Thinking Inside the Box: Stylish Storage Bins Take Organization to New Levels

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When Paul Schaerer joined USM in 1961, the Swiss metal manufacturer bore a strong resemblance to the company his grandfather originated in 1885, making metal architectural elements and products almost entirely manually. The younger Schaerer decided to set the company’s sights on the modern day, and he tapped architect Fritz Haller to help. Haller not only championed the architecture of the era, but also embraced the concept of industry as part of that mindset. He believed that all building forms could be generated by a system of modular steel-framed construction, according to a scale of mini, midi or maxi — residential, commercial or industrial.

Haller employed this thinking in his design of a flexible new USM headquarters in Münsingen, Switzerland, and two years later he and Schaerer translated the entire concept to the realm of furniture. After producing this storage system for the Münsingen interior, USM rolled it out to the market in 1965, and the USM Haller System has consistently won over architects and interior designers ever since.

Versatility has generated a lot of the goodwill: The USM Haller System comprises chrome-plated steel tubes joined by patented ball connectors; the easy sizing and resizing of the former, plus the multidirectionality of the latter, make for infinite configurations. Powder-coating the system’s sheet-steel panels in any number of colors amplifies the customization potential.

Yet a worldview and product as thought out as Haller’s has also had its tweaks. Over the years, USM expanded the modular system to include desks, for example. Meanwhile, specifiers have informally banded together to disabuse consumers of the notion that the Haller system solely suits workspace. Their installations in houses, apartments and other environments where wood and other warm materials underscore the idea that true design classics hold up to all contexts.

This continual improvement takes another step forward with USM’s introduction of a range of boxes and trays known as Inos. The new internal organization system comprises fleece polyester boxes in four sizes that fit seamlessly into the Haller module. It also channels the spirit of Haller through its own configurability, as the two widths and two heights allow myriad combinations in almost any way.

One could even argue that Inos introduces a new scale to Haller’s overarching concept: Let’s call it micro. The boxes themselves capitalize on the volume of the Haller module and maximize its capacity. Moreover, lids allow the boxes to stack on a single shelf or, when they are not deployed in the service of storage, function as trays. USM also has manufactured metal panels, powder-coated in graphite black or light gray, that slip into an individual box, dividing it into smaller compartments.

Inos is a collaboration between USM and the La Neuveville, Switzerland–based design studio atelier oï, which architect/designers Aurel Aebi, Armand Louis and Patrick Reymond founded exactly 25 years ago. While the firm’s Swiss origins and cross-disciplinary philosophy might suggest a deep affinity for Haller’s industrialization-inspired approach, it has not taken up the predecessor’s torch without some revisions of its own. Atelier oï strives to design products that ground users in authentic living, and for all its cunning modularity, Inos’s soft hand, slightly tapered shapes and rounded corners complement the precise fabrication and cooler materials of the original USM Haller System. The boxes feel like a safe harbor in a jumbled world.

In that sense, Inos helps USM’s advocates reject pigeonholing, as well. The heartfelt form and materiality not only contrast the metal furniture for which the product was conceived, but also make the whole storage system that much more appropriate for homes as well as workplace environments that are becoming increasingly residential by design. If Inos does become the means by which homeowners sort their silverware or organize cosmetics, then atelier oï will have pulled off both an evolutionary step forward for the USM Haller System and a coup for domestic life: a better-mousetrap version of the junk drawer.

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