Design Peaks and Valleys: Some Snapshots

In last year’s garbage post, I mentioned that the sanitation system in Switzerland demonstrates both design peaks and valleys, a concept I’ve been using in my head to describe products, systems, and procedures offering great beauty and sophistication, and/or what feel like arbitrary hassles. Some stuff feels like genius. You wonder why everybody doesn’t have it or do it. Some stuff just makes you wonder why nobody has noticed how stupid it is.

A fellow expat friend has suggested that some of the things we’ve perceived as just (or at least) a little off in Swiss design and design thinking are merely reflecting the local sense of what’s important. Inspired by Swiss values. And she’s probably right, at least in some cases.

But I suspect that in many other cases, it’s just that if it ain’t been broke since 1291, why fix it?

So below I offer just a few snapshots of the excellent and the incomprehensible in Swiss design.

PEAK: Three-Way Windows

These aren’t unique to Switzerland, and are in fact a German invention, but the ones in our first apartment were proudly made not just in country, but right here in Basel, by one of a number of local engineering and manufacturing outfits that thrive here, thanks no doubt to a generous protectionist tariff regime.

More importantly, they’re great. Point the handle toward the floor and your window is locked. Point it to the side, your window swings open like a door. Point it toward the ceiling and the top edge of the window leans in, offering pleasant ventilation but keeping your children or your cats from leaping to their death stories below.

(Our cats don’t really entertain suicidal ideations, as far as I know, and they had a decent track record of not doing so much as stumbling for our first few months in country, at least that I noticed, as they tiptoed through the pigeon spikes, but our Harriet took to leaping from our front balcony to our kitchen windowsill in our first apartment, a distance of more than a meter/yard, possibly just to escape cozily to a spot I couldn’t easily grab her, maybe just to mess with me. And she did eventually slip off the balcony in our permanent apartment, miraculously surviving a 6-7 story fall, about which I may write more later. But in any case, despite our apartment’s two enormous terraces, I use the tipped-in feature a lot more than I used to.)

VALLEY: One-Way Doors

The front door at our temporary apartment was a fine piece of wood. It was equipped with an intercom phone and a buzzer for the lock downstairs, and seemed sturdy and insulating. It also felt quite secure, as it was equipped with not one but two deadbolts (one attached to the door handle mechanism, one above).

Therein lay a problem. If I locked the door with my key from the outside using the deadbolt attached to the door handle, it could only be unlocked from the inside with another key. Unlike a modern American- or international-style springbolt, you couldn’t just open the door by turning the inside doorknob, nor was there a switch anywhere on the door handle to unlock it. There was no automatic opening switch on the knob inside, such as you find on most modern springbolts, so anyone I locked in couldn’t get out until I came back. This was particularly challenging very early in our tenure in Switzerland, when we had only one set of keys for the apartment.

Meanwhile, if I twisted the little upper deadbolt knob from the inside, there was no way to unlock it from the outside at all—no external keyhole attached.

I’ve since learned that this one-way deadbolt phenomenon is not universal among Swiss apartments, thankfully; all of the locks on the two doors to our permanent apartment (one leading directly to our private sixth-floor stop for the elevator, and one leading to a fifth-floor landing) can be opened from either side. But only if people on both sides of the door have a key.

My front door, from within: No key, no exit.

Including one truly remarkable lock.

I noticed not long after we’d moved in that I had been given, along with four sets of normal housekeys, not one but two teensy keys. One was for the mailbox, the other, even smaller one, a mystery. Until I happened to be making sure that our downstairs door, located down a dedicated staircase and opening onto the fifth-floor landing, which we never use (because when you have moved on up, and have an elevator that opens directly into your apartment like some kind of Manhattan yuppie, why climb an unnecessary flight of stairs?) was locked.

It was. And like its counterpart upstairs, it was affixed with two locks—not two deadbolts like the main door, but a deadbolt and a security chain of the sort that you’ve seen everywhere. You know, the kind that allows the door to open just a few inches, for you to see who it is, or for an axe-wielding maniac to shove his face and/or arm through to threaten you. But unlike any such security chain I’ve ever seen, this one had a tiny keyhole. Stick my miniature key into the tiny keyhole, and the chain part of the locking mechanism detaches from the wall and dangles from the door. Huh? I finally figured out that this is almost certainly an overcompensation for the potential threat of the one-way door. Not only can the deadbolt be unlocked from without with a key, the security chain can be disconnected from without, once you’ve opened the door as far as the chain will allow, assuming you can wiggle your hand through the gap and accurately thread the miniature keyhole. It’s a little awkward. But it’s undeniably clever.

So if you find yourself given a mysterious extra micro-key to your next rental abode, don’t lend it to an axe-wielding maniac.

One, two, three!

The proliferation and diversity of locks may offer one example of Swiss design oddities that reflect Swiss values. When I mentioned our former impenetrable door to one friend, she pointed out that it seemed like a reflection of a Swiss emphasis on safety and security, which is definitely something people, both expats and locals, spend quite a bit of time thinking about, despite living in what may be the safest country in Europe, or the second safest after Finland (perhaps more about that later).

So perhaps my one-way door reflects a Swiss value of massively exaggerating the need for safety in among the safest countries in the world. Or maybe it just ain’t broke.

PEAK: Secret Ergonomic Broom/VALLEY: We Were Too Stupid To Notice it for a Couple of Days

Our temporary apartment was equipped with cheap and easy versions of all the household cleaning implements a person might need—a vacuum, a mop and bucket, dustpans, sponges and rags, and two brooms proudly made in Switzerland.

The weird thing about these brooms was that they only appeared to be about two and three quarters feet long. As we contorted ourselves to bend over to sweep with them, I wondered why they were so anti-ergonomically stubby. A reflection of traditional Swiss values, in which a tiny hunchbacked grandma was part of every extended household? A reflection of the self-sacrificing nature of the historical (and still surprisingly prevalent) Swiss housewife, until just a few years ago expected to wait at home for her kids to come home for the midday break at school, during which she would prepare a hot lunch? (“Oh, don’t worry about me… I don’t need a full-length broom. I don’t need to be comfortable.”) A reflection of some arcane mystery, like house gnomes?

None of the above, perhaps obviously and perhaps sadly (and certainly sadly for us, who took the better part of a week of awkward grandma/gnome-postured sweeping to figure it out). The handles are collapsible, unscrewing to extend to normal, non-gnome/hunchbacked grandmother/self-negating homemaker length. In their condensed form they fit very well in compact Swiss Euro-kitchen cabinetry.

Hobbit mode at left; normal human-sized mode at right.

PEAK: Medicine Cabinet Outlets

Blowing your hair dry in a Swiss bathroom? You’re in luck—if you can’t find an outlet on the counter or near the sink, there’s a good chance you will find one conveniently located in a corner inside your medicine cabinet. That does mean that you need to keep the cabinet open, but the cabinet doors are probably mirrored on both sides so you can have a little salon effect outside your shower.

VALLEY: Plug Type J (Mostly)

Switzerland is home to a lot of very important multilateral and international organizations: the Red Cross, many United Nations agencies, the World Trade Organization, and of course the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the creators and promoters of unified global formats for everything from child car seats, to three-letter acronyms for world currencies, to the proper order in which to write the date (hint: It’s how everybody in the world except America does it).

A number of the ISO’s most technical and intricate standards were developed in collaboration with other international organizations, including this one that I’d never heard of: the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), headquartered in, you guessed it, Geneva, and responsible, among other things, for cataloging the world’s sizes and shapes of electrical plugs and wall outlets. Of which there are fourteen distinct varieties, ranging from Type A (the ungrounded two-pronged plug the United States shares with 51 other countries scattered around the globe) to Type N (advanced by the IEC as the new, hopeful global standard, but so far adopted just by Brazil and South Africa, and still universal in neither).

Perhaps the second most interesting thing about the Type N plug is that it resembles, but is not compatible with, Plug Type J, used… in Switzerland, where the titans of global standardization make their homes. Oh, and also in Liechtenstein. But don’t worry—J plugs are sometimes compatible with all of Switzerland’s other European neighbors’ Type C plugs. Except when they’re not.

So the standard is clear.

At left, the plug for my rice cooker, purchased in Switzerland; at right, the adapter that enables the European-standard Type C plug to fit into a Swiss Type J outlet.


A while ago, on our way to ride rented push scooters down a mountainside, as you do, we spent a bit of time at the train station in the rather charming center of Liestal, the capital of our neighboring canton of Basel-Land, where we had to wait for a bus connection to a nearby village. This gave me the opportunity to experience the most remarkable public toilet I have ever seen.

It does it all! All by itself, it’s a urinal! Fold down the little seat, and it’s a toilet! Turn on the little tap on the side, and it’s a sink! Perhaps most importantly, it’s a giant stainless steel funnel taking up most of one wall and the floor of a public lavatory, and I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere but Liestal. But I wouldn’t dare guess whether that is for better or worse.

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