Meet Ginger Zalaba – granddaughter of the great architect and master of the New Bauhaus Otto Kolb
Swiss-born Ginger Zalaba has rediscovered and reinterpreted her grandfather’s furniture. The story of an inspired fusion of Bauhaus, modern lifestyle and Walter Knoll. We met the young artist and designer in the so-called "cylinder house" in Wermatswil, Switzerland – the life's work of Otto Kolb.
In the mid-1950s, the American edition of Playboy published a photo of a chair that was celebrated by the magazine as an invitation to seduction. It had been created by the Swiss designer Otto Kolb, who called it the bat chair after its wing-like, protruding armrests. Following its publication in Playboy, however, it carried the name that the editors had bestowed upon it: “Love Chair”. More than sixty years later, in 2015, at the most important furniture trade fair in the world – the Salone del Mobile in Milan – a design appeared that referenced that legendary chair. It was part of an exhibit by a young and still-unknown Swiss artist and designer, who was presenting her own collection for the first time – chairs that, from a distance, were reminiscent of Otto Kolb and the Bauhaus, and yet also had their own unique quality.
What happened next is like a family reunion in recent design history, instigated by Markus Benz, CEO of Walter Knoll. In 1961, the company had already worked with grandfather Otto Kolb to develop an upholstered version of the avant-garde chair, which caused a great sensation. Now, Markus Benz discovered the granddaughter’s reinterpretation – and decided on a new collaboration.
Inspiration takes flight: the original 1951 bat chair in the family library
As children, we learn from our parents what is good and what is not so good, and how we should approach life’s challenges – and in pretty much the same way that they learned from their parents. However, few people realize that children also receive an aesthetic education from what they see in everyday life and their surroundings. This may be down to the fact that a special sense of form, color, material and composition is not part of every family’s philosophy. In Ginger Zalaba’s family, it is part of the ancestral consciousness.
"Design was always important to our family."
— Ginger Zalaba
"We grew up with Otto Kolb’s designs," says Ginger Zalaba. “What my grandfather created seemed normal to us.” Otto Kolb, born in Zurich almost a hundred years ago, was a Swiss architect and an all-round creative genius. In his youth, he belonged to the circle around artists such as James Joyce, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, before going to America at the end of the 1940s to teach at the famous Institute of Design in Chicago, and befriending Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He built houses that are now listed as American cultural monuments and developed furniture that was purchased by museums in New York and Paris. He was one of the first to build in a resource-conscious way, using solar panels and working with spectacular cable bracing.
Returning to Switzerland at the start of the 1960s, he became wealthy thanks to the invention of a steel spiral staircase and built a house in Wermatswil, a small village in the Zürich highlands – a house with no equal in the world, that mixes Bauhaus principles with American influences and is immortalized in international architecture guides. So it is absolutely not normal to grow up surrounded by Otto Kolb’s designs – unless he is your grandfather. “He just had a talent for making beautiful things,” says Ginger Zalaba. “They were always important to our family. I am a child of the Bauhaus.”
She is sitting inside the artistic legacy that her grandfather left to his family and the world – in the legendary roundhouse that is shaped like a glass cylinder set into the mountainside, and inside which everything, truly everything – from the floor plan to the furniture and fittings right through to the Christmas tree stand – can be traced back to his ideas.
The steel spiral staircase forms the main core of the building. It is one of Otto Kolb’s most important inventions
“As children, we lay on the master bed in the evenings and watched the squirrels in the trees,” says Ginger Zalaba. Anyone growing up with this kind of heritage only really has two options. One option is to reject it and set out in a new direction because you do not want the continual comparisons – and this is exactly what Ginger Zalaba originally planned to do: in fact, she wanted to run a gallery. Having studied at art college in Zurich, she traveled to Los Angeles for her first internship. However, at that point her father died at home in Switzerland, and at the age of twenty-six she became the head of the family business. The second option is to take on the legacy and reshape it in your own way – and that is exactly what Ginger Zalaba is doing now.
“I knew that it would take courage to do this,” she says. “But I also knew that I could do it. If anything, being Otto Kolb’s granddaughter made me stronger.” Within a very short time, her grandmother trained her in the family business, which mainly focused on construction for trade fairs. When Ginger Zalaba later offered to refurbish her grandmother’s chairs to say thank you, it was probably the first time that the young woman truly appreciated her grandfather’s work, in her capacity as an artist and designer. She studied the individual elements, the material, the lines and the way that things were made.
Just like any gifted student, at some point she began to develop and consolidate her own ideas. When she travelled to the Milan furniture fair with her first collection of chairs based on her grandfather’s designs, she used up her life savings. “For me, being able to show my work was a huge achievement,” says Ginger Zalaba. “Especially when it ultimately led to contact with Walter Knoll.”
A feeling for materials: for her Walter Knoll designs, Zalaba chooses from a range of different samples. For her Aisuu Side Chair and Aisuu Chair, she uses leather and steel
Markus Benz, CEO of Walter Knoll, was primarily interested in the reinterpretation of the bat chair, but was undecided whether such a unique piece would fit into the rest of the collection. Ginger Zalaba began to rework the concept, drew a hundred new designs, changed proportions, frames and armrests. She simplified the design further and further, until it turned into a dining chair. Then, she expanded it again into a side chair.
It is not true that Ginger Zalaba does not respect her grandfather’s work – rather, she is unafraid. The original is distinctive in its delicate opulence; her design is distinctive in its compact clarity, which cuts out the superfluous and yet avoids the austere. She has reincorporated the original elements: steel tubing and saddle leather. The construction and statics are completely new – and more original: elegant, simplified and strong. Now the Aisuu exists as a side chair, but also as a dining chair that suits both homes and restaurants. “The Bauhaus gave us an aesthetic which has remained relevant for a hundred years,” says Markus Benz. “Ginger Zalaba manages to take on this aesthetic and develop it further in her own way: unusually different, yet sensuous and beautiful.”
“It was time to bring the bat chair up to date,” says Ginger Zalaba. “The fact that the new interpretation is being presented by Walter Knoll would certainly have pleased my grandfather.”
Aisuu Side Chair – Learn more here
Aisuu Side – Learn more here
Biography of the swiss-born designer Ginger Zalaba
Text: Marcus Jauer