A studio encounter with Alfredo Häberli

Alfredo Häberli, 51, hails from Switzerland and ranks among the most successful and creative furniture designers of our day. He applies his clever ideas to reinventing everyday objects and bringing a smile to the faces of those who use them. That’s exactly what happened in 2015, when he joined forces with BMW to design a mobility sculpture with an elegance that wowed visitors at the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan. We interviewed Häberli about his Argentinian roots; why there is no need to explain good design; and why, in his profession, you have to fight for your freedom.

Lukas Wassmann
Hendrik Lakeberg

Mr. Häberli, you are world-famous for your furniture designs. Would you ever be tempted to design a car?
Alfredo Häberli: You bet! But it would be a major challenge. My dream would be to get together with BMW to assemble a team and jointly design a car. BMW’s knowhow and my design approach could turn up some exciting results.

Where do you see room for improvement in cars?
Häberli: Primarily in terms of the dimensions. One question I would ask, for instance, is whether I actually need all the unused space I normally drive around with. Can one adopt a more flexible approach? Beyond that, the way mobility develops in the coming years is going be exciting. It’s certainly presenting designers with new challenges. My colleagues in the studio go in for car sharing; none of them has a car, but some of them own up to three bicycles. As for me, I still belong to the older generation and have four cars to my name. But I still think it’s important to rethink the issue of the car. For my generation, it isn’t so easy to cast off the romanticism we associate with the car, along with all those childhood memories – but that can have its advantages.

“I doggedly pursue my dreams. I sketch them, write them down. Then, at some stage, they turn into reality.”

Alfredo Häberli

In his studio, Alfredo Häberli keeps a collection of design objects from all over the world, among them many souvenirs from friends. Everyday objects – mainly by anonymous designers – inspire him in his work. The red chair on the left is a miniature model of his Segesta Chair.

It was the Iso Grifo, a 1964 sports car by the short-lived Italian carmaker Iso Rivolta, that inspired you to become a designer. What was it about this exotic model that fascinated you as a child?
Häberli: Giotto Bizzarrini, an engineer who worked for Ferrari but then had a falling-out with Enzo Ferrari, wanted to show his former boss he could build cars that were equally beautiful – and even faster. The legendary automotive stylist Giorgio Giugiaro, who at the time was design chief at Italian coachbuilders Bertone, designed the car at the age of 25. He was a great example to me.

What is it you like about that car?
Häberli: Back then, designers had a great deal of freedom. It was similar in furniture design. I still think the most beautiful furniture came out of the 1950s and ’60s. Plus, you didn’t have the safety regulations that today’s cars have to follow – they don’t exactly make innovative design easier. Still, there’s a great deal of scope even with today’s restrictions. I think the BMW i8, for example, is an extraordinary car, because building it was only possible by using technologies that are relatively new and have come together as a whole for the first time in the BMW i8. There’s something futuristic about it, and it’s very courageous.

This Häberli creation goes by the name of “Take a Soft Line for a Walk,” and was designed for Italian label Moroso. With its soft upholstery and shielding headrest, it is conceived as a place of retreat and relaxation.

Häberli’s collection also includes children’s bicycles. The helmet he is wearing (right) fascinated him due to its aerodynamic shape. Far right: the designer holding the “Küchenblitz,” an amazingly practical manual food processor he designed for Betty Bossi.

Häberli’s collection also includes children’s bicycles. The helmet he is wearing (right) fascinated him due to its aerodynamic shape. Far right: the designer holding the “Küchenblitz,” an amazingly practical manual food processor he designed for Betty Bossi.

In fact, you have already designed a vehicle for BMW. In spring 2015, you and the BMW design team presented a spectacular design sculpture at the Milan Furniture Fair. Tell us about it.
Häberli: My studio receives fantastic commissions that are, at the same time, extremely challenging. You can tell by my gray hair [laughs]. This commission from BMW was a very special one. All I had to go on were two key words: precision and poetry. I asked the BMW designers what I should do. “Whatever you like,” was their reply – but, of course, that’s the toughest prospect of all, working with no more than two abstract terms. Despite this entirely open starting point, I quickly realized that the theme of mobility had to be center stage.

“Can I design a car?” I asked. They replied, “Of course, but actually we already make cars. We’d prefer something different.” But mobility is such a complex subject these days that I soon realized I needn’t simply take the car body as a guide. I think that’s a mistake the industry often makes: thinking too much along ingrained lines. From that point of view, it can be inspiring if somebody like myself approaches the subject from the outside.

Let’s think into the future of mobility: if cars can self-drive, if you no longer need to keep your hands on the steering wheel… that changes a great deal. Digitization is turning the car on its head. On that basis, I wasn’t so much thinking of a vehicle and its functions from a practical point of view, but rather tried to imagine what sort of aesthetic universe, what feeling this new kind of mobility would convey. I asked myself how the road or the future might look if we no longer needed traffic lights and cars just glided past each other automatically.

Thoughts like these spark new images in the mind. For the work of a designer, it’s important to play games and develop crazy ideas, but at the same time get close to the world of the user. Long and complex deliberations led to a blend of car and sailboat, a kind of mobility sculpture that was shown in Milan over a display area of 6,500 square feet, accompanied by numerous smaller models and sketches. It’s a work I’m very proud of.

What is striking about your work in general is your keen use of new materials. Do new materials always spawn new designs?
Häberli: Yes, but that’s just one side of it. After all, new materials mean research, and that often means major investment and risk as they push up the price of products – whether it’s batteries, textiles or furniture. So I can’t always work with new materials, though I always try to design products that create new typologies. Solitaire, my easy chair with integrated tabletop for Offecct, wasn’t made of new materials, but the way I combined living room elements was completely new. My Origo crockery for Iittala consists of plates, bowls and mugs – nothing out of the ordinary, but the practical way of stacking them I came up with wasn’t around before. Rethinking everyday objects gives me great pleasure. I see that as the essence of my work.

Based on your experience, how does one become a good designer?
Häberli: The prerequisite is to grapple with yourself, to really get to know yourself. The rest is hard work. At the outset of my career, soon after I left school, I wanted to be an artist – a painter. But even though I was always surrounded by paintbrushes and canvases, I never began painting. I found people much more interesting. And I noticed that it was extremely difficult for me to be creative with nothing more than a blank canvas. Finding a design solution to a problem was really more my thing. So I thought back to Giugiaro’s Iso Rivolta, among other objects, and how its shape fascinated me as a child, and that pushed me in the direction of design.

Thanks to Giugiaro and meeting the legendary Italian designer Achille Castiglioni, I also realized that products are designed by people and not by big, faceless companies. To become a good designer, the most important thing is to have the courage to dream. And for that, you need endurance. To design a car is something I’ve wanted to do since the age of five. Through the project with BMW, I came pretty close to it several decades down the line. Ultimately, it didn’t turn out to be a proper car, but that doesn’t matter – it’s very close to what I wanted. I doggedly pursue my dreams. I sketch them, I write them down. Then, at some stage, they turn into reality.

The overriding objective of design is to improve people’s everyday lives. Are you an idealist in this respect?
Häberli: At the beginning, I resolved to bring a smile to people’s faces through my work, and that hasn’t changed to this day. I enjoy every second I spend designing. The fact that I’ve been able to pursue my work at such a level for such a long time is also thanks to my wife. She’s been my partner since school, and she supported me from the word go. To this day, I can’t bring myself to take on a job just for the money. My in-laws would occasionally say to me, “Alfredo, we just lent you money – you can’t go on like this.” I wasn’t an easy son-in-law to deal with, that’s for sure! But for me, it was always a case of all or nothing.

Today, everything is panning out very well, but I had to fight for my freedom for a long time. I set up my own studio 25 years ago. I wanted to start with Achille Castiglioni in Milan, but he only had a small office with five employees and didn’t need me. His advice to me was, “Why don’t you start your own studio? That’s the best thing anyway.” So I got the train back to Zurich and set up my studio a week later.

You were born in Argentina. Do your South American roots influence your approach to life and design?
Häberli: In the course of its history, Argentina has had so many political and economic crises that you have no choice but to hold onto your sense of humor and the belief that soon everything will get better. Otherwise, you wouldn’t bother to get up in the morning! My background has taught me to have the courage to believe, because you’ve got nothing to lose anyway. My social vein is also very Argentinian: I always say that I only work for people I like… that’s what keeps me going. The collaboration with my good friend Adrian van Hooydonk is an example. If he says we’ve done a good job, that’s important to me, because I know him and like him.

Does design have to be intuitively understood, or can it also stimulate thought and reflection?
Häberli: If you have to explain a design, it’s too complicated. But I do think that often you only recognize the quality at second glance. Quality can be different things – a function, beauty. At the beginning, I always thought you had to explain everything. But when it comes to the Italian designers who inspired me, there’s no need to explain anything. For them, something is or isn’t beautiful. That is far from a superficial approach, since the Italian bella embraces everything – form, function, feeling. There’s no formulaic answer to the question, “What is good design?” The most important thing is that it has to touch you.

Alfredo Häberli with one of his most successful creations, the Nais Chair. The aim was to design a chair using as little wire as possible while ensuring that it was comfortable to sit on. The Nais is made of titanium, making it extremely durable and stable.