as a family's very important for the development of the company," Schärer said.

USM also told swissinfo that it acts seriously when it comes to the environment. "There's no company that can produce without energy but we try to use it in as responsible way as we can," Schärer explained.

"We don't produce any waste and all our products are 100 per cent recyclable. They are in service on average twice as long as normal office furniture so the actual use of natural resource per work station is about half of a traditional office programme," he added.

by Robert Brookes

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