Swiss neo-functionalist designer Willy Guhl (1915-2004) was an innovative furniture designer, product conceptor, and early advocate for flat-packed, mass produced furniture that made high-quality design affordable to the masses. Guhl is best remembered for his inexpensive, weather-resistant cement designs produced by the Swiss company Eternit.
Born in 1915 in Stein-am-Rhein in German-speaking Switzerland, Guhl trained as a cabinetmaker at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich, opening his own design studio and workshop in 1939. One of his earliest furniture designs included the rectangular Bankstuhl (1941) for Röthlisberger, which featured a cane seat and backrest, as well as the ability to form a row of seats when connected with other models. He returned to his alma mater as an instructor of interior design, where he eventually became the director in 1951 and established Switzerland’s first specialized Product Design center.
During Europe’s post-war reconstruction, Guhl helped design social housing that was easy and economical to construct. Guhl was heavily influenced by the drive to discover innovative ways to build homes that required the development of modern technology and materials. The Swiss designer was among the first to create furniture from fiberglass, namely the Scobalit Chair (late 1940s).
In 1951, the Swiss company Eternit, which originally focused on fiber-reinforced concrete roofing and cladding, commissioned Guhl—along with his students at the School of Applied Arts—to create concrete planters. The use of asbestos as a reinforcing element created a product that was elegant, yet extremely strong and stable. Eternit formed an essential part of Guhl’s teaching, which was based on realizing the potential of new materials. Designs that resulted from the student group included the Elephant Ear Planter (1951), which was formed from draping their fabric-like concrete over a mold, then upturned; and the hourglass or diabolo-shaped Spindle Planter (1951) designed by Guhl and his student Anton Bee.
In 1954, Guhl designed the Loop Chair for Eternit, which became an instant mid-century classic and his most recognized design. This continuous ribbon-like garden chair perfectly personified his personal maxim: “achieving the most with the minimum effort.” It was awarded the Gute Form prize and is housed in the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany and the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich. Due to the carcinogenic nature of asbestos, Eternit ceased production of Guhl’s garden chair in 1980. After just two weeks on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2001, it was removed because of health concerns. The museum's German and Swiss counterparts have sealed the surface of the chair, eliminating the risk of exposure.
Guhl retired from teaching in 1981, but continued to work as a designer. Over the course of his career, Guhl garnered considerable acclaim for his designs and was the subject of a retrospective exhibition in 1985 entitled, “Willy Guhl: Designer and Teacher” at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich. Notably, he co-founded the Association of Swiss Interior Designers (Vereinigung Schweizer Innenarchitekten) in 1943, and the Association of Swiss Industrial Designers in 1966.
In 1998, Guhl redesigned his iconic Loop Chair, removing the asbestos. It’s production was reinstated by Eternit, with the addition of the Loop Side Table in 2000.
Guhl passed away in 2004, in his hometown, at the age of 89.