New York honours small country big on design

Curator Ariana Pradal has brought the show to New York.

New York has been paying tribute to the Swiss-made gadgets that have become household names around the world.

This content was published on March 28, 2003 - 10:20

The Swiss Design exhibition is one of about 100 shows and events of the eight-week "swisspeaks" festival in New York, which Switzerland hopes will strengthen business ties and promote Swiss arts, culture and tourism in the city.

While the Swiss tourist board has taken over a large hall in New York's Grand Central Terminal, the swisspeaks organisers have relegated the Swiss Design exhibition to a small furniture store-cum-gallery in the Soho district.

Instead of reaching a few thousand people each day, only a few dozen are exposed to Swiss design at the Totem Design Gallery.

They are however, the right people.

Design crowd

"It's a lot of the creative people in New York, either in fashion, graphics or the media, as well as architects and designers," explains David Shearer of Totem.

"It's pretty much a cross section of what we in New York call the hip, design crowd."

Whereas there is a brisk trade in the chocolate, cheese and watches at Grand Central, most of the Swiss gadgets at Totem are not even for sale.

Clocks and peelers

The Swiss railway clocks, army knives, and Rex potato peelers, as well as a myriad of other pocket size items, are displayed in cases and on shelves lining the walls.

They surround expensive Italian and French furniture - price tags attached.

"We actually use the store as a vehicle to educate," Shearer says to explain the gallery's philosophy.

"As opposed to a non-profit organisation which involves funding, we actually use the revenue we get from operating a retail location to finance the educational events."

The Swiss objects are divided into seven categories encompassing classic Swiss design and the latest creations to come out of the country.


The wish of the curators is to show the strength of continuity in Swiss design over the decades.

"Many of the objects displayed were made 50 or 60 years ago, and their product language is so timeless that they are still in demand," says one of the Swiss curators, Ariana Pradal.

Among the "longsellers" is a wooden "Swiss officer's knife" from 1890, displayed beside a more modern stainless steel version.


Also on show is an example of the Helvetica typeface, a Velcro fastener from 1951, a box of Ovaltine drink and a Rex vegetable peeler.

As the accompanying text says, these items are still produced: "They give pleasure and have a history of longevity in a material world," which usually discards its inventions almost as fast as it can make them.

Pradal is not comfortable with the name of the exhibition. She says the exhibition showcases design from Switzerland and not Swiss design, since high craftsmanship is the only common denominator.

"It's incredible how many people in such a small country contribute to design in so many different ways," she says.

Variety and quality

"That's the strength of Swiss design - the variety and quality produced in such a tiny place."

However, the exhibition does not completely succeed in bringing across the practicality of the items.

Modest hand-held vegetable peelers and cake tins sit side by side with high-tech coffee makers.

They are designed to be functional but sit uncomfortably idle on the cold gallery shelves.

Missing are the sounds and smell of coffee being ground or the sight of potatoes being peeled.

Sharpening the senses

The descriptions are a small consolation - witty and curious at the same time:

"Design lengthens limbs and sharpens the senses...we can cut and beat, chop and mow, stir and scrape. Swiss design is strong in these areas."

The section "Small and Beautiful" brings the message across more succinctly: "Respect for the millimetre is essential for ideas to succeed and requires both technical and design expertise."

Examples of this are doorknobs, padlocks, postage stamps, a Logitech computer mouse and precision instruments for eye operations.

Switzerland remains a little country with big - and small - ideas.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in New York

In brief

Swiss Design is one of about 100 events and exhibitions at the swisspeaks festival in New York.
The event at the Totem Design Gallery in the Soho District of New York showcases the achievements in Swiss design from the 19th century up to the present day.
It highlights the respect for tradition and quality in modern Swiss design.

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