by Nitija ImmanuelJan 03, 2023
On a particularly non-nippy afternoon in the sweltering heat of New Delhi's NSIC Exhibition Ground, I sought refuge in the shaded pavilions of the 14th edition of the India Art Fair. A sensory overload, the art fair propelled international conversations on Indian and South Asian art and culture with ephemeral craft, immersive displays, and cultural discourse. When I paved my way into Rado’s experiential pop-up display at the fair, it was almost impossible to ignore the towering presence of Swiss Argentinian designer, Alfredo Häberli—swarmed by visitors, enthusiasts, and curious bystanders. As I approached the booth, patiently awaiting my turn for the interview, Häberli nodded and let out a sheepish smile, while I gleefully clocked in for the interview.
Known for his innovative and playful approach to product design, Alfredo Häberli was born in Buenos Aires in Argentina in 1964, and later moved to Switzerland in 1977. While his expansive portfolio includes furniture, lighting, textiles and lifestyle design, his works are characterised by their simplicity, functionality, and attention to detail. “If I have to describe my philosophy then I try to work with less materials, with less instruments, and maximise it. So not necessarily 'less is more,' but using the minimum to reach the maximum of the motion and functionality of the product,” he says. Häberli draws inspiration from his travels and the world around him, as well as from his childhood memories of life in Argentina. His prolific clientele includes Cappellini, Vitra, Artemide, Iittala, Andreu World and more.
To purveyors of society columns and fashion magazines, the Swiss watch brand Rado is the very model of international urbanity. In 1962, the world’s first scratch-proof watch, DiaStar was unveiled by Rado, in April, at the Art Basel fair which created ripples in the design industry. Adrian Bosshard, Rado's CEO, met with Häberli to discuss what a facelift for the iconic Rado product might entail. Six decades later, garbed in the brand’s preferred material—Ceramos™, Häberli revisited the model, with subtle but notable changes to mark its 60th anniversary.
STIR caught up with the influential designer at India Art Fair 2023 to discuss its predecessor, the re(vision) and to answer the most important question, what changed?
Nitija Immanuel: Your works seem strongly inspired by your childhood in Argentina. What particular aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your design philosophies?
Alfredo Häberli: Yes my culture is imperative to my growth as a creator but it doesn’t matter what I design; what I want to do is add some value. I don’t follow fashion in the way that it is, and I don’t follow ‘trends.’ I try to look forward to a possible future and try to implement it. I wouldn’t want to do something that is noticeably discomfit or doesn’t have the right function. Looking back to the tradition, it's important to always take one small step forward—that's why I know the history well, respect it, and in the case of the Rado DiaStar, a 60-year-old watch design that I redesigned, it was not a problem to treat it as completely new, to take really small steps forward to bring it to today and the future by making it more elegant and light and by having more hard materials—maybe a bigger dial, new interpretations of the sapphire, glass, etc.
Nitija: Could you take us through your creative partnership with Rado.
Alfredo: I received a phone call and it took me less than a second to say yes! I was reminded of one of these watches in my personal collection. Of course, then I proceeded to design the watch in 10 days but I have to say that I worked so quickly because I have been collecting since I was 18, so I really reflect. There is a reason why I collect watches, I know what I am looking for, and I know why I add another watch to my collection. So that helped me a lot, but the fruition of this dream was when I started to study industrial design and I implemented a lot of things that I wanted to change. Even so, I respect the DNA of the original DiaStar.
Architecture is a matter of centimetres, industrial design deals in millimetres, and watch design takes every mu (μ)—every micron—into account. – Alfredo Häberli
Nitija: What do you look for, when you are collaborating with brands?
Alfredo: I choose a company that I’d like to associate with. Now I am aware that it may sound quite arrogant but I only work for people I like. I spend a lot of time together with people, and since the beginning of my career 30 years ago, I have chosen companies that can allow collaboration in a cooperative spirit. But of course, you have dreams—sometimes it works, sometimes not. I cannot give you a real ‘only one’ answer to this question.
Nitija: What are some principles that you follow, when it comes to designing at any scale or any functional purpose?
Alfredo: The smallest thing I (have) designed was the watch or jewellery and the biggest was the hotel design. While, the most complicated project I worked on was automobile design. I really jumped between sizes a lot—even architecture as well. But If I have to describe my philosophy then I try to work with less materials, with less instruments, and maximise it. But not the slogan that says 'less is more,' it could be just one line, one endless line that could create a new design, it could be less material that I try to use. So the minimum to reach the maximum of the motion and functionality.
Nitija: So you strip off the basic essentials, for the design.
Nitija: What was your inspiration/idea for the design of Rado’s DiaStar Original 60-year anniversary edition?
Alfredo: In my work as a designer I am always trying to combine tradition and innovation with joy and energy, and the anniversary edition is no exception. In essence, the point was to take features of the original DiaStar and give them a contemporary form. So there’s been a minor geometric adaptation of the case, to make it look more elegant and lighter. The faceted cut of the watch glass was reinterpreted in a hexagonal form meant to highlight the 60th anniversary. The hands and date display were designed to look as modern and abstract as possible. With every product I try to add value, which lies in the everyday usefulness of the design. For the DiaStar that means you have to be able to wear it on different occasions, so it comes with two alternative straps and in a leather case that can be used as protection while travelling.
Nitija: What were the challenges compared to other products you have designed before?
Alfredo: Architecture is a matter of centimetres, industrial design deals in millimetres, and watch design takes every mu(μ)—every micron—into account. First you have to be able to see that clearly, but we were quick to adapt our approach to this scale.
Nitija: How did the pandemic affect your patterns and your collaborations, has there been any drastic outlook, post pandemic, in your creative processes?
Alfredo: I mean it was interesting what happened during these last two years, and for me it was good because I found the time to write a book about the last 30 years of my work. But it’s a biography of me so I really met fantastic people, fantastic designers, and architects in Milan. I went to the Salone del Mobile fair for the first time, when I was a student. I fell in love with this fantastic world. And I wrote about these people—because like I said, in the end it's only work for people, and I do it for people. It’s my biggest motivation, for somebody as I imagine, and in this lies the energy I can take out.
Nitija: What are your observations about the current creative economy, and what change would you like to see?
Alfredo: Of course, now being in India and seeing this big contrast in the economical world, there is a lot of contrast out there in the street, and of course I would love to change a lot of things for that. I do it in the capacity of a designer, so my designs should be reachable. I try to do it for everybody, for everyday life objects that people can afford— that’s my issue. I designed a glass 20 years ago, for a Finnish company and we produced 25,000 glasses per day, so I saw this, and I reached a moment where I would like to make things and objects that people can have everyday in their hands and that’s a very nice thing.
Nitija: As a designer do you have a favourite material that you like to work with?
Alfredo: I don’t have a particular material—but if I had to choose one, it could be wood, because considering it is a renewable source, you can take the liberty of experimentation—right from spoons, tools, boats, we did planes—with wood, so it is interesting. I also like glass and wire. What you sketch is what you can get with wire so it’s kind of a very light material and it's nice. In this case (Rado) I like Ceramos™, because it’s a hard material, even harder than metal—which we have introduced. But yes, each material has a quality but if you asked me like that—I would say wood.
Nitija: So what's NEXT in store for you? Have you announced any partnerships, or collaborations?
Alfredo: Currently, we have two new projects with Rado, and I am very excited about them, and of course I have so many projects going, in parallel, in my studio. As an example, I am working on a German company's art car, we just finished a sofa, and I am working on a totally new golf club invention that I have been working on for seven years. Everything will be released, eventually, now, within the coming weeks.