“Do you have Toblerone over there?” asks Andre Bernheim. “That’s just a bar of chocolate, but its idea is very clear: it’s triangular, it’s distinct, it’s direct, it’s simple, it’s self-explanatory, it’s the Matterhorn, and it works – if you press the tip of a chunk it breaks off perfectly. Toberlone is an ideal of Swiss style and design.”
He may just have been hungry. But Mr Bernheim could equally have pointed to his own product by way of example. He is the owner of Mondaine, makers of timepieces based on a Swiss favourite, which next year celebrates its 70th birthday. It’s the station clock, designed by Hans Hilfiker for Swiss Railways, with its stark, numeral-free dial, legible from the other end of the platform, now visible at 3,000 locations across Switzerland and even in London’s Leicester Square.
“One further characteristic of Swiss style is that it is unchanging, because things here in Switzerland generally don’t change so fast,” Mr Bernheim adds. “Einstein was once asked what he would do if the world was going to end tomorrow. He said that he would go to Switzerland because everything happens later there.”
It’s a good joke, but belies the deep quality of much of the product and industrial design, architecture, fashion and graphic design that comes out of Switzerland. Take Helvetica, for example, arguably the world’s most popular and, in some quarters, revered typographical font. The hero of Swiss style, its graphic approach informs global visual culture even today. A product of Max Miedinger and the Haas Type Foundry, it is now almost of pensionable age. “And it’s as easy to read now as it was when it was designed, despite many, many other fonts having been designed since,” says Mr Bernheim.
“And yet,” adds Max Busser, founder of Geneva’s pioneering M.A.D. Gallery of mechanical arts, “while everybody knows Helvetica and appreciates how it makes a statement in one of the hardest ways possible – minimalistically – not many people know it’s Swiss. The Swiss people are rather shy. There are no real Swiss design superstars and their contribution to the design world has been largely anonymous. Herzog & de Meuron are among the very best architects in the world, yet nobody would recognise them. Philippe Starck could never be Swiss.”
Perfectionism and reliability are perhaps sometimes irritatingly do-goodish qualities that can be the butt of stereotyping jokes
Perhaps the one exception to this rule is Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as the pioneering designer and architect Le Corbusier. “And everyone seems to think that he’s French anyway,” jokes Benedicte Montant, co-founder of the Geneva architects 3BM3, who are currently working on a new building to expand Lausanne Airport. “When anyone actually does think of Swiss design and architecture, they tend towards cliché. It’s fur-covered chairs in a snow-covered chalet, when in fact our style has long been very pure and contemporary, using whatever materials are local and to hand.”
Indeed, modesty is not the only national characteristic that might be said to inform the Swiss approach to design. Perfectionism and reliability are perhaps sometimes irritatingly do-goodish qualities that can be the butt of stereotyping jokes, but they are mighty useful when it comes to creating products of high utility and longevity.
Mr Bernheim even argues that it is because the Swiss have such strong leanings towards practicality – a product of the school system, parenting habits, environment and tradition – that they are less good at the traditional arts.
“Switzerland was a very poor country just a century ago and has very little natural resources, so we’ve always liked anything we’ve invented to be high quality, detailed and functional to the point where a design is usually not recognisable. It’s distinctive by disappearing into everyday life, which also means we don’t see it as anything requiring promotion,” says Francois Nunez. “That means most people don’t have a strong sense of what the Swiss style is, especially when compared to that of, say, Scandinavia or Japan. But, nevertheless, it’s there.”
Then again, Mr Nunez is product director for Victorinox Swiss Army, makers of arguably the one iconic design that is globally known as Swiss, if only thanks to its name and logo – the Swiss Army knife. It is an item so ubiquitous – the company makes around 35,000 of them a day – as to go under-appreciated.
“High-quality simplicity is harder to design than you might imagine,” adds Mr Bernheim. “And the Swiss approach is to find that balance where there’s nothing you can add that wouldn’t be too much, and nothing you can take away that wouldn’t leave it missing something.”
And it is a school of thought the Swiss have maintained even in the most humble of tools. To return to Toblerone, or at least to a key ingredient, take, for example, the quirky botte-cul – the lightweight, portable, traditional Swiss milking stool. It has been used by dairy farmers for generations, not despite it only having one leg, but because it only has one leg. As crazy as that sounds at first, one leg is all it needs to do the job.
EURO-STYLING IS TOP QUALITY
Blame Switzerland’s location, but according to Nicole Borel of the Swiss fashion company Charles Voegele, one-time sponsor of the event that became Swiss Fashion Week: “There isn’t really a definitive Swiss style. We just pick up influences from all our neighbours, be it touches of German, French or Italian fashion, to create what you might call a European style.” While certain qualities are a given – typically high quality, conservative, simple – this is not to say that Switzerland doesn’t have its own well-established fashion giants, old and new.
Bally, for example, was established in Zurich in 1851 and selling internationally by the 1870s, and remains a pre-eminent name in shoemaking – its Bally stripe, based on the red and white of the Swiss flag, stressing its national origins. Sixty years ago this year, Sir Edmund Hilary conquered Everest in Bally boots. Indeed, Bally has for five years been owned by the Labelux Group, founded only in 2007 as Switzerland’s first luxury fashion group, now also owners of Belstaff and Jimmy Choo. Bally is joined by the likes of Akris, a progressive womenswear label established in St Gallen 91 years ago and headed by the third generation of the Kriemler family. Hanro, the underwear brand celebrating its centenary this year, is Swiss too.
But Switzerland is slowly developing its own coterie of small, independent designers akin to those found in the fashion capitals of London, New York and Milan. Marianne Alvoni, for example, is respected for her eveningwear, while Ly-Ling Vilaysane, who works under her label Aetheree, has won a reputation for inspired styles with intricate pleating and smocking. Another designer, Ida Gut, works closely with Swiss manufacturers to develop progressive designs in unusual cuts and fabrics.