If you haven’t already read part one of this reminiscence, the following might be a little confusing. So why not read the first part by clicking here.
February 2009. The meeting.
The blizzard was thickening as the Volvo drifted past the many neat chalets that punctuated the mountain road leading to the small ski resort of Schwenden. A few miles short of the village, we turned off the main road and negotiated our way down a tiny track flanked by pine trees heavily laden with fresh snow.
The road opened out to coincide with a break in the clouds. Shafts of light illuminated the distant mountains. Below us, about a quarter of a mile ahead, was a long, low building of stone, glass and wood. Christian gestured that we had arrived at our destination. This was Altherrhaus, the home and studio of Oskar Altherr.
At my last meeting with Christian in Zurich, he had told me more about Altherr’s extraordinary life. Born in 1919 in the heart of the Bernese Alps, he spent his early years working on his father’s farm. Fascinated by wood, Altherr designed and made furniture from a very young age, taking his inspiration from Swiss folk art. With a passion for all things visual, he spent a lot of time sketching the world around him. Later, his natural curiosity attracted him to the Russian constructivist movement and the films of Sergei Eisenstein...
Designed in the1920s by the Russian Constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko
Sergei Eisenstein's Strike 1924
Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potempkin 1925
which the young Altherr had only read about. He found the dramatic composition of image and the juxtaposition of typography thrilling but without really understanding their meaning.
In 1937 at the age of 18, and with little money, Altherr packed a rucksack and headed for Basel to see the constructivist exhibition on display there, hoping to get closer to a creative world that was beginning to stir within him. Unfortunately, he only got as far as Zurich, having managed to get run over by a car, ending up in hospital with a severely broken leg. But the event was to change his fortunes.
The person involved in the accident was Annemarie Schwarzenbach...
Annemarie Schwarzenbach the celebrated Swiss writer and intellectual
She was from one of the richest families in Switzerland at that time. Altherr was taken from the hospital and transferred to the family retreat in the mountains to recuperate. As the days passed in this alpine splendour, Altherr spent most of his time in the house’s extensive library. Encouraged by Annemarie, he consumed the works of Sartre, Proust and Dostoyevsky.
At the end of his convalescence, he was given the opportunity to work for the family as a handyman.
Altherr in 1938 aged 19
He became very popular and was completely embraced by the family, often holidaying with them in Italy and Greece. In 1940, having saved enough money and with the generous support of the Schwarzenbach family, he attended the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH), where he studied architecture. His accident had left him with a limp, and he was turned down for national service in the Swiss army. Upset by this, he immersed himself in philosophy and went on to study graphic design in Basel.
Later, Altherr travelled extensively: first to India, then to Tibet and finally to Japan. He returned to Switzerland in 1949, moving into a small farmhouse that had been left to him by an uncle. Over the next four decades, the property was transformed into the beautiful and impressive structure that Christian and I had finally arrived at.
We made our way through the virgin snow to be greeted by Altherr’s partner, Hanako Yamauchi, some 20 years his junior. They had met in Japan in the mid-1960s when Altherr was studying the philosophy of Nichiren, the 13th-century Buddhist reformer. Altherr later joined the Buddhist faith. Hanako was a potter specialising in porcelain. She and Oskar had become close friends, and she had travelled back to Switzerland with him, never to return to Japan. She became Altherr’s muse and life partner, inspiring him not only to develop his teaching philosophy but also to create a unique space in which to experiment.
And here I was at last being ushered into a large entrance hall, confronted by a row of neatly placed slippers. In true Japanese fashion, this was a no-shoe zone. We moved through into a large, intimately lit, book-lined room with an imposing central stone fireplace at which Oskar Altherr was standing, backlit by a crackling blaze.
I don’t quite know what I was expecting: certainly not the extremely tall, rather dashingly elegant figure standing before me. He was wearing a weathered, navy blue French farm worker’s jacket and an equally well-worn pair of dungarees, topped off with a red polka-dot cravat and a pair of black espadrilles. He looked every inch the reclusive creative. “Come, sit here by the fire”. His voice was mellowed by age and had a warm German accent. He addressed Christian in German, giving him an affectionate hug with the words “Willkommen zu Hause, mein Sohn”. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t speak a word of German. But I could see that Christian was visibly moved by what had been said.
Oskar and Hanako could not have been more welcoming. Oskar turned to me and said: “You will have to stay the night. I fear this blizzard is going on for a while. Hanako will show you to your room. Go freshen up and we will speak later”.
The house was an Aladdin’s cave of books, paintings, posters and an array of classic pieces of twentieth-century furniture, along with what looked like handcrafted pieces – which, I was later to discover, had been made by Altherr. I was going to enjoy this unexpected stay.
I had kept my word about not bringing a camera or a recorder. But I have to admit that I did have my mobile, which of course did have a camera. The temptation to snap a few guerrilla shots was just too much. The pitiful range of photos you see punctuating this piece – and in part 3 to come – were taken rather hastily during my short stay and mostly in the bedroom I occupied. They have never been seen before and only now, since learning of the sad death of Altherr, do I feel I can share them.
Caved figure by Altherr. The small photo shows a five year old Oskar with mother.
After a delicious dinner prepared by Hanako, which, much to my relief, was totally vegetarian – like me, Altherr too was a lifelong vegetarian – we sat around the large refectory-style table and chatted. After a suitable preamble, I asked Oskar the burning question: why had I never heard of him? And indeed, why was there no mention of him in Richard Hollis’s definitive book ‘Swiss Graphic Design’ (Laurence King, 2006)? He looked across at me in an almost fatherly way and said: “Well that is very straightforward. I choose not to be known. Part of my creative and philosophical belief is that one should remain anonymous. Our world is populated by egotistically driven individuals, and each decade it is becoming more apparent. They want everyone to know how clever they are. I find this attitude totally baffling and utterly vulgar. So my life’s experiment has been to become invisible. My work is always uncredited. That is the way I like it.”
Rather taken aback by this, I asked when he had decided on this rather unusual policy. “In the mid-1950s, I spent a very brief time at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm [the most influential design school in the world after the Bauhaus]. I discussed the possibility of teaching there with Inge Scholl.
Inge Scholl in the mid 1950 at Ulm.
The entrance to Ulm early 1950s
The Ulm campus designed by the Swiss artist, designer and architect Max Bill
But after a few probationary months, it became so claustrophobic, brought about by the stifling egos of the many professors whom I came into contact with. I find it extraordinary that when you get a group of creative people together, and in this case they were all very successful in their own right, it seems to bring out the very worst characteristics. And at Ulm, it was insufferable. But I had made friends with a number of the young students. I felt very sympathetic towards them. They were like open vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge and to be motivated. But most of the tutors were totally aloof and inattentive. This gave me the idea of establishing a new way of teaching that looked at the ‘totality’ of the designer, not just the intellect. And I set about creating this experimental space, which has been a wonderful experience for me and I hope my students.”
Students at Ulm in the 1950s.
Christian interjected. “It was the most wonderful experience for me, and it changed my life utterly”. I asked Oskar when the last students had attended and how things had worked. “My last students were here... maybe ten years ago?” He looked towards Hanako, who smiled gently and nodded. Oskar continued: “Yes, ten years. I was then reaching my eighties and I felt it was time to move on to a new phase in my life, so I stopped.” He went on to explain that, in all, there had been no more than 25 students over three decades. They had all kept in touch with him and were spread across the world, working in a range of creative fields. Apparently, there was a world-renowned architect, a film director, a writer and even an actor. Curious to know who they were, I was quietly put in my place. “They will never make it known that they were ever here. That is ingrained in the philosophy.” I recall on my first meeting with Christian that he had avoided revealing anything, including giving me his real name. And it was only at our later meeting that I gained his confidence, and my dogged persistence had got me here. But it was well worth the effort, as I was about to discover.
To be continued
In part 3: How I nearly drowned in the lake. The studio visit . Plus the greatest shock of all. To hear it click here.