We’re accustomed to riding gondolas in ski resorts and theme parks around the world. Lately, they’re also cropping up in proposals for aerial mass transit in urban areas such as Austin, Texas. Medellín slums also now have chair lifts carting families safely up and down steep hillsides. But no matter how far they travel, gondolas will remain steadfastly Swiss. (Look no further than Google’s Zurich offices for proof.)
The Verbier cable car, in particular, is an iconic piece of Swiss industrial design. "They are one of the gondolas we most find around the world," says Albert Schrurs, an architect and co-founder of Verbier Mountain Climbers. "We like to say that we can even find them in the New York Bronx Zoo."
So when the ski company Televerbier announced that it would be dismantling a line of the 40-year-old lifts, Schrurs and two other designer-entrepreneurs—Inès Flammarion and Nicolas Bernheim—salvaged the artifacts and asked a group of seven enterprising Swiss designers to give them colorful second lives. The original design speaks to the 1970s era of mass production: A boxy, hexagonal shell is outfitted with bright blue Plexiglas windows. The new gondolas, as envisioned by the artists and on display at Miami’s Art Basel 2013 last week, run the gamut. Atelier Oï reincarnated one chair lift into a jellyfish-like fictional aircraft, set for flight. Nicolas Le Moigne converted gondola scraps into a dining room table. And Baker Wardlaw went all Wonka by turning the lift into a jumbo-sized gumball vending machine.
Revisiting a Swiss Icon is a playful way to save outmoded infrastructure from ending up in a landfill, but the project isn’t just about salvaging. Initially, Verbier Mountain Climbers expected to have enough gondolas available for 40 artists to decorate so that Christie’s could auction them off for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
When construction on the new ski lines met delays, the designers could only acquire four of the promised 40 cable cars. But instead of scrapping the idea, the restraints fostered a creativity that has a deconstructed element: One piece, by Jörg Boner and Lela Scherrer, uses the siding of the cart to create a standing privacy screen. Philippe Cramer’s iteration puts the blue Plexiglas screens on bold display. And the seventh creation isn’t even a new draft of the old gondola; it’s a photograph. Anoush Abrar captures the ski lift levitating on a cumulus cloud, in what looks like some kind of gondola heaven.
Read more about Verbier Mountain Climbers here.