The Back Room
Inside the Zurich Design Museum Collection

For centuries, Swiss design was synonymous with watches, army knives, sewing machines, and other precision utilitarian objects. Then came the rise of Swiss graphics and typography in the 20th century, when the grids and sans serifs of talents like Josef Müller-Brockmann and Jan Tschichold created a legacy that dominates the tiny country’s design reputation even today. But inside the 10,000-square-foot universe of the Museum Für Gestaltung Zurich’s collection archives — behind whose doors normally only curators and students are allowed — every chair, teapot, and cigarette lighter is either a product of or an influence on Switzerland’s industrial design history, which the museum strives to promote through the five to seven temporary exhibitions it produces each year.

When Sight Unseen was invited in April to tour and photograph the Design Collection, one of four housed in the archive building, it was the first time we’d seen a museum collection in storage, and it was quite an impressive sight. Containing more than 10,000 products and 20,000 examples of packaging — including prototypes, one-offs, and mass-produced items both anonymous and designer — it fills rows and rows of shelves stretching all the way to the ceiling, plus dozens that are compressed together on moveable tracks like library stacks. Started in 1987, it’s younger than the museum’s poster, graphics, and applied arts collections, and around 40-50 percent of the objects it comprises are Swiss. There are Sigg bottles, Freitag bags, and Swiss airline utensils, while in the chair room, rough, forgotten prototypes for a bakelite shell chair by Willy Guhl appear strikingly similar to the fiberglass versions Charles Eames was developing across the Atlantic at the exact same time.

We documented these and other finds in the slideshow at right to the best of our abilities, but we were unable to secure a follow-up interview to learn more about how and why the museum makes each new acquisition, as the museum’s curators were busily preparing their upcoming show —  “Make Up: Designing Surfaces,” which opens August 25. If you have questions about anything you see in this story, we encourage you to email the museum by clicking here.

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In the Design Collection's main room, huge movable stacks hold small objects were either made by Swiss designers and manufacturers or are somehow relevant to everyday Swiss life.

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Each typology in the collection — in this case watering cans — is often represented by dozens of examples, some anonymous, some designer: The cans with the longest spouts are by Swiss designer Wilhelm Kienzle.

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Various coffee-making devices spanning the last century. Bodum, for example, has been based in Lucerne since 1979.

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Recycled bag-maker Freitag was founded in Zurich in 1993. This is its very first prototype, which was donated to the museum a few years ago.

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Kitchen tools, with models by Zyliss — manufactured in Switzerland since the '50s — barely visible at left.

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A Peugeot coffee mill, which the French company first began manufacturing as far back as 1842.

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Signs from Swiss shop windows, made in the 1950s.

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Pipes, lighters, and flasks.

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Even seemingly mundane objects like toilets and sinks have a prominent place in the archives.

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The Blow Inflatable Armchair in blue at left is also in MoMA's permanent collection; it was designed in 1967 by Italians Jonathan De Pas, Donato D'Urbino, and Paolo Lomazzi for Zanotta.

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The Schubladenstapel chest of drawers by Susi and Ulie Berger for Swiss furniture-maker Röthlisberger.

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Part of an original Frankfurt kitchen, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's iconic low-cost design for a German social housing project.

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Inside the archive's special room devoted only to chairs — including prototypes by the likes of Konstantin Grcic, Alfredo Haberli, and Jörg Boner.

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A minibar used on Swiss trains in the '90s.

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Four prototypes for Jörg Boner's 42 armchair, for the Swiss furniture company Wogg.

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The lobby of the archive is used to organize the assets for upcoming shows, in this case one exploring surfaces and finishes, opening at the museum August 25. Its catalog essay is written by Kenya Hara.

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Three production versions of the Panton chair, whose glossy surface had become matte by the 1990s.

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Three examples of enameling.

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Ettore Sottsass's 1981 duck-shaped Tahiti lamp, a polychrome-enameled metal swivel head mounted on a black-and-white laminate base.

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