The Making of
The Rosshaar Mattress by Daniel Heer

From birth, Daniel Heer was groomed to take over his family’s leather- and mattress-making business. He learned the necessary skills early on, honing them through an adolescence spent at the Heer workshop in Lucerne, Switzerland, watching his father and grandfather work. His post-secondary education focused on one thing and one thing only: how to ply his trade. And then when he moved to Berlin at age 20, he left it all behind, to the obvious dismay of his parents. “There was always this question of would I come home, or would I stay abroad? And what would happen to the family factory?” Heer, now 32, recalls. Then it struck him — if he knew how to handcraft leather goods and horsehair mattresses exactly as his great-grandfather had done upon founding the workshop in 1906, couldn’t he carry on the tradition somewhere new?

In fact, Heer credits the move itself with giving him the motivation to set up his own workshop two years ago, where he now makes, all by himself, both mattresses and his own line of bags inspired by his grandfather’s. “I never would have done this in Switzerland,” he says, despite the fact that he studied saddle-making and upholstery, not design. “Sometimes you have to go away to find out how important family traditions are.”

His compromise was to take his arm of the business in subtle new directions, using the same age-old techniques but with contemporary updates like modern fabric coverings and his AMPM daybed concept, with which he launched his mattress service at Art Berlin Contemporary. When his father — who still runs the family workshop back in Lucerne — came to visit him in Berlin, Heer invited all of his friends to attend a father-son mattress-making workshop, and he found it fascinating being able to introduce his dad to his own point of view. “For my parents it’s old-generation work; they do it more like a habit,” he says. “If they talk about a bed, it’s always a mattress with a blanket and a pillow and a covering, so it was interesting explaining to my father the concept of AMPM, and what it actually means for me to make a horsehair mattress and bring it into a new context.” We asked him to explain it to us, too, so he walked us through his fabrication process.

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Heer handcrafts his Rosshaar ("horsehair" in German) mattresses to order in his studio in the Kreutzberg neighborhood of Berlin. While his grandfather and great-grandfather had to fill each mattress order in one day because their clients usually had nowhere else to sleep, Heer's standard fabrication time is two days. He does everything himself, from start to finish.

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What makes Heer's mattresses most distinct from his family's is the fact that they don't need a separate covering — the fabric he uses is beautiful and durable enough to stand on its own. Each costs €2,000, but some would argue that the advantages of sleeping on a horsehair mattress are worth that price alone: superior spinal support, moisture absorption that regulates body temperature, and no metals or toxic glues.

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An old advertisement for the mattress services of Heer's great-grandfather, Benedikt Heer. Even though the product itself is so traditional, Heer envisions his eventually being sold in concept stores like Project No. 8 in New York.

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The original Heer workshop and family home in Lucerne, where Benedikt made mattresses and saddles. "Our neighbor across the street was a blacksmith, so when farmers came to the village, they left their horses with him and brought their saddles to us for repair," Heer says. The family's current workshop still operates out of the same building.

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Heer mattresses always begin with 33 pounds of Swiss Toggenburger horsehair. Hair from the mane makes for medium firmness, while hair from the tail is much stronger. "Firmness is a very personal issue," says Heer. He's had several requests from clients to ship a mattress to their home just so they could test it out for a few nights. The quality of the filling also means his family's mattresses last 100 years — the horsehair just needs to be cleaned and re-covered every 15.

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The only other material used in Heer's mattresses is the fabric the hair is wrapped in — no coils, glues, or supports of any kind. His signature covering is a Kvadrat wool, whose texture he likens to that of a fine suit.

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The most challenging part of Heer's production process is stuffing the mattress — it's much like sculpting, in that it takes years of practice to be able to instinctively feel when you're achieving the right form. Heer takes one full day to stuff each mattress, building up the horsehair in three layers. "When I did the workshop here with my father, he said I was too slow," he says. "His father used a pitchfork because there wasn’t enough time. For me it's very meditative work."

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He places a thin layer of virgin wool fleece at the very top of each mattress, to smooth out the horsehair and make sure none of it pokes out of the fabric covering. When fully stuffed, a mattress can be 20 inches high: "There's so much material inside, you think the fabric is about to explode," says Heer. It's then he begins the process of giving it shape, starting with hand-sewing its rolled edges.

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"Before the edges are done, it just looks like a whale," he says. "It's a beautiful, beautiful moment when a mattress begins to have the right shape."

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Once the edges are done, Heer begins working on the buttons, another time-consuming process. It's important to him that his mattresses be made entirely from the same fabric, so he pulls thread from whatever covering he's using and hand-sews it to make the buttons. It takes 46 of them to finish each 1-meter by 2-meter mattress.

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The tufts anchor the horsehair in place inside the mattress so his clients don't end up with a deep dent beneath them.

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The finishing touch: Heer's own logo, which adorns all of his work in the form of a small metal button.

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Heer's main business is his line of bags, which are inspired by the traditional leather goods both created in and left for repair at his family's workshop throughout his childhood. But he's also recently begun making stools, named Keil after the German word for a wood joinery technique — the straps are woven directly onto the frames, obviating the need for glue or nails. It's all part of his craftsman's love for consistency, and for doing things the simplest way possible, even if it requires more time and technical skill.

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"I would never say I’m a product designer," says Heer. "It’s not my way of working. But I also wouldn’t say I just copy traditional forms. It’s important to me to understand them but to make them new in my own way."