The fruits of Werner Zemp’s work are the kinds of objects we encounter – often unwittingly – in public spaces: light switches, control panels in lifts, park benches, illuminated letter boxes or a by now legendary litter bin that recalls the shape of a shark’s head. Twelve years ago, JURA commissioned the doyen of the Swiss industrial design scene to create the striking Z line with its characteristically contoured front panel. Since then, Zemp has taken a step back from his professional career. But he has not remained inactive. On the contrary: as active and agile as ever, he now dedicates himself entirely to art. His enthusiasm for experimentation, for trying out as much as is possible, remains unbroken. ‘Now I’m in a position to realize my visions completely free of constraints from outside: uncompromisingly, without taking anyone else’s needs into account.’
Amden, an idyllic village with a population of 1600, is perched high up on a slope. A road snakes and winds its way up past meticulously kept gardens and houses, rising an impressive 1680 metres from the lowest point in the municipality to the highest. At some point, a road veers off to the left and takes us to the house of Werner and Margarita Zemp. Strictly geometric but organically inspired sculptures in the garden suggest that the people who live here have a finely developed aesthetic sense. The rooms in the house are light flooded. The sober white of the walls is broken by the warm wood tones of the ceilings and floors. The walls are hung with colourful watercolours and reliefs which, thanks to the changing light from the passing clouds, appear to breathe. The imposing landscape with its breathtaking postcard panorama, the view over the lake, and the majestic Alps rising up in the distance, was the place the couple chose for their retirement. In the case of Werner Zemp, this is patently the wrong word, because he is still a wellspring of ideas and has retained his unquenchable passion for design.

From dedicated carpenter to creative designer

At the start of his career, there was nothing to indicate that he would go on to become one of Switzerland’s leading designers. ‘In my hometown, there was little to choose from in the way of professions. I couldn’t imagine being a butcher or a hairdresser or a baker. So I did an apprenticeship as a carpenter.’ With a marketable skill in his pocket, young Werner Zemp attended the then Lucerne School of Art and Design. While there, he came across an announcement from the well-known Ulm School of Design. To his ears, it sounded like a call he could hardly ignore. ‘The Ulm School saw itself as a successor to the Bauhaus movement. But unlike the Bauhaus, where art and craft were central elements, Ulm focused on design as a scientific process of gradual development and built opportunities for feedback into the creative process.’ Back then, the term ‘designer’ as a job title was virtually unknown. Zemp: ‘We’d talk about “modellers” and people often asked me whether there was any real need for them. Today, design has a completely different status. No one would dream of manufacturing something without taking its design into consideration.’ After graduating, Zemp embarked on his journeyman years, gathering experience in jobs both at home and abroad before taking the plunge and becoming self-employed.

A stickler for precision, he has repeatedly returned to one particular shape throughout his entire career: the sine curve. ‘A teacher once told me to analyse the umbel of a sunflower in detail and then rearrange it. Ever since then, the sine curve and the smooth, seamless transition from radii to surfaces have exercised an almost irresistible attraction on me.’ So was Nature your teacher? ‘No: more a source of inspiration,’ explains Zemp, slowly turning the pencil that is his constant companion between his thumb and forefinger. ‘It was never my intention to copy Nature. I always took care to observe it precisely, to study and learn from it. And, finally, I reinterpreted it in my own designs.’ The forms Zemp creates appear to be strictly geometric. But despite their reduction to essentials, they have a strong emotional appeal. Their intrinsic complexity becomes apparent only when you look more closely. ‘I work a lot with the idea of perception. The angle at which light strikes an object can change its form completely.’ To demonstrate what he means, he slowly moves one of his objects back and forth in front of the ceiling-high windows that admit the rays of sunlight into his studio. I love the interplay of light and shade because it infuses life into the things I make.’

When you’re in love, it can’t fail to turn out well

For Zemp, reducing a shape to its bare minimum while imbuing it with an aura, a personality, is one of the essential questions. He considers objects that have been subject to design overkill as confusing and full of conflicting messages. ‘Too many flourishes and fussy lines are distracting. The eye lacks guidance and gets lost, not knowing what to focus on. That’s why I completely reject frills and short-lived gimmickry.’ Good design stands out because even after years of use it still seems fresh and vibrant. ‘That’s the challenge we face. And the fact that every challenge is a new one is what makes the job so exciting: it keeps you alert and agile.’ Zemp’s recipe for success: ‘Your work has to be a pleasure. If you’re in love with a project, it will turn out well.’

In Werner Zemp’s eyes, design is just one of the factors that contribute to a product’s success. ‘For a product to gain widespread acceptance out there in the marketplace, it always needs a legitimate reason for existing: it must be relevant. The shell or housing in which it is enclosed has the job of transforming its inner values – its quality, in other words – into a universally understandable statement and conveying it to the outside world.’ No less important than form is the way it feels to the touch: it calls for understanding and dialogue. ‘It’s only when we hold an object that we really grasp it. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word.’ He is currently grappling with this topic intensively because he is working on the artistic design of a 40-metre-long corridor in a public building. ‘In this project, it’s all about a series of relief images, about the magic of light and shade in the interplay of sharp contours and gentle surfaces.’ Totally in keeping with the motto ‘please touch’, he believes: ‘My objects need to be handled, felt and experienced in every sense of the word.’ 

Intelligent operation thanks to scalpel-like precision

For Werner Zemp, a product’s benefits must be reflected both in its exterior and in the way it is operated. Here, the maxim ’straight to the point’ counts more than ever. ’Simple, self-explanatory operation has almost the same value as the actual function of a product. Why would I want to buy something if operating it is so complicated that I hardly ever use it?’ The question may sound as clear and logical as Zemp’s use of form, but is every bit as difficult to realize. ’Intelligent operation is founded on clearly structured ideas. Only if I can describe the function with scalpel-like precision and reduce it to essentials am I in a position to emulate it in a user interface.’ Zemp talks of clear, unequivocal operating elements, of intuitive operation. In the same breath, however, he warns of the dangers of too great an infatuation with technology: ‘Overly technical solutions can exclude non-digital natives and lead to generation conflicts. In any case, the central functions must be easily and quickly accessible and readily understandable for anyone.’ And here, extols the ‘father of the Z line’, JURA is absolutely on the right track.

Talking to Werner Zemp is an enriching experience. It’s a pleasure to listen to his picturesque, colourful language as he shares examples and anecdotes from his treasure-trove of experience. His enthusiasm is infectious, his passion something to which you can relate immediately. At the same time, it becomes clear what the designer and his objects have in common: they are both in fantastically good form.

Images: Remo Buess