Robert Haussmann passed away on 21 September. An obituary of the Swiss architect and designer and his playful approach to modernity.
By Thomas Wagner.
Robert Haussmann was born in 1931 into a world of dignified and coherent interior design: his father was an upholsterer and upholsterer, and so the son learned early on how to handle a wide variety of materials with precision and skill. He studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Zurich with Willy Guhl, Wilhelm Kienzle and Johannes Itten and at the School of Arts and Crafts in Amsterdam. He became infected with modernist ideas, studying with Gerrit Rietvelt, a representative of the De Stijl group. One of Haussmann’s early works can be found in the bar of the Zurich „Kronenhalle“, which was furnished in 1965. Its play with material and light is inspired by Adolf Loos’ „American Bar“ in Vienna; the solidity of the furnishings exudes the serious calm of an English club.
Robert and Trix
But Haussmann – or rather the Haussmanns – are by no means practising reverential worship of an increasingly ossified modernism: Robert and Trix Högl married in 1967 and from then on act as a team, developing their ideas, as Trix once called it, in „ping-pong“. They also tie in with the anarchisms of the Zurich Dadaists and found the „Allgemeine Entwurfsanstalt Zürich“ in the year of their wedding. One of their first joint works is an insidious series of dysfunctional chairs – one apparently melts like chocolate, another promises pain instead of comfort. It is recognisably more fun to destroy „good form“ than to celebrate it.
A key scene for Robert Haussmann, it is said, was an encounter with Hans Arp. The Dadaist poet and sculptor dropped in now and then at private lectures given by the architectural theorist Siegfried Giedion, which Haussmann attended at the end of his studies. Once Arp threw matches on a table and said, „That’s nice.“ Then he gathered them up again, threw them again and said, „And this is beautiful, too.“ Haussmann understood immediately: beauty is contingent, arises by chance. What is there can be thrown together anew. In 1977, the Haussmanns published a series of „teaching pieces“ that exemplify how new things can be created from existing things. A desk in the form of a brick bridge or a tower of drawers in the shape of an Ionic column deliberately undermine the modern credo „form follows function“.
Playing with traditions
A small lounge chair designed in 1962 also shows how playfully Robert and Trix dealt with modernity and tradition in general. A piece of furniture, according to Robert Haussmann, „that offers the comfort of the classic Chesterfield, but with a lighter appearance“. A few years ago, Walter Knoll reissued the „310“. For deSede, the designer has created an equally hybrid Chesterfield sofa. The two called their play with perspectives, optical illusions and ironic material quotations „Manierismo Critico“, with which they repeatedly sought to counter the „poverty of expression“ of modernism. That the Haussmanns also played the game with virtuosity as architects and yet remained Swissly serious can be marvelled at in the Shop-Ville under Zurich’s main railway station, where in 1981 they dressed the extension of the station passage in black and white marble stripes and used mirrors to create an illusionistic space that makes the low ceilings appear higher.
Robert Haussmann practised the method of interrogating design and architecture with commitment and relish, also in teaching assignments at the Zurich School of Applied Arts and the ETH Zurich. From 1986 to 1998, he also worked as a design professor for architecture at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts. In 2013, he and his wife were awarded the Grand Prix Design by the Federal Office of Culture for their joint work. Robert Haussmann died on 21 September. He would have been 90 years old on 23 October (Link in German).
More about Robert Haussmann
The website Trix and Robert Haussmann Architects and Designers is dedicated to the life and work of the designing couple.
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