Willy Guhl was born in 1915 in Stein-am-Rhein in German-speaking Switzerland. He was a neo-functionalist designer and an innovative name in furniture and product design and was an early advocate for flat-packed, mass-produced furniture that made quality design available to the masses. He is most notably remembered for his inexpensive, weather-resistant cement designs produced by Swiss company Eternit.
Guhl trained as a cabinetmaker at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich before opening his own studio and workshop in 1939. He returned to his alma mater as a tutor in interior design, and eventually became the director in 1951. At this time he established Switzerland's first specialised Product Design centre.
During Europe's post-war reconstruction Guhl designed easily constructible and economical social housing. He was driven by the desire to innovate the way in which homes and products are built and was among the first to create furniture from fibreglass, The Scobalit Chair in the late 1940s.
In 1951, Eternit commissioned Guhl and his students to create concrete planters. The idea to combine concrete with asbestos resulted in a reinforced material that could create elegant, strong and stable designs. Among those original designs was the Spindle planter which was designed by Guhl and his student Anton Bee. Eternit became an essential part of Guhl's teaching, which he focused on realising the potential and creating new materials.
In 1954 Willy Guhl designed the Loop Chair for Eternit, which became and still remains a mid-century classic and one of his most widely recognised works. It is also the perfect example of his personal motto: "achieving the most with the minimum effort.” The Loop Chair won the Gute Form prize and is on display in the Vitra Design Museum in Germany and the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich.
Due to the carcinogenic nature of asbestos, the production of Guhl's Loop Chair was ceased in 1980, and after just two weeks of display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2001, it was removed due to health concerns. The chairs surface has now been sealed, eliminating the risk of exposure.
1981 saw Guhl retire from teaching but he continued to design. Over the course of his career, he gained considerable recognition for his designs and was the subject of a retrospective exhibition in 1985 entitled, “Willy Guhl: Designer and Teacher” at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich. He co-founded the Association of Swiss Interior Designers (Vereinigung Schweizer Innenarchitekten) in 1943 and the Association of Swiss Industrial Designers in 1966.
Willy Guhl passed away in 2004, in his hometown, at the age of 89.