Next Level Modular

March 2022

USM was making long-life loose-fit furniture before the term was even invented. Now its famous modular system has acquired some interesting new features and accessories

The modular furniture system designed by USM in 1963 has not only become an office classic but also made its way into private spaces. The core principle behind the furniture’s structure, which is made of metal pipes held together by shiny chrome-plated junction balls, is a template that aims to be strong but not rigid. This was the grounding concept of the company's founders, engineer Paul Schaerer and architect Fritz Haller. But before thinking about it in the context of furniture, the system was applied at the architectural level.

Paul Schaerer was the grandson of industrialist Ulrich Schaerer, who at the end of the 19th century founded a window fittings company in Müsingen, near Bern, called USM (Ulrich Schaerer Müsingen). In 1961, his heir Paul commissioned Swiss architect Fritz Haller to design a new building that could accommodate the company’s factory and administrative offices. The intention was to create a building that would be extremely flexible because they didn’t know what its use would be in the future. So, Haller developed Switzerland’s first open-plan office, which was later replicated in other factories.

The same principle was applied on a more micro level to making furniture. Schaerer and Haller’s idea was to develop a very high-quality modular product that would last a lifetime and could be adapted to future needs. In this way, the product would be sustainable, not because it used recycled materials or components, but because the consumer would be investing in an item that could be kept for good and passed on to future generations. The pair first developed the USM Haller modular system for their own use in the company but it was so well received that they decided to put it into production. This transition from building system to product system is important because it shows the driving principles that guide the company at all levels: the repetition of a modular system, a drive to create high quality products and the desire to carry these principles over into the creation of new and innovative designs.

Having a modular system that is totally flexible and adaptable to various situations means that from the product development perspective, you need only design or introduce new parts and elements that use or rely on the same principles. “Our philosophy is that every new product has to match and blend in with the existing ones,” explains Thomas Dienes, Group Product Development Director at USM. “Because in the end it is all one family of products.”

At the moment the Research & Development team at USM is working on three different strands and directions for its famous system. The first is the creation of a more pleasant atmosphere in the increasingly artificially air-conditioned, dry environments spaces we now spend so much time in. These put a strain on our bodies and separate us from the natural world around us so USM created the “A World of Plants” product line, which integrates plants into the USM Haller modular system and brings nature back into our homes and offices. In much the same vein they also created a range of seating cushions to add to the system to create a homely and cosier atmosphere. “When the system was built 50 years ago,” Dienes explains, “it was built to store the large amount of paper that was produced in daily office work – at that time there were no computers – but now it doesn’t have that function anymore. So, the question is, which additional uses can you integrate into it that make sense for the future? We decided to create a whole landscape out of the furniture, adding for example cushions for seating. USM is now not only about storage, it is about much, much more.”

The second area USM’s R&D department is working on is the integration of electronics into the modular system, a more long-term ambition. “It’s tricky because we have a modular system which has a long lifespan and people expect it to last forever, “ says Dienes. “And even though we know that electronic parts have shorter lifespans, our electronic system has to have the same durability. We also want to add another electronic component to connect our system to the rest of the room or other rooms via smart technology. It’s the internet of things applied to the USM Modular Furniture Haller system.”

The third new area the company is currently exploring is the development of adjustable tables. “We launched adjustable tables in 2016 but there are limitations to these kinds of accessories,” Dienes explains. “In fact, the ones driven by electric motors or gas don’t have the same quality as our mechanical systems. The electrical parts have a life span of five to seven years more or less, so we cannot ensure the same durability. This led us to the following consideration and question. Since we have an extremely advanced internal knowledge of mechanical systems, why didn’t we just construct a purely mechanical adjustable table that doesn’t use gas or have an electrical motor inside it?” Cue, the creation of an adjustable table for the system that is solely mechanically-driven.

As complete as the USM Haller modular system may now be, there will always be room for enhancements and new components or layers. “When the consumer is investing in an item that can be kept for good and passed on to future generations, we also have to think about new and different business models,” Dienes notes. More exciting changes definitely await USM’s iconic system in the future.

Words by Silvia Anna Barrilà

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