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USM: Rethink the modular
The 50 years of USM Haller system offer a good opportunity to rethink the concept of modularity, with a project curated by Tido von Oppeln and Burkhard Meltzer, claiming the importance of the culture of design and the strong connection to research.
Swiss giant USM has celebrated its first 50 years in the business with a curatorial project entitled “Rethink the modular” at the Salone dei Tessuti in the heart of Milan’s Porta Venezia district, long on the design map.
Milan Design Week – followed closely by the EXPO from May to November 2015 – was a unique opportunity to celebrate the history of this successful company, which looks to the past without losing sight of research and planning for the future.
It was preceded by seven preparatory “USM Masterclasses on Modularity” last year, that attracted junior and senior architecture students and invited a select group of established designers, architects and academics as tutors at the Domaine de Boisbuchet in France. A week’s work sought to analyse the new – or rather contemporary – meaning of modular system, 50 years after the 1965 design produced by the architect Fritz Haller (1924–2012).
The idea centres on the effective modular system’s endless potential for manoeuvre while fulfilling different functions and with incredibly varied results that go beyond the theoretical and systematic domino effect. The curators posed questions on flexibility, a lack of restrictions and limits, open communication between the parts and dynamics – which may verge on the utopian? The exhibition at the Salone dei Tessuti curated by Tido von Oppeln and Burkhard Meltzer invited seven tutors (including Bini, BLESS and Lommee) to work with the students during the French workshop and focus strongly on the communicability of modularity and even the principle of open-source – touching also on modular communication. The project rediscovered the communication aspect of modularity and tried to lend a voice to different shared experiences. The exhibition reproduces these in three macro-areas called “Modularity as Structure”, “Interference” and “Rhythm”. An additional section entitled “Relation” deals with the history behind the concept of modularity.
“Between 1960 and 1990”, explains von Oppeln, “several architects and designers stopped focusing on single objects and buildings, and concentrated on the relationships between them.” Several complex structures do, indeed, become easier to grasp when observed as modular units and, even when they are dissimilar, the way links come into being between them is also important. The concept of modularity can be much vaster in form and be applied to our very perception of the world around us, the way we communicate amongst ourselves and the universe of all our relationships. The results produced are diverse and eclectic: Wolf Mangelsdorf and Lorenzo Bini developed a modular system on a huge scale while Dimitri Bähler, Allan Wexler and Thomas Lommée focused more closely on interchange and message transmission – the spaces and interfaces between different modules and formats. Go Hasegawa and BLESS examined the human body as a model forced to exist in a specific time process and spatial context.
The approach to the project was one of research and experimentation: “We present dissimilar types of work: one of these was born out of our in-house material developed during the workshops”, comments von Oppeln, plus historical material and, most importantly, all the work of the young architect Fritz Haller who, in collaboration with the engineer Paul Schärer, developed the USM Haller furnishing systems. The approach to the entire project centred on how to look, explore and then conduct research. The concept of modularity is also represented from a more visionary angle by works that have written the history of design from the 1960s on. With a visionary and perhaps even utopian focus, pieces by Ettore Sottsass, Superstudio and Hans Hollein pushed the boundaries of modularity far beyond the notion of Modernist cubes and rigid systems.
How has the company developed over the years? “USM products have always had great virtues, especially in terms of function and quality, and this is why the brand is known as a producer of excellence. The projects have not changed over the past 50 years but the company is keen to revisit the visions that formed the basis of its huge success. This anniversary is a good opportunity to rethink the concept of modularity and relaunch the debate on what the concept of modularity means today. We decided to celebrate the occasion with a curatorial project because we believe in the importance of the culture of design and that the world of furnishings in general must have a strong connection to research, which is inseparable from culture.” Haller and Schärer invented this type of furnishing on the basis of a solid and precise concept enriched by an idealistic approach. “They”, he continues, “were convinced that design and architecture should develop similarly, and in harmony with people’s needs. Moreover, the company utilised this concept of modularity in the construction of its buildings and developed a furnishing system that could adapt. To be clearer: a traditional shelf is not a product in itself but a consequence.”
During Milan Design Week, the exhibition proposed models, drawings and performances, crowning the whole with a number of talks, including one by the British researcher Catharine Rossi, underlining once again the educational and experiential attitude of the first 50 years. The exhibition was accompanied by a publication (forthcoming) edited by the curators and everyone at the opening celebrated by drinking out of unusual glasses designed by Bless – a glass set into a piece of rock, one stuck into the top of a tree branch and a glass with a chain stem – that always has to be held because it cannot stand on its own. Modularity is a relationship that can indeed produce contrasts and contradictions.