In conversation with Carmen Greutmann-Bolzern and Urs Greutmann
Carmen and Urs Greutmann-Bolzern established the greutmann bolzern designstudio in Zurich in 1984. Today, it is one of Switzerland's most renowned studios. The duo go way back, to their time studying together at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Zurich. Carmen Greutmann-Bolzern graduated as an interior designer and Urs Greutmann as an industrial designer. The office setting forms the focal point of the design studio, which the pair founded immediately after graduating. Since 2003, they have jointly held the Chair in Product Design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.
You have been running a joint atelier, a studio for interiors and product design, since 1984. How did you get started?
Our first success after graduating was what really set us down this road. We won a student competition run by Swiss company Denz. Luckily for us, the design proved a big hit and so it was put into production. This was unusual, but the idea caught on and it was our “entry ticket” to designing for offices. Lots of commissions ensued, in both product and graphic design then, later on, in showroom design and we even built Albert Denz’s private home. When Denz was taken over by Lista Office LO (now Lienhard Office Group), our partnership continued. The specific challenges of Swiss design which we faced did, for me at least, shape our approach to a certain degree.
When you are designing, are you guided by a fundamental approach that has always served you well?
We always try to be guided by the context when developing designs, that goes without saying. As we normally work on specific commissions, it all starts with the analysis. To come up with a solution, it's vital to understand the company for which we are working, how the company operates and what the end game is. We’re keen to change things and we can only do this through partnerships that continue, uninterrupted, over many years.
How did your partnership with Girsberger begin?
The threads all came together in various ways. We first came across Girsberger during a project for Credit Suisse involving 2,400 workstations. Later on, our paths crossed in the Swiss Lounge project for Zurich Airport, as part of which we cooperated with Girsberger Customized Furniture for the first time. Then, around four years ago, we came up with the idea for a new chair. Even though we usually work on specific commissions, Urs spends a lot of time coming up with his own designs.
So we got chatting to Girsberger about developing serial products. The time was right for our idea. My initial thought was to develop a very simple chair that has the effect of a sitting ball but which looks and works better.
The world of work is increasingly mobile these days and people tend to spend less time at a desk specifically allocated to them...
Due to newly-emerging office concepts, we have less need for functional swivel chairs with advanced ergonomic features. They don't work in this environment of sit-stand and project workstations. In this setting, a big chair just gets in the way or isn't where you need it to be. Also, its operating elements are too complex.
Hence the creation of the new “Simplex 3D” chair, in partnership with Girsberger. What, in your view, are the product's key features and how did you handle the technical aspects?
The original idea of a stool with a backrest that accommodates lots of different postures ultimately evolved into a simple, movable chair with a backrest. On the technical front, we tried out lots of features with the engineers at Girsberger and started with an air ring as the base, then steel springs, before ending up with rubber cushions to provide the cushioning. The rubber cushions have a long life and are practical and repeatable, without any compromise on quality. After going through this process, we achieved the movement we wanted in the seat. The name “Simplex 3D” says it all: “simple” and “three-dimensional”.
»Every chair becomes a mould of a person. So it can be reinvented on a daily basis!«
How is this chair different from the models by market competitors?
Other chairs that tackle the issue of simple, dynamic sitting differ mainly in their form. The mechanism - or lack of it - is often the dominant feature and is very much a design statement. It's as if they're saying: “look, this is a healthy chair”. We wanted to create a chair that works everywhere but also fulfils the desire for more comfortable-looking offices.
More than anything, I felt Girsberger's previous models had a very masculine look. So I wanted to develop a feminine counterpart. In the era I was looking to for inspiration, Coco Chanel was showcasing brand new fashion designs: black on top and white on the bottom and vice versa. So I thought bi-colour would be a good starting point for our chair, too. I very much wanted to give the design a female touch and Urs interpreted that in the design. By using colour, a centre seam appears to split the back and seat into a top and bottom section, although the shell is a single element.
The result was an object that is hugely different to the functional chair as we know it and, aside from the height adjustment, we have omitted all the operating elements. The “Simplex 3D” can be sat on from all sides, in lots of different postures. After all, a chair should enable postures, not prevent them. As we are all aware, sitting basically places strain on the body.
In what scenario can you envisage the chair being used?
This chair can be used at team workstations, in special zones, at touchdown workstations, for desk sharing or in coworking spaces – as well as, of course, in a home office. In fact it could be used anywhere, unless you really have to spend the entire working day on one chair.
Coworking and office communities are real game-changers. The office world will alter beyond all recognition! The early signs are already apparent: the big organizations are threatened with extinction like the dinosaurs. We will see different structures emerging over the next ten to fifteen years, with an end to headquarters built to accommodate thousands of employees. Everything is becoming more and more decentralized, with open networks. All kinds of companies will buy into communities like these. This will bring different requirements for infrastructure and furniture. And that’s where our “Simplex 3D” chair comes into play.
»Coworking and office communities are real game-changers - the office world will alter beyond all recognition.«
Since 2003, you have jointly held the Chair in Product Design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Did you decide on focal points for this between you?
We were appointed as a team and we do everything together, as a team. It's better that way than to take turns teaching. Otherwise, we’d forever be hearing: “But your husband said...” or “Your wife said...”.
Designing a chair is invariably one of the tasks we set. Making a good chair is the supreme discipline for a designer. So, in the final semester, the students are given three months to come up with a design. We stipulate the theme and materials. What makes a chair so difficult and complex as a design task is that it has six sides. It creates optical illusions. With just 15 weeks to complete it, every student is pushed to the limit, as they have to build the prototype themselves. Dimensions, statics, formal issues... there's a whole raft of problems to consider.
At the end of the final semester, there's always a chair exhibition at the Academy, which has become a tradition and attracts an enthusiastic core audience.
Thank you for talking to us!
Interview: Dorothea Scheidl-Nennemann
Photos: André Bolliger