Horgenglarus – where a chair is not just a chair
The Glärnisch towers in the sky. The prominent mountain near Glarus, the capital of the eponymous canton in eastern Switzerland, looms over the Horgenglarus chairmaking workshop. The first part of the company’s name is all that now ties the small furniture manufacturer to distant Horgen, a town on the shore of Lake Zurich. Originally founded there in 1880 in a former textile printer’s workshop, the company expanded to include a production site in Glarus, the present place of business, in 1902.
What remains is the quaint name. It dates back to bygone days when the name of a region was considered to add a certain cachet. Zurich Financial Services owes its name to this tradition, as did the now defunct machine factory Winterthur or products such as Valser Wasser, the mineral water brand. Today brands are created in a more sophisticated manner, and no startup nowadays would christen itself “Schlieren” as did the railway rolling stock and elevator manufacturer from Zurich’s suburbs.
With its 40 employees, Horgenglarus is not only the largest, but also the only industrial manufacturer in the capital situated in the Zigerschlitz as the rest of Switzerland affectionately calls the narrow alpine valley. The locals here are understandably proud of the worldwide reputation the chairs of Horgenglarus have achieved.
We use hardwoods that grow in the harsh climate of the Jura.
It is possible that not everyone understands the cult surrounding the products created here. After all, what is so special about chairs made at a workshop next to the train station in a Swiss village that star architects like Herzog & de Meuron choose them to adorn their exclusive architectural constructions in far-off places like California? Perhaps architects are occasionally somewhat eccentric, but they certainly respect authenticity. To the undiscerning eye, the furniture produced here may seem indistinguishable from the ordinary everyday wooden chairs that can be found in most local taverns. Nothing about them would make you guess that they have been designed by the likes of Werner Max Moser, Max Ernst Haefeli, Max Bill, Hans Bellmann, or Robert and Trix Haussmann.
Markus Landolt, who runs the enterprise he bought twelve years ago, opens the door to the sawmill where a carpenter is cutting raw planks down to more manageable pieces. The timber used consists exclusively of hardwoods, ranging from maple to cherry. For the past 90 years, however, Horgenglarus has mainly chosen beechwood from the Jurassian region Vendlincourt . The trees grow particularly slowly in the harsh climate there, lending the wood beautiful markings and making it dense and long-lasting.
In a next step, the prepared wooden slats and planks are put into steam vats where their natural degree of moisture is increased from the original 20 percent to 40 percent. Now they can be fitted into templates and bent. After the frames, legs, and backs have dried and their core humidity has been reduced to 8 percent, the pieces are stable and ready for further processing. Later in the workshop, the elements are assembled: Backs and seats are joined, legs are tailored to the right height, surfaces are polished, and, finally, the chairs are oiled, soaped, or varnished.
Our strength lies in being in charge of every step of the production process.”
Markus Landolt considers it essential that the leather, upholstery materials, and the wickerwork used in his products are of the same solid Swiss quality as the chair frames. And so he chooses to work with suppliers like Max Gimmel of Arbon, who practically knows the name of each cow that provides the leather he delivers, and high-end textile manufacturer Christian Fischbacher in St. Gallen who produces the upholstery material. The wickerwork is from the Flechterei Seestern in Männedorf, a workshop for disabled people who weave the bamboo wickerwork by hand.
This means that – despite serial production – every chair made by Horgenglarus is basically handmade and thus a unique specimen. Obviously this comes at a price. Beechwood chairs, depending on the model and the features, cost between 500 and 800 Swiss francs each. Despite these prices, the enterprise remains competitive in a high-end market where clients value longevity, service, and design.
“Our involvement in every step of the process is what makes us successful,” states Markus Landolt. This means the business is not at the mercy of suppliers and fluctuations in quality. He is convinced that the key to a flourishing business is keeping know-how in the company. This is the only way to ensure that furniture can be restored faithfully even after decades. One example are the chairs for the National Council in Bern: One hundred years after Horgenglarus first delivered furniture to Switzerland’s parliament, they were asked to refurbish the original chairs.
Along with a client list that features a large number of prestigious names – including the Swiss embassy in Washington D.C., the Swiss National Bank, or the five-star hotel Suvretta in St. Moritz – company know-how is the most important asset. And Landolt has been careful to preserve this legacy since taking over the company in 1999. The proprietor and CEO’s connections with the company, however, go back to a much earlier date: he initially did his commercial training here. After earning a degree in business administration, it was almost by chance that he had the opportunity take over the business a couple of decades later.
Landolt started hiring young employees who were subsequently trained by the veteran, and – in many cases – soon-to-be-retired, craftsmen, thus ensuring that their knowledge could be passed on. As the machinery was generally outdated, he seized the opportunity to invest in electronic CNC machine tools without suffering great write-off losses. Today, Horgenglarus employs a young workforce that is proud of the products it manufactures.
The furniture range underwent a similar rejuvenation. Zurich designer Hannes Wettstein (1958 – 2008) was asked to produce an entire new line that drew on the Horgenglarus tradition. And, currently, two further product lines designed by architect Max Dudler and young designer Moritz Schlatter are on the verge of being released. “I want to give the collection a cutting edge,” Landolt explains. “Horgenglarus” is a title that is not lightly bestowed.
At present, Moser is more in demand than Bill.
Landolt strides through the showroom and subjects his products to a ritual inspection. At present, the Max Bill chairs are less in demand than the models dating from the 20s and 30s of the last century. Yet that does not really worry him. At Horgenglarus, a season can last an entire generation. And it poses no problem whatsoever should a long-discontinued model unexpectedly come back into demand. The original templates still hang on the walls. In a matter of weeks any model, no matter how unusual, can be ready for delivery.
A brief glance through the CEO’s office window confirms that the Glärnisch remains on watch over the welfare of the company. And, for a moment, it’s as if we catch a glimpse of the Almighty himself seated on the eternal rock in a throne made by Horgenglarus.
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The Brander is a publication of the Branders Group