Hans Eichenberger

Hans Eichenberger
© BAK / Gina Folly

Hans Eichenberger, 1926

Furniture and interior designer

Hans Eichen­berger is a fur­ni­ture and in­te­rior de­signer based in Her­ren­schwan­den, near Bern. Fol­low­ing his train­ing as a car­pen­ter, his early years took him to Paris, where in the early 1950s Eichen­berger was part of a dy­namic cul­tural mi­lieu that strongly im­pacted his life and work. Back in Switzer­land, he went on to de­velop an un­de­ni­able im­pact in 20th cen­tury Swiss de­sign his­tory. From his col­lab­o­ra­tions with Trix and Robert Hauss­mann, Kurt Thut, teo jakob, Al­fred Hablützel — under the label “Swiss De­sign” — and Ate­lier 5, to his pro­jects for clients such as the Swiss Na­tional Bank, the Kun­st­mu­seum Bern and the SBB, Eichen­berger’s many pro­jects are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with the mak­ing of mod­ern Switzer­land. His work is in­cluded in the col­lec­tion of the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, New York, the Vitra De­sign Mu­seum, Weil am Rhein, and the Mu­seum für Gestal­tung Zürich.
The Con­fed­er­a­tion grants Eichen­berger a Swiss Grand Award for De­sign in recog­ni­tion of his sem­i­nal role in shap­ing the his­tory of 20th cen­tury Swiss fur­ni­ture and in­te­rior de­sign, and his in­flu­ence in mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of de­sign­ers both in Switzer­land and abroad. Prior to the Grand Award, Eichen­berger was dis­tin­guished with the Swiss De­sign Award in 1954, 1957 and 1958. He served as an ex­pert for the Swiss De­sign Com­pe­ti­tion from 1977 to 1983.


At the age of ninety Hans Eichen­berger has been awarded the “Grand Award for De­sign” of the Con­fed­er­a­tion. The de­signer is still very much at the top of his game and looks much younger than he is, which makes this well-de­served recog­ni­tion of his life work not as be­lated as one might ex­pect. Eichen­berger has not only de­signed over fifty chairs and nu­mer­ous pieces of fur­ni­ture, many of which are still avail­able today; as a com­mit­ted in­te­rior de­signer, he has con­sis­tently sought to im­prove the spaces in which we live.
Eichen­berger’s life work does not con­sist of an in­ven­tory of seat­ing fur­ni­ture; it is the prod­uct of a much larger men­tal and phys­i­cal uni­verse.
I have known Eichen­berger for decades ; my ap­proach to de­sign and recog­ni­tion of the chal­lenges of this pro­fes­sion are much in­debted to his in­flu­ence. He often de­scribes him­self as a “nonaca­d­e­mic de­signer”, in al­lu­sion to his ap­pren­tice­ship as a cab­i­net maker and his train­ing at the local vo­ca­tional school in Lang­nau. He can un­doubt­edly take pride in his achieve­ments: the for­mer cab­i­net maker en­joys the es­teem of his de­sign col­leagues and loyal clients, who look back on many years of suc­cess­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion. After com­plet­ing his ap­pren­tice­ship which was, in his own words, “me­dieval to the ex­treme”, and in­tern­ships as a draughts­man, Eichen­berger went to Paris where he started work­ing for the then well-known in­te­rior ar­chi­tect and de­signer Mar­cel Gas­coin, au­thor of the renowned maxim, “Il faut adapter le con­tenant au con­tenu.” [The con­tainer must be adapted to what it con­tains.] In Gas­coin’s stu­dio, Eichen­berger pri­mar­ily drafted fur­ni­ture pro­grams for the re­con­struc­tion of Le Havre and Rouen, which had been dev­as­tated by the war. He still ex­presses how much he is in­debted to Gas­coin for in­still­ing in him the re­spon­si­bil­ity of cre­at­ing de­signs that en­dure.
For BIGLA AG, one of Eichen­berger’s first im­por­tant cus­tomers, the in­vet­er­ate wood­worker de­signed two chairs using tubu­lar steel. One was a gar­den chair, the wooden back of which he turned into the seat. That was more than a sim­ple car­pen­ter’s idea; the in­spi­ra­tion for the gar­den chair was the first in a long se­ries of in­ge­nious con­struc­tions cre­ated by this in­ven­tive de­signer. In sci­en­tific pa­pers and de­sign en­cy­clopae­dias, Eichen­berger is often de­scribed as a mas­ter of re­duc­tion and omis­sion.
The as­sump­tion that Eichen­berger is a purist, who al­ways seeks the sim­plest so­lu­tion, over­looks the fact that he often tries to find the most art­ful so­lu­tion.
The SAFFA chair, cre­ated in 1955, was and still is Eichen­berger’s all-time favourite model. It is a plea­sure to hear him ex­plain how the two chrome-plated steel tubes are in­ter­twined to form the legs and arms of the chair. In ad­di­tion, he in­ter­prets the cane-wrapped back as an ob­vi­ous and nat­ural means of hold­ing the two tubes to­gether, demon­strat­ing his pas­sion­ate in­ter­est in com­bin­ing in­tel­li­gent tech­nol­ogy with aes­thetic ex­cel­lence. Soon af­ter­wards, he em­barked on his first part­ner­ship with teo jakob in Bern, who had com­pletely re­vamped his fa­ther’s tra­di­tional up­hol­stery and wall­pa­per busi­ness when he took over in 1950. It is there that Eichen­berger met Kurt Thut, who had ren­o­vated the build­ing. Robert Hauss­mann was pre­sent when it was in­au­gu­rated and soon be­came part of the cir­cle around teo.
Under the aegis of teo jakob, the trio im­ple­mented the idea of a shared fur­ni­ture col­lec­tion — and named it
“Swiss De­sign”.
Un­doubt­edly mar­ket­ing avant la let­tre, the name clev­erly pro­moted sales of mod­els by the three de­sign­ers. Eichen­berger once can­didly ad­mit­ted that it was so ex­cit­ing for him to col­lab­o­rate on the “Swiss De­sign” col­lec­tion be­cause work­ing with chrome in­stead of wood made it eas­ier for him to be mod­ern — in spite of teo’s re­peated ad­mon­ish­ment : “Lis­ten guys, don’t for­get there’s wood, too.”
In the 1960s, Eichen­berger began work­ing for sev­eral lead­ing Swiss fur­ni­ture mak­ers, among them Di­etiker, Strässle, de Sede, Röthlis­berger and WOGG. In those days, the firms, or rather their own­ers and man­agers, set great store by qual­ity, ex­cel­lence and in­no­va­tion. With them, Eichen­berger launched his ca­reer de­sign­ing chairs and fur­ni­ture as a kin­dred part­ner.
Hans Eichen­berger’s of­fi­cial title reads “In­te­rior ar­chi­tect and de­signer VSI and SWB”.* From the be­gin­ning, Eichen­berger worked as an in­te­rior ar­chi­tect on com­mis­sions of his own along­side his long-term col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ate­lier 5, where he con­tributed to many of their build­ings. In 1950 he pi­o­neered the first pa­per­back book store (for Stauf­facher) in Bern and in the 1970s and 1980s, he de­signed the ex­ec­u­tive of­fices of the SRG (Swiss Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion), the ex­ec­u­tive of­fices and meet­ing rooms of the Na­tional Bank and the Ciolina fash­ion house in Bern and Gstaad.
Eichen­berger’s tal­ent as a de­signer is paired with ex­tra­or­di­nary man­ual skills, re­in­forc­ing the ha­bit­u­ally high de­mands he made on the ma­te­r­ial qual­ity of his in­te­rior de­signs. Nonethe­less, his com­pe­tence and skills never went to his head; he was never over­bear­ing and only took in­de­pen­dent ac­tion in emer­gen­cies. His clients, like Ate­lier 5, un­der­score his readi­ness to sit down at the con­fer­ence table to work out prob­lems and analyse pro­jects after which he would go home and come up with some­thing un­ex­pected after all. The fact that the part­ner­ship lasted 35 years speaks for it­self and the café bar at the Kun­st­mu­seum Bern has not changed since it was built and de­signed by Eichen­berger in 1983.
Hans Eichen­berger is like most of his work — he doesn’t age.
Re­cently, in a con­ver­sa­tion about the floor lamp that he cre­ated for his wife Maria’s birth­day in 1954, I re­alised that his mind had fol­lowed suit. When asked why, de­spite the suc­cess of that floor lamp, he did not con­tinue de­sign­ing lamps, he thought for a mo­ment and said, “It’s very sim­ple : I’m not so good at some­thing if I can’t see it — and that ap­plies to elec­tric­ity.” And be­cause “Jöggu” is al­ways very pre­cise and does not speak in clichés, his enig­matic ex­pla­na­tion gave me food for thought. But now I know: that was the young man who is still ca­pa­ble of ex­plain­ing some­thing com­pli­cated that is on his mind in a very sim­ple way. I wish my old friend a con­tin­u­ing, en­joy­able old age in good health and with many ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.
Chris­t­ian Ja­quet

* VSI (Vere­ini­gung Schweizer In­nenar­chitek­tin­nen und -ar­chitek­ten)
Swiss As­so­ci­a­tion of In­te­rior Ar­chi­tects

SWB (Schweiz­erischer Werk­bund)
Swiss Werk­bund, As­so­ci­a­tion of De­sign­ers, est. 1915