Modularity is defined as (deep breath) ‘the ability of a system to organise discreet, individual units that can increase efficiency and activity’. Turning such a system into a thing of rare beauty is an art form. Happily, it’s one that the Swiss-based firm USM has been excelling at for more than 50 years. Its signature line, USM Haller, was conceived as office furniture in the 1960s by Paul Schaerer, grandson of USM founder Ulrich Schaerer, and Swiss architect Fritz Haller. Now also celebrated for its domestic versatility, the design is in MoMA’s permanent collection. Handsome proportions, quality construction and simplicity make the system fexible and adaptable to changing needs. Effortlessly, it integrates with interior and architectural design styles across decades.

USM Haller’s enduring appeal was at the heart of the company’s project50, an initiative that invited students from seven international design and architecture schools, under the tutorship of renowned professors, to consider the question, ‘What does modularity mean today?’ The results will be exhibited in April at Salone dei Tessuti during Milan Design Week. The project also included a ‘Steal Me!’ initiative – items of USM furniture were placed around the participating campuses. Students were encouraged to take them, adapt them to their living spaces, and blog about them.

To honour the Swiss marque’s longevity, functionality and beauty, we commissioned award-winning art director Sarah Illenberger to come up with a work that pays tribute to five decades of USM creativity. Using an abstract building block system and combining materials such as marble, wood, metal and cork, her installation hints at the style of each decade. ‘Forms, colours and graphic patterns indicative of the last five decades are applied to the system’s open and closed parts, playing with two- and three-dimensional forms,’ she says. The USM Haller units are arranged in a mural-like style, the forms and patterns of the decades creating a continuous work of art.

The message, says Illenberger, is that over the past five decades, styles and times have changed, ‘but USM Haller has remained continuous, reliable, steadfast and classic’.