greutmann bolzern designstudio – a duo with clear visions

In a former cigarette factory, the Swiss design duo Urs and Carmen Greutmann are working on the future face of offices. A visit to their studio not only reveals the sheer variety of their work, but also takes visitors on a journey through the past 20 years of design.

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12 fierce-looking wolves block the way into Urs and Carmen Greutmann’s design studio. “They’re meant to scare off intruders,” laughs Carmen as she steps around the art installation on the floor and walks through the expansive, light-bathed hall on the second storey of the former cigarette factory in Zurich.

The greutmann bolzern studio is located between the River Limmat and the city’s red-light district. It spans several floors. The Greutmanns, both certified engineering drafters, are true design experts. Their highly varied repertoire includes lights, chairs, tables, desks, airport lounges, exhibitions and enclosed booths. “It has always been our aim to cover a broad spectrum,” Urs remarks during the tour through the studio, which covers a total area of 300 square metres. In part that was due to economic and business considerations, but above all it was because it was more fun that way. “We are constantly dealing with new industries, cultures, people, imagery and objects,” according to Urs.

Modelling each idea at 1:1 scale
On the third floor, above the loft office, greutmann bolzern has a model-making workshop. An in-house model-maker faithfully recreates every product that the duo designs at 1:1 scale. “Having our very own modelling workshop is a luxury,” says Carmen. It’s something very few designers have at their disposal. The modelling workshop is very important for the highly successful team. “It’s about thinking with your hands,” says Carmen. They need to be able to hold their designs in their hands and spin and flip them around so they can get a sense of them “from top to bottom”, she adds. The couple believe that it is only possible to fully appreciate the impact of an item of furniture or other object when it is fleshed out in all dimensions. The workshop is currently working on an elongated, cubic bar – with the help of a paint shop, one door further down.

The Greutmanns have a lot of space in the old cigarette factory. Enough that they can maintain an archive of some of their most-treasured creations in the loft. “It’s crazy all the things we have lying around up here,” Carmen remarks during the tour. “We also have our chair graveyard up here,” her husband adds, pointing out a chair that was inspired by a coffee cup. The loft is home to several other projects like this that never went beyond the design phase, as well as ones that need a “creative break”. However, most of the items in the loft can now be found in concrete form, albeit up to a hundred times their original size, in workplaces around the world. A lounge for the airline SWISS, a bank counter, a futuristic LED light, new sales areas for SBB and even a tour coach for the opera singer Cecilia Bartoli. “And of course, no end of office furniture!” laughs Urs.

Dynamic duo
The couple loves to work with miniatures – tiny chairs and buildings. “A model is far more critical and honest”, explains Carmen. A visualisation or rendering always looks good, she adds, since you can present it perfectly. “With a model, you have to make decisions.” That’s something the designer tells her students, too. For eight years, the couple has held a joint professorship in product design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (AdBK). They spend two days a week at their second home in the Bavarian capital. “The students constantly stimulate us to think in new ways too: they ask questions and give fresh input,” explains Urs. It was also at university that the two originally met. They founded their firm together after completing their studies. They worked not just as a team, but as a couple. Urs and Carmen have a son and a daughter, now both fully grown, and have been running their own company for 27 years. Their very first commission was – of course – an office furniture project.

Longstanding relationships
greutmann bolzern (the company name is made up of the couple’s original surnames) also works in classical industrial design. The designers are currently taking part in a competition to develop premium-quality crockery for an airline’s business class passengers. They also work on artistic projects. They designed an exhibition for the think tank swissnex San Francisco that was shown in the Californian megacity in early December 2011. Sometimes, they themselves forget all the things they have tucked away in their archive: “Here’s a lounge we developed for SWISS,” says Urs, pointing out a landscape model beneath a plastic sheet. “No, that was for Lufthansa in Frankfurt,” his wife corrects him. The Greutmanns have longstanding relationships with many clients – including Lista Office LO.

Mindport – the perfect symbiosis
Urs and Carmen Greutmann have worked as the Degersheim-based office specialist’s main designers for around 15 years. In 2002, they worked on the launch of Lista Office LO’s new corporate identity. The result was a wall that looks like Swiss cheese. This look is now used in Lista Office LO’s showrooms throughout Switzerland. “The idea behind the holes was to create a feeling of open space,” explains Urs. He takes a miniature item of furniture from a shelf and brushes off the dust: “This is one of the many products we’ve developed for Lista Office LO.” Their biggest project for the office service provider in recent months was Mindport and the cabinet system LO One. “The exciting thing about Mindport is that it’s halfway between furniture and fixture,” says Carmen. The Greutmanns’ work is also a constant symbiosis between architecture and product design. “So this project was a very good fit for us,” they say. Their favourite Mindport, incidentally, is the “Touch Down”. Ideally, the hybrid furniture–fixtures should be “soft” and “inviting”. “The transition from furniture to fixture needs to be an emotional experience,” says Urs. His wife adds: “We wanted Lista Office LO to be proud and honest about its signature material, steel.” Mindport’s “rounded” steel design was, she says, a technical challenge for the Lista Office LO designers. “However, they were more than equal to the task, as is evident from the result.”

Boiled down to the essence
The couple’s expansive studio is as white as the exterior of the Mindport. Besides the two founders, four designers and an interior architect work there. Carmen manages the accounts herself. Her office is filled with old and now-valuable office classics. There’s also an old Swissair trolley, alongside desks and stools that she designed herself. In the centre of the room hangs a large, elaborate cocoon made of cable ties. Simple, but ingenious – just like the minimalist design style of greutmann bolzern. “If you strip out everything inessential, you’ll end up with a functional piece of furniture,” says Urs. “We keep drawing, making and discarding things until we’ve managed that – it’s what I love best about our work,” says his wife. The friendly designer couple are often at the studio at the weekend too – sometimes to work, and sometimes to party. They have a large room on the ground floor, which can be hired out for birthdays.

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