Willy Guhl, master of Eternit
Minimalism, functionality and elegance: Swiss design captivates with its unique identity and its capacity for innovation. Willy Guhl is one of those historic designers who have contributed to the international reputation of Swiss design. He is one of the leading exponents of neo-functionalism.
“Willy Guhl was an inventor, an experimenter, a researcher and a visionary. Despite this, he did not lose himself in utopia. He proved to be pragmatic to the point of genius” Robert Haussman
Willy Guhl, whose father was a carpenter, trained as a cabinetmaker at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich – the Zurich School of Applied Arts where he taught from 1941 – and became head of the interior design department in 1951.
At the end of the 1940s, he conducted pioneering research into plastic furniture. He then developed a knowledge of moulding techniques which enabled him to reveal himself by transposing them onto a new material: Eternit, also known as fibrocement.
Eternit is a kind of cement reinforced with asbestos and with a fibrous texture, which allows the creation of bold pieces with new shapes. It takes the form of large slabs that can be shaped until they are dry. Originally produced for industrial use, it is a very inexpensive and strong material and is therefore perfectly suited to the manufacture of outdoor furniture.
Willy Guhl was one of the first in Europe to use fibre cement and his knowledge of moulding techniques enabled him to sublimate it like few others.
Among Willy Guhl’s most famous works is the outdoor rocking chair Loop (1954).
Designed to withstand the elements, the Loop is Willy Guhl’s first piece of furniture made of Eternit. The minimalist-looking chair is made of fibre cement moulded into a single continuous strip that forms a loop. The seat and backrest are hollow, which makes it lighter. This void plays a decisive role and gives it a sculptural dimension inspired by modern sculpture. This chair fully satisfies Guhl’s desire to “achieve an optimal result with a minimum of effort”.
The Loop chair quickly became a design icon, thanks to its structural simplicity and its innovative manufacturing process. It was awarded the Swiss “Die Gute Form” prize in 1955.
Although the chair had a low production cost, it was almost no longer produced. Indeed, its production was stopped in the 1980s because of the environmental risks it presented (10% asbestos in its composition). The MoMA in New York decided to remove it from its collection.
It was not until 1999 that it was reissued, with Willy Guhl designing a new version without asbestos this time.