We’re going on a factory tour today. Way back in the mists of time (before the pandemic – henceforth to be known as BP, but actually 2019) I started working with USM, the company that makes modular adaptable furniture from its factory in Switzerland. The family-founded firm had nearly finished renovating the family house which sits close to the factory and a tour, said the UK representatives, was imminent.
We finally made it to Muensingen, near Bern, earlier this year to have a look around. It was that week in July where the temperatures were breaking all records and as we arrived in Bern (having taken the train from Zurich where I highly recommend the hot buttered pretzels available at the station) to see the river full of people.
Apparently, the custom is to put your clothes in dry bags and float home from work – the current is too strong for swimming. That must be the coolest commute I’ve ever come across. I also learned that Einstein formed his theory of relativity while taking a tram across the city and seeing a clock on the side of a building. So Bern is well worth a visit if you’re pondering city breaks.
But we were heading to the USM factory, a modernist pavilion built in the 1960s. The Schaerer family started out making window fittings in a traditional building in the city but the third generation wanted to update and modernise as younger generations will, and a new building was commissioned and designed by Fritz Haller.
However, the family’s traditional Swiss furniture didn’t work in this new glass and steel structure. So in 1963, Fritz Haller and Paul Schaerer developed new furniture to match their new building’s modularity and versatility. The furniture, like the buildings, was built not around individual pieces but a system of steel modules that could be adapted and reconfigured to meet the needs of the company’s factory and offices. The cornerstone of the system was the ingenious ball joint, for which they sought a patent in 1965.
And from this simple start a furniture company was born. The ball bearings slot into metal tubes of varying lengths and you can create furniture to fit the space you have. Should that space change you can buy more tubes and panels and reconfigure the original piece to be taller or wider or perhaps have cupboards instead of shelves. You can turn it into seating or create a media unit with a desk. Recent additions mean you can add a special top to make a plant stand.
The phrase furniture for life is often bandied around but this truly is. The powder coated steel panels come in the same 14 colours they have always been made in and this means if you bought a piece of USM furniture in the 1960s and wanted to change it in the 80s and again in the 2020s you will find the same colours and can create a perfect match.
However, 2022 saw the launch of a very limited edition pink range designed specially for the return of the Milan Furniture Fair, Salone. There’s still some about but not much. If you like it, grab it and be aware that you will have to add a different colour to it if you want to expand in the future. It will, however, love all the other colours so that shouldn’t be an issue. It’s not online so if you want some you will need to contact USM directly and ask.
The materials are all sourced locally and any off-cuts are recycled. And if, after all that, you decide you no longer want your piece of USM, the second-hand market holds its value too.
Yes, the look is very modern but that works well in both contemporary and period properties so you need have no fear that it won’t work in your Victorian terrace. It’s also beloved by fans of vinyl to store their record collections. My 19yo has his eye on it and I’ve told him to start scouring eBay because, as I said above, he can start now with a single box and still be adding to it in 20. 30, 40 years time.
Sitting a small field away from the main factory is the Buchli house, also built by Fritz Haller for the family to live in. It has been fully restored and is now open for guests of the company to stay in.
The Buchli house was the first residential building to use the USM Haller midi steel construction system, and one of its most striking features is the lack of division between living and sleeping areas. Instead, there are sliding doors and moving walls which means, much like the furniture, you can reconfigure the house to suit the number of guests at any one time.
And that, it seems to me, is the essence of USM, furniture and houses adapted to suit the way we live.