“I give free rein to my ideas – sometimes they are real and clear, sometimes they come in the form of a sketch or a dream, and other times they are nothing but a spring breeze.”
Alfredo Häberli is known in the international design community as an extremely animated, optimistic, happy and a bit kooky designer. We met this larger than life personality during Clerkenwell Design Week 2022, where he was launching his latest Giro Soft collection for Andreu World. Our conversation with him was riveting and highly entertaining all at once, spanning his design journey, inspiration, the innovative products emerging from his studio, and his love of caricature and cartoons.
A designer deeply rooted in his Swiss and Latin American roots, Alfredo was deeply inspired from his multicultural background. He believes in living every moment to its fullest while creating timeless products that break stereotypes. His work ranges from cocktail glass design to architecture, scenography, and furniture, and he prides himself on his ability to create products that are unique and ageless.
Tell us about your design journey?
“I grew up in Argentina, South America, and moved to Switzerland at the age of fourteen. The move was a big contrast, not just in terms of the language but also in terms of culture and mentality. After some time, I began to miss the ‘Latin’ part of Argentina, and discovered that Milan was just a few hours away by train. So I travelled as often as I could to this vibrant city from when I was sixteen.
“It was in Milan that I came across a funny looking guy with wrinkles whose name I had seen on the tag of a chair. It was the famous architect, Achille Castiglioni. That was when I discovered that we could actually learn the art of making furniture as a course in Zurich. I immediately enrolled in a degree program to study Industrial Design. Milan has been a very essential part of my journey, with all its showrooms and design exhibits. After completing my degree, the first thing I did was call Achille Castiglioni, ‘the guy on the tag’, to ask him for a coffee and thank him for inspiring me to become a designer. We decided to meet in Milan the next day for all of ten minutes, which was all he could spare. Little did he know that I was in Zurich at the time, but I immediately hopped on a train to Milan for those precious 10 minutes… we ended up talking for hours! He showed me all his projects, and I finally took the courage to ask him if I could work for him. He instead suggested that I open up my own studio. And so, the very next day after my degree, I opened my studio. Castiglioni was the master who guided and inspired my entire design journey, from pursuing a degree to launching my studio in 1991.
In 1986 I discovered the Milan Furniture Fair, and would make sure to visit each year after that, noting down the brands that I loved and reaching out to them later on to convey my interest in collaborating with them. My first presentation with Alias in 1995 was a very emotional moment as I stood at one of the booths at the fair. I realised that my dream has come to life. It didn’t matter which product I stood for, all that mattered was that I had a booth there with my own piece.
How would you describe your design style?
“I don’t want to be recognised by an aesthetic. I really fight to try and not have a handwriting. This is because I feel it’s too superficial to follow trends and be identified with an aesthetic. I try to be out of time, and make products that last for a long time. That is my way of having uniqueness in design.
If I must describe my style, I would rather say that it is precision and poetry.
To further elaborate, precision is the Swiss approach to design. The engineering ideology, research on the design history to find novelties and innovation. The Latin South American side of me is the poetry, which is the emotions that one cannot describe. Poetry makes sense to your eyes, ears and emotions, and it doesn’t need descriptions or subtexts. So instead of expressing my work in terms of shape or style, I would rather portray it as precision and poetry.
What do you draw your inspiration from?
“One of the rules that I strongly adhere to and abide by over the 30 years of working in my studio is that I only work for people I like. As arrogant as that sounds, it makes complete sense to me. Ever since I was a student, I had identified ten particular companies in Italy that I wanted to work with. These companies were selected because I found their people interesting. I managed to work with eight of those ten. People like Achille Castiglioni, Bruno Munari and Somari. These personalities are so interesting and inspiring and it drives the need in me to create unique designs.
When I meet a new firm, I ask myself if I see a future with them, because my collaborations are slow and long term. I look for continuity and like to get to know my partners. With Andreu World, for example, we have new products launching every two years, and we are able to do this because of our continuous and ongoing relationship and long term vision.
Of course, I also draw inspiration from life around me. For instance, when I come to London, I walk around, take a taxi, go see boutiques and exhibitions, and soak in the colours, structures and shadows of the city. I am a very visual man with a strong understanding of history. I have 45 metres worth of books and I know every page in them, and yet I am always hungry and curious to know more and experience more.
About your latest launch with Andreu World, Giro Soft, what sets it apart from the milieu?
Giro Soft is the successor of Dado, a product we launched four years ago in association with Andreu World. Dado, which means ‘dice’ in Spanish, is a very cubic element composed of smaller, different cubic elements. We learnt that we could create Dado in a more elegant and lighter form, since we felt that Dado was more linear and closer to the Earth.
Giro Soft is the result of wanting to make something more poetic and sensual, as opposed to Dado, which swayed to the side of precision and rationality. Giro means ‘curve’ in Italian, and to stand true to its name, the Giro Soft sofa is a very curvy, smooth structure with a line that goes from the back all the way to the base of the seating. Its ergonomic design can support both upright and relaxed lounging positions. One foot of the Giro Soft is made of metal, which is very airy and the other from a slab of wood.
Giro Soft is a very interesting piece because it is a large surface that appears to hover very near the floor yet provides uplifting support. We have concentrated and focused on the architectural element, which also contributes to the aesthetic. We could call Giro Soft a kind of small-shaped invention!
How does Giro Soft fit in a workspace?
Giro Soft is a sofa, so it can easily fit in any public or a semi-public space. It comes with small swift cap tables that can be moved and rotated as per the user’s convenience, and a provision to plug in your electronic devices, which is a necessity for furniture nowadays and helps highly in a workspace. Giro Soft also has a diverse sitting position and can create very comfortable seating for working for long hours. We considered the mistakes we made in choosing the wrong furniture for working from home in the last two years, where we shared a dining table with the whole family without any concern for ergonomics, and this is what we are trying to correct with Giro Soft.
What is brewing in the Häberli Studios next?
There are a few products in the pipeline as of now, some confidential until release. I did, however, recently finish designing a watch for RADO, a pioneer Swiss watch company, which will be presented in September. I also designed a new range of serveware with the Finnish company, Iittala.
If not a designer, what would you be?
I think I would be a cartoonist or an engineer. I feel that both have the same approach as a design. The idea to create something with fewer lines and in an international language is my ultimate goal, and that’s what I like about cartoons. They reduce the number of lines and messy long messages, and simplify the story so easily. This is exactly what an engineer does too. I love caricature and have created several cartoons for a local Zurich newspaper, Neue Zürcher Zeitung. I have even made sketches for BMW.
If you had to design something without constraints, what would it be?
I have always been fond of tiny houses, like micro houses where you can create magic within a small square metre of space. I want to combine a small house with a drone, and fly my house wherever I want, be it from Valencia to the Alps or to London… wherever I wish to go.
What is the best advice you have ever received what advice would you give aspiring designers?
“The most important piece of advice that I received was from Achille Castiglioni when he suggested I open my own studio. It set me on my course.
The advice I would give to everybody is to do what sparks your interest and passion. It doesn’t matter for design or life, one should understand what their passion is, and what they really love to do. But you have to know yourself, work on yourself, and find your personal centre. I tell my children the same too. It doesn’t matter what you do, what you study, or what you will become. You will always have to choose what you feel for. Because it is important to understand yourself even if it is difficult and takes time. My son, who is pursuing History and Geography, asked me what future this degree had, and I told him that it doesn’t matter if he will get a job in it or not. If something is interesting to him, and his power and passion, he should pursue it.
Who is Alfredo Häberli, the person behind a designer?
“‘Alfredo is a very passionate, emotional and crazy guy.’ This is how I think I would be described. I take pleasure quite seriously, and try to do things that serve my craziness. I enjoy every second and I have learnt this from my Argentina days. With inflation, and the catastrophe in politics and the economy, everything there is a disaster. So we strive to survive everyday and hold dearly to every minute, second and hour of the day. We focus on the moment we live in, appreciate the people around us and try to live in it to the fullest.”