“There’s so much room to experiment and repurpose existing things to create something new”: Rarify One-on-One with PIN-UP’s Ben Ganz on Trailblazing USM NYC Modular Collection
by Jeremy Bilotti·
Explore high quality, curated design pieces featured in this article:
The USM NYC Collection by Ben Ganz
First introduced in 2022 as a collaboration with PIN-UP HOME and presented at Design Miami, these highly limited production pieces USM NYC collection by Ben Ganz are inspired by architecture and life in New York City.
The collection features three bespoke colors, unavailable on other USM units: Uptown Blue, SoHo Yellow and Downtown Pink. It is extremely rare for USM to release limited edition designs—this marks USM's first-ever multiple piece collection made in collaboration with an independent designer—so we predict these pieces will be highly collectible.
Who is Ben Ganz?
- Swiss-born designer
- Background in graphic design and typography
- Master of Fine Arts from Yale University
- Art Director of PIN-UP, a "magazine for architectural entertainment."
We sat down with Ganz and had a conversation with him about how his background in graphic design and typography has influenced his career, how his collaboration with USM materialized, what his design process was for the pieces in the collection, how he was very conscious of the image-making for the campaign, and what advice he has for collectors and enthusiasts in the Rarify community about designing and collecting for longevity.
JB: How do you feel your background in graphic design and typography has influenced your work with USM, or in furniture specifically?
BG: It proved to be a great base, but I always was interested in expanding a bit and go beyond just print design and see how I can apply those kinds of principles that I learned in school, that I learned in Switzerland. My undergrad program in Switzerland was very rigorous and very focused on the craftsmanship of straightforward graphic design, typography and type design.
There was a very clear perception of what is good and what is bad. I was always questioning that, but it was fertile ground to have that as a very rigorous base and then collide that with a certain messiness, in a way.
I’m very grateful for my education, but I was always very interested in, like, then what? How could I apply that to fields that aren’t normally associated with each other, like graphic design and furniture? I think graphic design is a really great base, but then you have to find something where you can apply it in a new way. It’s like a tool to realize my ideas.
I’m not a furniture designer by trade, so I have a lot of respect for the craftsmanship behind it. What I’m more interested in is creating something new within a preexisting system—to use existing structures and not customize the structure but use it as a vehicle to create something new. USM is obviously very unique, in the sense that it is so modular and it already had a well-established system with which I could collide these different ideas I’ve developed through my past experiences to this point.
JB: Acknowledging the rules but introducing some new and unexpected results—that seems to be at the heart of your work with USM.
BG: Well, you need to learn the basics first, right? And then, once you have them, you can play with them and break them. And I think, for USM, for example, it was really important to me that the system kind of stays the same and the system is not altered, because it’s such a great thing.
But I was very interested in using this kind of abstract system to create almost like an image and to repurpose it to do something new. I like the imagery around it, and I think that’s interesting. It’s the best of both worlds, in a way.
And obviously the imagery around it and how you communicate an object and what kind of world you create around it, almost like an ecosystem—I think there’s a lot of room in interiors and furniture to experiment like that. I think that’s what excites me most at the moment. I mean, fashion is obviously like that. That’s what fashion does extremely successfully. But I think, if you can do it for a handbag, you could also do it for a chair.
JB: Was that one of the big motivations for working with USM?
BG: I initially approached them because I grew up in Bern, where their factories are. So, USM is very ubiquitous in Switzerland—it’s everywhere. But I was always interested in them just because they’re like the “Academy of Swiss Design,” right? Like, very minimal, in a way.
And I was very interested in introducing something like playfulness into it and to see how far you can go with it, to see if it actually can create this abstracted image of a skyline using their system. That’s definitely something I thought about for a long time.
But even though I had thought about it for a long time, it only really made sense when I came to America. I almost had to get some distance in order to reinterpret it from far away. I thought, “Now is a good time to do something.”
I was very interested in using items like the perforated panels they developed not too long ago. But all those things stand together and then you create the imagery around it. Then it becomes something that feels new and maybe also unexpected. And I think that was the most interesting part for me about it.
JB: Could you summarize the big idea or concept behind the collection?
BG: It’s called USM NYC, and it’s a bit of an homage to the city. But I was very interested in the idea of mobility, obviously, because usually bookshelves or something like this are very fixed and heavy. I think also, given that people in New York move three times a year, it has a kind of functional aspect to it.
I was interested in creating a collection that can serve very different purposes. I’m very interested to see how people are going to use the pieces. Some of them are very straightforward bookshelves. On the other hand, the Central Lounge is essentially a daybed, so it’s more about leisure.
I was interested in blurring the space between private and work, in a way. And it can be used for both. Like, it is really very versatile. And the three new colors introduce some playfulness and a kind of lightness that is maybe not necessarily associated with something like a bookshelf or a storage unit.
It’s very prominent and bold, but still very functional at the same time.
As I was designing the pieces, I thought about what I would use them for. But, in creating the Tower B, I was looking for a slot file, basically, and it essentially works like a flat to store drawings or plans or models. It’s by far the most complex piece of the collection. But I think it’s also the most functional, in that, as an architect, I can store material samples and things like that in it.
Again, though, I’m very curious to see how people are going to use it. I’m sure people will use it for different purposes than I intended, but I think that’s the great thing about it. I mean, storage units are very stationary, right? And they’re very heavy. You never move them. But I wanted to challenge that and add some playfulness with the wheels and the colors, and I think it’s powerful to have the contrast between the functionality and the aesthetic. That’s the beauty of USM: it’s so versatile.
At the beginning, USM was very focused on offices. But, as more and more people are working from home now, those lines are getting blurrier. I think this collection is very much in that gray area where it’s not clear if it’s personal or professional. That’s really interesting to me, and that’s also where the future seems to be going.
JB: Where did your connection to architecture begin?
BG: I mean, in the context of the USM collaboration, they developed the system to create modular buildings, almost. So, I thought it was very interesting to tie that back to the origins of USM, and the furniture was almost like a site, not a side project—like they built this building, and they needed furniture.
So, this system was not created by accident, but it was almost like an afterthought of an architectural idea, which I thought was interesting to reference. And there’s also a lot of precedent like this in furniture design, right? Like Paul T. Frankl’s Skyscraper furniture, or Gaetano Pesce’s iconic Tramonto a New York couch. So, it’s an interesting lineage.
For me, I am very interested in architecture. I also do PIN-UP Magazine, which is an architectural magazine, so I’m very involved and very exposed to architecture through that. And I thought the USM collaboration was a perfect vehicle to communicate that connection to architecture. Since it also ties back to the history of the company, I thought it was a perfect match.
JB: These pieces are reminiscent of Bauhaus concepts, but you also introduce postmodern ideas, too. That's new ground for USM, isn't it?
BG: Right. And there’s this playfulness of scale, right? It’s like a miniature skyscraper. But the system within which it exists looks exactly the same as it did 60 years ago when USM first introduced it. But there was so much innovation going into all those different parts.
I think it’s amazing, though, that, with the towers, you can take them apart and build something new out of it if you want to. Or, in five years, you can connect it to your bookshelf and create something new. It’s also a very sustainable way of design, because you don’t need the whole R&D process of testing and prototyping and all of that.
I think a big part of USM NYC is also about the storytelling around that vision. I mean, they’ve worked on that modular system for 60 years, so why would you want to create a new modular system when it’s already been perfected? This collection is using those systems to create something new, which is a more postmodern way of looking at designing.
But I think that’s what excites me about the future. I think there’s so much room to experiment in this sector and to use things that have already been designed and repurpose them, play with materials, play with scale, play with new technology, and combine those things into something new.
JB: You work extensively with image-making and photography. Today, we often learn about design through media and images, even for physical objects. How does that intersect with this collection?
BG: I think that’s how our generation interacts with objects. I mean, we have a store in SoHo, and very few people, relatively, will actually walk through the store and engage with the pieces in real life; the vast majority of people will engage with them through images. So I think there should be a big focus on creating those images.
I think there’s a great opportunity to innovate there, and I think a lot of the more established furniture brands are maybe a bit scared and are hesitant to adapt to that. But I don’t think the real object and the image need to be in competition. It can be a holistic project that doesn’t take anything away from the object itself or from the craftsmanship or all that goes into it. But sometimes I feel some brands are scared that it’s not about the product anymore. I think it can be both, that they can complement each other.
For this collection, all the photographs were taken on the streets of New York or in Central Park. Obviously, people will have the pieces at their home and it will look very different. But I thought, for the campaign around the collection, we should put the pieces in a different context. So it’s a very constructed image, in a way, but it’s definitely a very crucial part of this collection. The photography was done by Francesco Gonzalez. He usually works in fashion, but he was a great partner and was super helpful with how he interprets those pieces.
I think the images tell a bit more of a fantastical story through objects and through furniture, which is something I think is very interesting. There’s a lot of room to experiment there for furniture and interior design, because, in fashion, that already happens. But I feel a lot of freedom to grow and experiment and be a bit more fantastical. It doesn’t have to be so rooted in a home space for a photoshoot; you can create something completely new, and I’m definitely very interested in that.
JB: Building on your typography background, your collection was very successful in developing a design language, where you introduced your own grammar for how certain components are used.
BG: Yeah, definitely. In type design, every letter is different, but they have to work together in the end to form a holistic alphabet. I definitely hope the USM collection does the same. I mean, besides me, hardly anyone is going to have the whole collection in their living room, maybe, so they have to work separately as well as together. But it’s a celebration of the system as a whole, in a way. So I’m really curious to see them in different spaces, juxtaposed with other objects, to see how they live within a more domestic world.
JB: What's your process like on a project like this? How do you start designing a piece of furniture?
BG: I think it starts with a general idea, or maybe I’m looking for something that I can’t find, so I design it myself. But sometimes people come directly to me and say, “I want XYZ object.” And then that’s a very different discussion.
With this collection, though, it was something I really wanted to have for myself, in a way. I think a lot of the things I design are because I would want to have them and interact with them. So that’s often my starting point: “I would like to have this object.”
It really depends on each project, though. Obviously, if you have a great partner like USM, the production is already figured out. But, in another instance, you want to change a color—thinking, like, how hard can it be, right?—and then it actually can be very challenging in an established production process because they’re so streamlined. So just to introduce a new color is already quite a logistical challenge.
It’s very important to be very collaborative and see what the possibilities are and then kind of adjust to those, while still trying to pushing the boundaries a bit. I’m still learning every day. Any collaboration has growing pains like that, right? I think it’s really about seeing what’s there and what you can use or maybe reuse or repurpose for the project you’re working on.
For this collaboration, I started just kind of playing with the idea of a skyline. The idea was there from the very beginning, and that was the starting point. Then I was interested in creating those six different pieces, but I wanted to differentiate them as much as possible from each other while still being coherent with the general concept. I think the Tower A—High Rise was one of the first ones—the day that really came, I was thinking about New York and Central Park. The Central Lounge, for me, represents a more leisure-focused area where you go on the weekend. So that was Central Park for me.
There was a lot of back-and-forth with USM, because some of the things I envisioned just weren’t possible. They brought a lot of things to the pieces that I didn’t even think of. Like the trays on the Tower B—Archive were actually introduced to me by John Thorson from USM. So it was very much a collaboration.
This time, I was working digitally at the start, but it was great to see the prototypes and get a sense of the scale. I think it’s definitely important to not stay entirely on digital and to get a sense of scale. The process of creating the prototypes was when I discovered problems that never occurred to me during the weeks of rendering.
With PIN-UP, I have an analog approach, where I work by hand and collage things together. But, for this project with USM, it was more of a hybrid between analog and digital. So, it really varies from project to project.
JB: What is your personal approach to buying design objects for your own space?
BG: What I like about furniture, compared to fashion, is that it is way more sustainable—those are objects you live with for years, not months. And so I like things that are more sustainable in that way. I think it’s really great if you can buy an object that you can live with for decades, and then, once you have no space for it anymore, you can give it to someone else and it has a new life.
I’m in the process of renovating my own space, and I’m following the idea of buying things that are very high quality so I can live with them for a long time. Like, I’d rather buy one expensive couch and then have it for ten years, rather than buying a new couch every second year or something and ditching the previous one. That’s not a very sustainable model, the “fast furniture” movement we’re seeing today. I’m not interested in that.
I think, on the flip side, as a designer rather than a collector, I should be concerned primarily about designing for longevity—something that will still be functional in, say, 20 years. “Timeless design” isn’t something I can really define myself, but it’s determined, I think, by something that still holds up after decades as well as it did when it was first produced.
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