I am delighted to tell you that this year I am collaborating with USM, a Swiss company that makes modular furniture which has become a design classic. We first met over a year ago to discuss working together as I am a huge fan of the brand and, as you know, I love learning about, and sharing, really good design.
But, as with so many things, the pandemic put a stop to our plans. And then it turned out that a partnership with a company that has its roots in office furniture is totally appropriate for now. Because if you spent last year hot-desking around your house, perching on a coffee table here and a kitchen table there (and even, I read recently, working from bed with a breakfast tray to prop up your laptop) then now it’s time to get real.
Many of us are WFH now and many of us will be WFHFE (For Ever) so it’s time we looked into investing in the proper kit. And I wonder if this is a male thing (don’t want to stereotype but bear with me…). I started working from home nearly 20 years ago and sat at the kitchen table with my work stuff in a plastic box on wheels that I could move around and tuck out of sight when not needed.
Shortly after we moved into this house, 10 years ago, The Mad Husband stopped working for his newspaper and decided he required a home office. He immediately set off to the big Swedish superstore and came back with a desk and some storage having picked up a new printer on the way home. He sat there looking productive for two weeks (I said looking not being). And then he got a new job in an office and off he went. I didn’t really like his set-up so I stayed at the kitchen table (for another five years until we converted the loft – a space he has now taken over but that’s another story). And eventually all that furniture was donated, tipped or recycled.
But the clever thing about USM is that the sheet steel panel it’s made from are joined together with chrome tubes and ball connectors to form a frame and that means, not only that there are literally an infinite number of configurations, but also that you can change and adapt your furniture as your needs change. If only we’d known about it all those years ago.
So, you might start with a bedside table which you might want to make larger and use as a media unit or toy storage for a while. You could make it taller or add a folding desk element (good if your office doesn’t have its own room) or turn it in to a wall of book storage.
That’s the first clever thing. The second is that this is not a company that deals in trends. When we first met I asked if we could do a story on new colours and launches. “Oh no I don’t think so,” came the quiet reply. The point being that if you bought a bedside table in a certain colour in 1965 you will be able to expand that table in 2021 and still have an exact colour match to the original. Which is both clever and sustainable and exactly right for now. This is not just a home office for life but furniture for life.
Because, as you can probably tell from all these pictures, although WFH feels topical, you can see from the range of images that you can create almost anything you require and that the timeless style will fit into any interior from mid-century to period via modern and new-build.
Now as with all the best stories, the furniture came about in response to a personal need. USM was founded in 1885 by Ulrich Schärer in his home town of Münsingen (the Swiss town where he was born) as a small, family-run, metal-working firm. In 1920 his children took over and began making window fittings. By the 1960s the company had hugely expanded and Ulrich’s grandson, Paul, who was passionate about architecture – in particular the work of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier – wanted to make changes.
In 1965 he commissioned the architect Fritz Haller to build a flexible factory that could be adapted to different manufacturing processes. Shortly afterwards Haller built Paul a house, which is still there today and has just been renovated (I am hoping to visit later this year and to be able to show you).
Once the factory was finished, Paul realised that the only furniture available for the offices was traditional wood in classic designs and so Haller invented a system of pieces to complement the functional aesthetic of the new building. The idea was that you would always be able to change the height and width to adapt to any requirement.
First to place an order was the Rothschild Bank for its office in Paris. Paul had never intended it to be a commercial project and had no idea how much to charge. In the end he went with the Volkswagen Beetle model of price per kilo and the orders flooded in. The USM Haller system now has a permanent place in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and is found in office and homes around the world.
There are now 14 colours to choose from and showrooms globally. The basic principle has remained the same – designs you can create bespoke to your needs – although you can now buy lighting to highlight your shelving displays. In addition to opening and closing every door 40,000 times to test that it still functions noiselessly, in 2007 the company was also certified by the Greenguard Environmental Institute. To save energy the 5,000sqm new powder coating workshop was built underground where it uses 35 per cent less energy than a surface facility. The coloured powders are made without the use of solvents or lead so the operators can work without masks or gloves. And, of course, steel is highly recyclable.
So if your WFH situation looks like it might endure for the foreseeable future, have a look at USM for a system that you can tailor make to your own space and, perhaps, in time, if you return to a traditional office, you can dismantle it and remake it as a kitchen or playroom, whatever you might need at any given time.
This is a sponsored post as part of a year-long collaboration with USM. I only work with companies that I know and like and prefer to establish a long term relationship rather than a quick advertising fix. Prior to this post I have had several meetings with them to discuss our partnership and I’m excited to be telling you more about this company as the year progresses.