ALFREDO HÄBERLI Designer with a difference

Issue: Issue2 2014
Buenos Aires-born and Zurich-based Alfredo Häberli is Switzerland's most prolific furniture, product and interior designer. Fresh from his last project, the award-winning 25hours Design Hotel in hip Zurich West, he talks to Jennifer Davies about his life and work in the city.

You moved to Zurich from Argentina – a real contrast of cultures. How did you adjust?

When I first arrived, I was 13 years old, nearly 14, and suddenly found myself going to school here in Zurich. I missed the relaxed Latino way of life and actually my Dad worked for Swissair, so I was able to fly almost for free and I spent many weekends travelling to Milan, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and London. That brought me a sense of balance and distance from the German part of Switzerland. However I soon learned some very positive things from the Swiss, such as how to remain calm, be humble, not to bluff or boast and to be straight and direct when you meet people...and I also learned to speak six languages.
I think once you've left your home country, you're at home everywhere. It's more about yourself than about the city: Today I'm a very proud resident of Zurich. Here, what you see is what you get.

As a designer why do you choose to live and work in Zurich rather than in one of the more famous world design capitals, like Milan, for example?

When I was in Milan on a trip as a teenager, I discovered the work of (the legendary Italian designer) Achille Castiglioni, who inspired me to study design. I opened my studio – on the advice of Castiglioni himself – in Zurich, in 1991, the week after I graduated with my degree from the University of Zurich's Design School. I also received the diploma prize. That was quite unique for a non-native Swiss! Since then I have never felt out of place here. Zurich offers a perfect symbiosis between nature and culture, calm and activity. It has just the right size, distance and diversity I need. If I need more, I simply go to a bigger city. If I need less, I go into the forest. Zurich works perfectly.

What were the challenges of starting a design business here?

For the first ten years it was hard to make an impression in the international design field from such a small country. England compares itself with Germany, France with Italy. Yet here we live in a small country with four different language barriers. But I've had a lot of luck and my parents gave me a lot of self-confidence to fight for my dream and eventually the vision came true. Step by step, little by little.

How does being from Argentina influence you?

I always express it like this: my rational side and my ability to think in complex ways are from Switzerland, while my direct, open and playful side is from Argentina. The combination of both sides – that's me.

How do you keep your work innovative when it's been in the public eye for decades?

I never follow trends. Instead I ask myself "what would I need? What would I buy? What touches me?" I design things that are made for looking twice, are not judged at first sight, they don't shout or scream too loud. I always try to innovate a little bit, with just a small step and with the twinkling of an eye. I try to create the maximum amount of soul in my pieces, with the minimum of materials.


What do you think has been the secret to your success?

In the last 10 years I've been able to harvest the fruits of the seeds I planted and the international design companies I've worked for have now became friends. The trust, and the challenge to reciprocate that trust, motivates me a lot. Also becoming the father of two children and being able to survive financially from what I love to do has also made me very relaxed. There is space for everyone. I don't have to take it all.

Although you love designing, have you ever felt trapped by your job?

No, not so far. Last year, when I finished the 25hours Hotel Zurich West (I designed everything from door handle to the carpets, from the lamps to the cutlery – in all around 60 new products), I was tired. Then I took time just for me, creating a lot of distance from work. Actually I've never really been a workaholic.

What are your plans for the future?

I'm working on four knitted fabrics for Kvardrat (top Danish textile company) and I've started to work on a children's book – now, at 50 years old! I'm also working on a pre-fabricated house. And I soon will work on a simple pencil. These are all dreams from my childhood.



1. Favourite colours?

Dark blue with a thin pale green line.

2. Favourite place?

A room with a view.

3. Biggest inspiration?

Just a sheet of paper and a pencil.

4. Motto for how to live life?

There's no rush, but time.

5. How would you like to be remembered in life?

As a gentleman who treated his fellow human beings and their passion for design with respect and joy.

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Photos:©Herbert Zimmermann, ©Jonas Kuhn, ©Isabel Truniger,  ©Jonas Kuhn

Author: Jennifer Davies

Jennifer Davies was the Editor in Chief of Hello Switzerland in 2014. Her career started as a news reporter and newsreader at the BBC and she is the only English language journalist ever to have been awarded the top broadcast journalism prize from SRF (Swiss Broadcasting Corporation). Jennifer has lived and and worked for nearly a decade in Zurich, during which she has edited 7 magazines and broadcasted for BBC, SRF and Monocle among others, including international corporate clients.

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