&: Hilbert & Künzli at Gewerbemuseum Winterthur. A guided tour by Therese Hilbert and Otto Künzli

Article  /  Artists   BehindTheScenes   Exhibiting   Review   Curating
Published: 28.08.2016
Otto Künzli & Therese Hilbert Otto Künzli & Therese Hilbert
Otto Künzli, Therese Hilbert
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Winterthur is a beautiful old city in between St. Gallen (Sankt Gallen) and Zurich in Switzerland. In addition to the temporary exhibitions it houses an exquisite collection of historic clocks and a sumptuous archive of materials ( Photo: Otto Künzli     .
Winterthur is a beautiful old city in between St. Gallen (Sankt Gallen) and Zurich in Switzerland. In addition to the temporary exhibitions it houses an exquisite collection of historic clocks and a sumptuous archive of materials ( Photo: Otto Künzli     

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A guided tour for the exhibition of &: Hilbert & Künzli at Gewerbemuseum Winterthur by Therese Hilbert and Otto Künzli. The exhibition has meanwhile been extended until 11 December 2016.

Photographs by Miriam Künzli.
Translation by Jeremy Gaines.

The format &: and the invitation to exhibit together under the title &: H&K at Gewerbemuseum Winterthur in Switzerland both intrigued and motivated us instantly. For over 45 years we have worked separately but together; in other words, each of us works on our own things in one and the same workshop. We exchange ideas on (almost) everything, discussing our activities continually, rasping and sharpening one another as if we were blades and whetstones and showing little or no generosity to one another in the process.

Poster for our first joint presentation ever in a museum in the Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim in 1979, graphic design Dieter Vollendorf and the current poster for the exhibition 2016 in the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur by Fredrik Linke, Zurich


As a rule we have exhibited and continue to exhibit our works in separate shows. Being married doesn’t mean we always have to come as a pair. Every now and again there are exceptions, but here the “alongside and with one another” becomes the central theme of a large-scale museum presentation. Not only that, but it is also in a very special museum, whose unconventional projects we have particularly enjoyed seeing for many years.
&: It is for others to reflect on the meaning of what we do in terms of time and place and context, to follow individual threads of work, to investigate our development, to site our work. Here we want to describe this exhibition and its structure.

Our two beloved nameless piglets. They found shelter in our home since 1977.

Climbing the stairs to the upper floor, the visitor is greeted by two friendly free-roaming piglets nodding from their little pedestals. The & symbol positioned perfectly between them on the wall reveals that you are looking at Hilbert & Künzli. This is not something that is full of meaning: we are simply giving you a warm welcome. You now stand before the “Great Wall”, which is almost 20 meters long. Over 1,000 small-format photographs in chronological order, arranged in the form of a drawn-out cloud or a mighty flock of birds, give a small insight into our lives so far. Anyone who is an artist to their very core is not always able to separate life and art cleanly – at least that’s how we are. Nevertheless we prioritized images that relate to our work to a greater or lesser extent.

As an introduction - instead of a video or interview or statement - …

… a survey of our life in more than 1,000 pictures.

The late-Classical Gewerbemuseum building was erected in the mid-19th century as a girls’ high school. It is therefore unsurprising that the façade is broken up by numerous large windows, which allow ample daylight to flood in. From our previous visits, however, we know the large, elongated halls as windowless, boarded-up spatial structures, be it to protect the exhibits from too much light or to provide more hanging space and orderly subdivisions, or entirely pragmatically to seek a functional and aesthetic proximity to the proven “white box” architecture most museums seek to create. We were and are delighted that our desire to exhibit in all the rooms in their original state was fulfilled. The light is splendid, the halls are magnificent!

First sight when you enter the main hall.


As you now enter the light-flooded main hall of the exhibition, you find yourself in a landscape of 55 historical and contemporary display cabinets. With its entwined pathways, side alleys and expansive squares, this structure could also be seen and experienced as a small town, with the tall glass tower in the center forming a steeple or minaret. Each individual visitor is free to make his or her own interpretation.

Three truly outstanding showcases in the centre of the exhibition: the one to the right with brooches from 1989 until 1999 by Therese Hilbert, in the centre the Colour-Brooches 1981 and the pendants entitled Fragments 1986-1988 by Otto Künzli and to the left one of the few showcases Therese and Otto shared.

The fact is that collections and museums exist for virtually everything, yet apparently not for display cabinets, despite the significant cultural history of such items. Furthermore, for hundreds of years display cabinets have been built for all conceivable items to be displayed, but they have only been preserved reluctantly unless, perhaps, they enjoyed elevated status as “cabinets of wonders”.

Therese Hilbert, Gefässe (vessels), brooches, 2003-05, ring, 2003 and pendants 1997, made of silver.

A group of awkwardly shaped postmodern vitrines from the Swiss National Museum Zurich.

A great deal of love, care, deeper meaning and humor went into the allocation of the exhibits to the display cabinets with all their different forms, styles and traces of their previous history. The display cabinets were merely cleaned, otherwise they were left exactly as they were when they were loaned to us from several museums in Winterthur, as well as some in Zurich.

Glut (Glow), 2007, a pendant by Therese Hilbert made of silver and lacquerde red, in a show case originally designed for a mushroom exhibition.

Therese Hilbert: large Neckpiece from 1983, PVC, steel, brass, red lacquer; Wölkchen (small clouds) 2001, brooches, silver and on three steps in one showcase several brooches from 1989 until 1999, among others from the series Hollow But Not Empty and Vulcano.

Scientifically looking showcase housing One Meter of Love, 1995, Catoptric Ring and Catoptric Brooches , 1988-1990,  and the two brooches Golden House, 1990 and Black House, 1985, all by Otto Künzli.

Otto Künzli, Fragments, 1986 – 88, a bunch of pendants on a hook and Heart, brooch 1985, in the most spacious showcase ever.

We hope that as many visitors as possible recognize the subtle and sometimes even obvious contrasts, encounters and dialog between the pieces of jewelry and the display cabinets.

A close look at Therese Hilbert’s tiny silver brooches “Wölkchen” (small clouds) from 2001.

Again and again, the impression arises that a display cabinet was created specifically for the jewelry presented inside it. It is a bit like in real life: The wearer and the item of jewelry worn serve one another, fit together, support one another in an almost magical, symbiotic way, or sometimes not!

Wimpel (pennants), 1981, brooches by Therese Hilbert made of plastic shopping bags in times when they were nicely and colourfully designed and not considered harmful to the environment.

Brooch, 1984 by Therese Hilbert, made of brass and chrome plated, elegant yet spiky.

The earliest pieces in this show: Two Finger Ring, 1967, PVC by Otto Künzli and Therese Hilbert, Kirschen (cherries), 1973, ear decoration, acrylic, cotton and cherry stones.

On display here are individual pieces and groups of works from the late 1960s until just after the turn of the millennium. Here we demonstrate the dovetailing and interweaving as much as the differentiation and autonomy of our works, our interests and our strategies. This can also be seen as the historical part of the exhibition.

It is a great pleasure to see and hear how much the visitors enjoy not only our works but also the unique display. That is what finally counts, isn’t it!

Once you’ve had your fill of jewelry, in the angled east wing of the museum the doors open into “Salt & Pepper”. It is a deliberately placed break, an interruption, a rest, an opportunity to reposition oneself, to arrange if you like.

Posing for the official press portrait.

People surround themselves with objects that stand out to them in various ways and take on a more or less important role in their lives. This exhibition represents the first time we have decided to reveal a selection of these. The whole thing is not art, nor is it the direct prerequisite or source of inspiration for it. Yet as an integral part of our lives, it could yet be something akin to a subliminal sediment. As an environment, ambiance or framework, neither public nor secret, it is only together that we can show it here. Salt & Pepper is a reference to the enormous reservoir, to our unfathomable collective ceiling.
For this purpose Markus Rigert designed an abstract contemporary “fairytale house” with 67 windows and rooms, which became a dreamlike reality thanks to his team.

The small green alpine cap was Therese’s favourite cap as a small girl while Otto preferred a papier mâché hat à la Chaplin.

Salz & Pfeffer (Salt & Pepper) a contemporary Cabinet of Wonders.

In a small notebook we wrote down our anecdotes, our thoughts and our memories of this. To offer just one example here: Hilbert: Finding sharks’ teeth became a kind of sport at break time and outside of school. We dug, searched, sweated, collected; in the sand where the gymnastics apparatus stood, in the school yard of the Hasenbühl Uster Elementary. Künzli: Küsnacht on Lake Zurich. The mid-1950s. Break time at high school. In the yard stood the usual climbing bars and poles for that time, surrounded by a great big sand pit. One shouting and running around gleefully. The other sitting in the yellow sand searching determinedly for the rare little shark’s tooth. And what can now be seen here in this little peephole is probably over a hundred small sharks’ teeth, which we both collected separately when we had no idea that the other even existed.

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear …

The casing for Salt & Pepper and its contents are ultimately nothing more than a contemporary cabinet of wonders in personal H&K style. But even this “display unit” will probably go the way of most of its predecessors and be disassembled, perhaps stored for a short time, then recycled or disposed of.

Plastic model of a typical Japanese house I like so much and broken Pikachu not found in Japan but during a mountain hike on the Cycladic Island of Santorini. Some of Therese’s huge collection of stone hearts found all over the planet.

Comment by Therese: Not every dream must become true, it is wonderful to dream, the old small Fiat, a dream. Lemon: Even on chilly days, sun in the house.

Adjoining this, in the protrusion of the east wing officially known as the Annex, with the enormous windows that look onto the inner courtyard and the gardens and half-timbered houses of the old town that it leads to, we become more direct and specific in two large, square tabletop display cabinets. Here we display things that are very close to the core, which have that density, immediacy and power that feeds us.

The Annex with the beautiful view into the backyard, the gardens and the old houses in the neighbourhood.

Therese’s contribution here is a selection of volcanic stone, lumps, chunks and lapilli found on Santorini, Nisyros, Milos and Lanzarote. Heavy, light, porous, matt, shiny, red, black, sulfur yellow, brown.

Some of Therese’s collection of volcanic stones from Santorini, Nisyros, Milos and Lanzarotte.

Otto’s contribution is a collection of original stone tools from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Scandinavia, France, China, Africa and the Antilles. From very old (Homo Erectus, ± 600,000 – 300,000) to young (late 19th century, Papua New Guinea) not one piece did he find himself, rather the pieces found him. Anyone who takes a stone axe of some sort in his hands understands the magic with no words of explanation required.

Selection of Otto’s collection of original stone tools from ± 600.000 B.C. to the late 19th century and from all over the world.

Behind “Salt & Pepper” is where it all happens. Two plain, modern display cabinets arranged in parallel, each measuring ten meters long, display the dynamism, indeed the longevity and consolidation in our work over the last ten years and up to the present day. There for H you see the dormant powers in the depths of the Earth, whilst K reveals the harvest of numerous visits to and encounters had in Japan. It is hard to conceive an ending.

In high contrast to the freely arranged landscape of vitrines in the first room, here at the end two straight long showcases with the most recent pieces.  On black background Therese Hilbert’s work, on white boards the pieces by Otto Künzli.

The whole thing sounds a little mythical, but what would life and art be without things that touch and move us, that unsettle us, throw us off course but also enable us to be found and give us strength and joy?
And what would life be without people with whom you can share all that?

Left side: Hilbert’s newest brooches in the shapes of mountains carved of black MDF, to the right: A group of brooches by Künzli entitled Komainu (the Japanese word for guardian dogs) made in 2015 of mild steel, wood, gold leaf, turquoise hair form a Miku Hatsune cosplay-wig and meerschaum (sepiolite).          

It has to be said: With the “opening” of the many windows and the space-consuming landscape of display cabinets, there was virtually no way of decorating the walls. Some precisely positioned photographic works complement and enrich the exhibition.

Only a very few photographs are carefully positioned on the walls. Here an early black and white image of a silver pendant from 1985 by Therese Hilbert photographed by Otto Künzli at that time.

Die Schönheitsgalerie (The Gallery of Beauties) 1984, a series of portraits by Otto Künzli. By reason of the numerous large windows the exhibition is rich on beautiful light reflections, mirroring effect and translucency.

In the vicinity of the stone axes, the video Life in Pi by the Japanese artist Yamashiro Daisuke plays right next to the corresponding “Pi” pendant.

Still from the video Life in Pi by Yamashiro Daisuke. It shows several sequences of reflections in Künzli’s the highly polished steel pendant entitled Pi.

Like a red thread, certain selected posters accompany the visitor through the rooms. Right at the beginning is the poster for our first and so far only joint museum exhibition in 1979 at Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim. Alongside the display cabinet with the volcanic stone hangs a poster design with associations of Asche und Schwefel (Ash and Sulfur) for Therese Hilbert. The poster for the monographic exhibition by Otto Künzli in 2013 at Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich (Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum) accentuates the final room. The two long display cabinets draw the gaze to the large-format, clear, expressive poster for this exhibition &: Hilbert & Künzli. Like the invitation, the three abovementioned posters were designed by Frederik Linke from Zurich.

A few posters accentuate the walls.

This opulent exhibition would have been inconceivable without Markus Rigert and Susanna Kumschik as well as the tireless efforts of the entire museum team. After months of complex preparation and planning, the actual construction began barely two weeks before the opening: monster cupboards made of steel, of unimaginable weight, which quite clearly did not fit into the elevator, were raised via the old staircase and put in position.

The heavy glass top requested many hands to be lifted up and placed safely on the pedestal.

In just a few days the elaborate house for Salt & Pepper was constructed in line with Markus Rigert’s plans, as precisely, solidly and beautifully as if it had to last an eternity. The exhibits had to be allocated to the display cabinets and attachments and hangings had to be devised and executed. Numbering, lists and printed materials were created, both for the public and for the press. The Grand café du musée kept everyone sane with food and drink.

The home of Salt and Pepper was hand made from scratch, best Swiss workmanship, indeed!  Photo: Otto Künzli.

And last but not least, a particularly good soul from the Kellenberger Clock and Watch Collection, who is equally at home in this museum, breathed new life into the H&K piglets, even more than 20 years after theirs apparent death. Following careful, loving restoration and additions to the winding system, our flagship animals can now welcome visitors with their friendly and continuous nodding.

Miriam with her pets in our living room (the piglets stable), 1977. Photo: Otto Künzli.
Miriam with her pets in our living room (the piglets stable), 1977. Photo: Otto Künzli

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