Before we look at the trends of the future, let’s take a look back at the past. How did the USM company come about? And what philosophy can you derive from this for your current design?
Bernd Wagner:We’ve been around for quite a while. USM was founded in 1885 by Ulrich Schärer as a metalworking and locksmith company. Both the headquarters and factory remain in Münsingen, Switzerland. Paul Schärer joined the company in 1961 – meaning that a third generation of the Schärer family now heads USM. Having studied engineering at ETH Zurich, Paul was determined to modernize the company. He commissioned the Swiss architect Fritz Haller to design a new factory and company building. Haller came up with a steel modular construction system whichoffered flexibility for various manufacturing processes and options for structural expansion. Schärer and Haller decided to develop a furniture system especially for these buildings: modular and flexible, and not confined to just one direction. Thomas, would you like to tell more?
Thomas Dienes: With pleasure, Bernd. The furniture system that was developed at this time actually marks the starting point of our current product lines. Another important point, as Bernd said, is that the buildings and the furniture were a complete novelty. This didn’t go unnoticed by the Rothschild Bank in Paris and they commissioned Schärer and Haller to furnish around 600 workstations in their company. This was very, very lucky, but it also required a lot of courage because the product was not yet in full production and the company wasn’t quite ready to produce on such a scale. But Schärer, the entrepreneur, rose to the challenge, did the job and thus laid the foundation for today’s company.
And which (design) philosophy can you derive from this story for yourself?
Bernd Wagner: That it takes courage to create something big. And that development sometimes means to forego change. In fact, there were many things we didn’t do in order to keep our system the way it was originally designed. If in doubt, we prefer to reinvest in quality – not only in the quality of the manufacturing process and the product itself, but also the quality of our employees and their jobs.
Thomas Dienes: I can only agree with this. And maybe add that I myself am still impressed by just how consistently things were thought through back then. I want to see the same consistency in all of our current developments. The system originated from a common philosophy and this is still maintained today.
Doesn’t this consequence sometimes stand in the way of new developments?
Thomas Dienes: No – you just have to stick to the overall concept of the system, whatever you consider. If I developed a new part and perhaps only milled the connection to the existing one a little differently, it would no longer be compatible. But this compatibility is exactly what we want to guarantee in all our developments: that even the latest are ‘backwards compatible’ and our products are therefore particularly sustainable.
Bernd Wagner: Exactly, we don’t throw anything away. We upgrade with innovations, yes. And sometimes we disassemble a piece of furniture to put together a new one. But nothing is ever thrown away. And should you ever find a USM shelf in the rubbish, give us a call!
Which brings us back to environmental protection and sustainability. These topics have been pushed into the background by Covid-19 in recent months. Are they coming back now? And how does USM deal with them?
Bernd Wagner: These issues will not only come back, they will return stronger than ever. We are sure of that. Our products are manufactured using the latest environmentally friendly processes, but to me personally, longevity is just as important. The longer a product lasts, the less it affects the environment. The fax machine may have disappeared from the office, but the USM furniture on which it was standing is still there. Rebuilt, adapted for a new purpose, but still there.
Thomas Dienes: In lockdown, we finally realized that we can do without paper. This is an important finding for the environment. But it also affects the future role of office furniture, which used to be just that: storage space for paper. The office will become paperless and so a lot of conventional furniture will lose its function. We therefore go through various new application scenarios and think of the USM products as part of a holistic ambience.
What else did we realize in lockdown: that, maybe, the future of the office will change?
Bernd Wagner: Switching to the home office had to be done extremely quickly, especially with regard to the technical aspects. Nevertheless, it worked out very well. The home office of the future will certainly be more integrated into the work culture than before. The office comes home and, if we’ve done everything right, USM comes along, too.
Thomas Dienes: At home, people don’t want to work in the children’s room or in the kitchen. For a while, they might have done so, because things had to happen quickly. Now that we are better prepared, things like a pleasant ambience become increasingly important. Employees need a decent workplace at home, but also a much more individual and changeable one than in the office. This is a great opportunity for USM. Our products can become smaller and more diverse. We can develop ideas together with the customers, and our customers often come up with the most exciting designs.
Mr. Dienes, as Director of Product Development, it is notable that the most exciting designs do not come from you …
Thomas Dienes: That’s exactly what I love about my job. I develop the components with the system in mind, and the customer uses them to create individual solutions. Sometimes I see pictures of what has been created and I am always impressed and also quite proud. What the customer comes up with is as uncontrollable for us as it is beautiful.
Finally, what are you currently working on? With which USM products can your customers continue to design in the future?
Thomas Dienes: We are currently working very hard to ensure that our systems can interact with each other, but also with their users. The smart home has become a household name and we are extending it to our products. That’s a very exciting job. But this is where downward compatibility is also a challenge. We want to be able to digitize configurations that might have been placed in an office 30 years ago.
Bernd Wagner: And here too, in keeping with the tradition of USM, it is important to have the courage to drive innovation and not lose sight of current trends, even outside the furniture industry. Our customers and their changing needs are always at the center of all these considerations.
Bernd Wagner graduated from Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle as a qualified designer and began working at USM almost 20 years ago. His career in the company led him through most departments, making him one of the most experienced managers of the Swiss family company. Bernd Wagner has been CEO of USM Germany since 2016.
Dr. Thomas Dienes studied architecture at the University of Karlsruhe and gained his PhD from Vienna University of Technology, Department of Industrial Construction. His professional career began as an industrial architect and then as a research assistant at the University of Karlsruhe and co-founder and business partner at dienes und leichtle. Thomas Dienes has been with USM U. Schärer Söhne AG in Münsingen since 2000. As Group Product Development Director, he is responsible for the products at USM.