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.