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Modular Values

The innovative capacity of furniture manufacturer USM is explored in a series of collaborations with architects, reports Lynda Relph-Knight

There is an undeniable symbiosis between architecture and the design of furniture. Both architects and furniture manufacturers share a belief in achieving excellence and innovation that confounds fashion to endure, marrying creative vision with technical expertise. Classic furniture ranges invariably take their cue from the exploration of the possibilities of new materials and production processes. Successful designs exude new thinking that challenges existing perceptions, while creating a timeless aesthetic that suits different functions and environments. The architect distils the essence of form, function and aesthetics inherent in the materials and processes to create designs the manufacturer can translate into a marketable reality. The relationship centres on mutual respect and true collaboration.

This collaborative approach underpins the USM Modular Furniture Haller system. A renowned classic, the system’s origins lay in the synergy between Swiss architect Fritz Haller and Paul Schaerer, grandson of USM founder Ulrich Schaerer, when they met in the early 1960s. Indeed, their collaboration started with a building − USM’s factory and offices at Münsingen in Switzerland. Schaerer was intent on transforming his family business from a largely manual metal production plant making window frames and other products to a modern industrial concern. To this end, he engaged Haller in 1961. Dialogue over the Modernist complex led to the idea of a flexible storage system using USM’s expertise. Though originally conceived for use in the USM building, the USM Haller system went into production in 1963.

The USM Haller system, adapted now for desks and seating alongside the original storage, has been a popular choice for architects and designers for more than 50 years. That it is still specified in a range of contemporary projects bears witness to the dynamism and foresight of that partnership between Haller and Schaerer. What appeals to architects in particular is the well-crafted, flexible design that, thanks to the ingenious ball connector, permits varied configurations while retaining a clean, consistent aesthetic.


Modular units in the museum shop at the new Louvre in Lens reflect the building’s crisp contemporary aesthetic

A definitive aspect of Haller’s work − in architecture and furniture − was his use of square modules to generate form: a sort of sophisticated building block system. Moving fluidly between the fields of art, technology and science, Haller based his work on three systems: the ‘mini’ for private houses and offices; ‘midi’ for taller buildings; and ‘maxi’ for industrial complexes. All three were based on the same basic principle of steel-frame construction but at varying scales. This notion of modular architecture inspired Haller and Schaerer in the design of a flexible storage system for USM’s new headquarters. Haller extended his mini/midi/maxi approach to furniture design, and in doing so created the pioneering USM Haller. Based around a modular kit of parts, with steel tubes, steel panels and a chromium-plated brass ball, USM Haller quickly became a modern design classic. In 2001 the system was included in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Today USM employs some 400 people worldwide with its head office and production still based in Münsingen. Its products are distributed in more than 40 countries with a network of more than 410 sales partners. Showrooms in Berne, Berlin, Stuttgart Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Munich, Paris, Tokyo, New York and soon to be opened in London, reinforce USM’s international presence.

Evolving philosophies, furnishing trends and technical requirements continue to test the ways in which people live, work and shop. The only constant is change, which increasingly demands adaptability. USM Modular Furniture Haller can be customised to fit a particular brief and then subsequently modified quickly and cost-effectively in response to change. Standardised components offer the potential to create a range of forms, from open shelving and storage to functional workstations for different settings, such as offices, shops, museums and, increasingly, in the residential sector. USM products are built to last, which means they impact less on the environment as they are less likely to be replaced over time. Concern about sustainability is also reflected in the company’s responsible approach to energy use, emissions, materials and waste.


Modular cabinets in the museum shop at the Louvre-Lens

Three case studies published here focus on how USM Haller has been used in very different interior settings: France’s new Louvre at Lens; an exhibition space in Musashino Art University in Tokyo; and a beauty salon in Berlin. The projects are diverse and the design objectives differ, yet the installations are united by the principles of modularity and functionality enshrined by Haller and Schaerer more than 50 years ago. Conceived in 2003, Louvre-Lens is a major cultural and political venture that forms part of the planned decentralisation of France’s cultural institutions. The 28,000 sqm building set within a 60-hectare site has given the Louvre an outreach, attracting local visitors and travellers from abroad. Its development is part of the revitalisation of the former industrial region of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Some 10 years in the hatching, the project was the subject of an international competition won by Japanese practice SANAA with Imrey Culbert. Culbert invited SANAA into the competition stage to work on the submission with museographer Celia Imrey. Having beaten five other contenders, SANAA/Imrey Culbert set up a joint office in Paris. Culbert has since established his own studio, Atelier Culbert in New York.


The competition brief prescribed the size of two main galleries, says Culbert. It included exhibition design, landscaping, a multi-use theatre, art storage and offices. A separate restaurant was added later, apart from the main gallery complex, and the architects expanded the size and scope of the galleries, storage, café and other amenities.

The design for Louvre-Lens inverted the principles behind IM Pei’s celebrated Louvre pyramid in Paris, which Culbert describes as ‘grandeur, hierarchy and inaccessible storage’.

Transparency being an important aspect of the architectural design, everything inside the Louvre-Lens complex has to pass close public scrutiny. Given that requirement, Culbert says, the USM Modular Furniture Haller was an apt choice for the building. He used USM Haller cabinets throughout storage areas and low-height cabinets in the museum shop and bookstore and in the museum’s Michelin star-awarded restaurant.


Yellow units enliven the museum restaurant

Some of the furniture was custom-designed, particularly for the cafés, galleries, media areas and foyer. Of these items, several pieces took their cue from the USM Haller modular cabinets, continuing the theme of stainless steel and baked high-gloss paint furniture standing out against the off-white concrete floors.

Culbert had used the system successfully before and respected its purity of line and form, along with its flexibility. ‘I installed 400 square metres of USM Haller desks, cabinets − the whole line − as part of the renovation when I set up my new office five years ago,’ he says. ‘The effect on comfort and functionality within the space and the positive impact of the system on visiting clients was so noticeable. The team at USM’s showroom in Soho helped me understand how flexible the system is. They offered great customer service and when I helped a private bank move out of the IBM building and orchestrated a donation of products for non-for-profit organisations, I was given a series of the pieces for my own office,’ he continues. ‘So I have become a rarity − a downtown architect whose office is filled with awesome USM Haller. It is almost a USM sales office for our clients − as, indeed, is Louvre-Lens.’

Culbert describes the Louvre-Lens as ‘a success beyond expectation in terms of the client, staff, the press, visitors and awards’. The complex underwent a seven-year process from competition to completion and had its setbacks and its doubters along the way. But Culbert believes the critics are ultimately silenced by the compelling result.

Berlin-based architect Ralph Mehler believes there is a synergy between Fritz Haller’s furniture system and hairdressing. Both are craft-based, involve using your hands and follow a logical system that allows for individuality of expression, he says.


Oiled oak floors provide a contrasting foil to the white USM Haller units

So USM Modular Furniture Haller was a natural choice for Mehler when he was asked to design a small Berlin beauty salon, Agaciak and Merz. Carolin Merz, who set up in business with Ramona Agaciak in 2006, trained in the Vidal Sassoon hairdressing method. Sassoon’s method incorporates a rigorous ‘diagonal section’ cutting system and Mehler sees a parallel between this and the furniture system he installed in the salon.

The 65sqm salon replaced a sushi bar in a 19th-century building in the city’s Mitte district. Mehler transformed the dilapidated building to provide four workstations, using the system to create mobile storage towers for the stylists, for shelving and storage and to build a reception desk. Each element of the predominantly white interior is meticulously considered and the arrangement of the furniture carefully choreographed. ‘The idea was to make the process [of design and hairdressing] visible,’ says Mehler.

Mehler’s experience of the USM Haller system dates back some 10 years, when he met Haller at Karlsruhe university where the Swiss architect was teaching. Haller’s approach to construction − in architecture and furniture − struck a chord with Mehler. Mehler’s own entry into architecture was inspired by a book about Konrad Wachsmann, whose appreciation of craft and modular construction was similar to Haller’s.

Mehler points to the system’s nodal ball joint as the key to its flexibility. ‘It is interesting that with only a few parts and the universal node system you can make just about anything you want. I made simple white containers and a cash desk. By keeping it simple when you can do almost anything you limit yourself to an understated design.’


The imposing exhibition area in the entrance hall at Tokyo’s Musashino Art University

The Musashino Art University in Tokyo bears testimony to the durability of Fritz Haller’s design and suitability for cultural locations large and small. An installation of the USM Haller system within the entrance hall has become an integral part of the university’s public engagement with design.

Completed in 1967, the main MAU building was designed by seminal Japanese architect Yoshinobu Ashihara, who also founded MAU’s architecture school. In 1974 it was extended by his protégé Yoichiro Hosaka to provide a permanent museum and exhibition space.

Working within the area created by Hosaka, MAU’s in-house team and designers at designed the interiors of the 10m-high space. These have a monumental feel with white walls and white marble. Having seen the USM Haller system in the travelling exhibition ‘Small and beautiful: Swiss design now’, the design team selected pure white and glazed elements to build glass showcases within the exhibition area inside the museum’s entrance. They felt it would ‘fit the strong character of the entrance space and combine beauty with high functionality’.

The exhibition they were working on at the time focused on MAU’s Masterpiece Product Collection − familiar design classics such as the Olivetti typewriter, Sori Yanaga’s Butterfly stool and the Braun shaver. But the system has a resonance beyond that show.

According to the MAU designers, ‘In the museum of an art university, all students and professors pay attention to the quality and method of “how-to-show” and the exhibition equipment that is used to display work. Students who aim to be artists and designers always have the opportunity to display something. It stimulates the emotions and ideas of creators working within the university if you provide an exhibition space which makes the work on display look even better with some level of tension with the exhibits.’


For more information visit

Architecture by SANAA/Imrey Culbert (Museé de Louvre, Lens), Ralph Mehler Architekten (Berlin Beauty Salon) and Yoshinobu Ashihara and Yoichiro Hosaka (Musashino Art University).


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