USM is a family-owned business that was founded by Ulrich Schärer in 1885 as a hardware and locksmith’s business in Münsingen, close to Switzerland’s capital city of Bern. His grandson Paul Schärer took over the company in 1961 after studying engineering, and he realised that USM needed to build a larger factory to become more competitive. So he collaborated with architect Fritz Haller to realise his vision of a flexible factory built using a steel modular construction system that could easily be expanded as the business grew.
The new factory included a pavilion to house USM’s offices, and the two men wanted to design a furniture system that was flexible enough to adapt to a growing business when it needed more office space. In 1963, they created a pioneering furniture product known as USM Haller Modular Furniture, sold at first for office use but later for home use, and now exported to more than 40 countries around the world.
Alexander Schärer, Paul’s son, who joined USM in 1993 and led its foreign expansion, says there was an irony in this evolution. ‘The company intended to continue selling its window mechanisms to the architects who used them for the homes they built, while commercialising the new modular factory construction system. But the window mechanisms were less in demand as factory buildings became air-conditioned, as had its own. So the modular furniture, which was intended to be a by-product of the new building system, became the company’s main product.’