Kolb aka ‘Chicago Kolb’ was a Swiss-born architect and designer. Today he is best remembered for his beautiful villa in Wermatswill but that is really the tip of the iceberg in a career which connected all the modernist dots.
His life crisscrossed Europe and North America, he taught at the most prestigious design schools of the era in Chicago and managed to patent a spiral staircase that made him more money than all his architectural achievements.
Pre-war, Otto was an apprentice bricklayer which segwayed neatly into his studying building construction at the Winterthur technical school in neutral Switzerland, graduating in 1944. A mid-WW2 education left its mark life long – he constantly considered the use of resources.
An early employer in 1945 was influential Swiss architect, Alfred Roth, who also happened to know everyone from Le Corbusier (who he had worked for) to James Joyce.
An early commission during this period was the experimental studio Atelierhaus in Brüttisellen. Kolb’s designs extended to the interiors and some early important pieces such as the ‘book tree’ and ‘mobile lamp’, he cited the historian Hans Kayser as an inspiration. This 1945 project brought him to an international public’s attention. In 1946 he married Heidi Müller.
Meanwhile, he’s hanging out in his spare time, at the legendary Café Select with the likes of Richard Paul Lohse, editor of Bauen + Wohnen (Building + Home) and Max Bill. This was not a by-chance venue, created by Corbusier student Willy Boesiger, it was explicit in wanting to bring the Parisian bohemian café culture to Zurich.
Johannes Itten, by now back in Zürich, Director of the Kunstgewerbeschule vocational art school, persuaded Korb to join him as a Lecturer in Technical Drawing. Arguably this decisively led to his career crossing the Atlantic. His name was getting more name recognition and in 1947 he caught the attention of Serge Chermayeff, who had by now left England and was the Director of the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago. This led Chermayeff in 1948 to appoint Kolb as his successor at the Institute of New Bauhaus.
Kolb received his first US American commission in 1949, a weekend and holiday home for Imré and Maria Horner on the shores of Lake Michigan at Beverley Shores Indiana. Today this International-style house is on the National Register of Historic Places, sitting close to George Fred Keck’s ‘House of Tomorrow’.
He juggled teaching product design, writing, designing furniture and lighting and accepting commissions. His chair with winged armrests, the Fledermaussessel was featured by Playboy who coined the name (which stuck), the ‘Love Chair’.
After the merging by Mies van der Rohe the Institute of Design with the Illinois Institute of Technology, Kolb left in under a year, divorced his wife and married his second wife Ridi Spiesman. Amongst his commissions at this time was the 1953 Clark House.
On the surface, it looked like a new phase but this was short-lived when serious health issues altered his course once again and contributed to the end of his marriage. In 1959 he married Jane Lace. Together they returned to Switzerland in 1960, living in the Brüttisellen, Atelierhaus which he had by now extended to make a family home.
Return to Switzerland
Back ‘home in Switzerland, he received a series of commissions including the 1961 Wallisellen family houses, the Schuppisser houses in Humlikon 1963-66, the Vollenweider in Zufikon 1967, the Galvanische Anstalt Walt in Fällanden 1966-67 as well as a furniture collection.
The patenting of his 1965 spindle staircase, a brilliant space saver and illustration of his versatility, a simple but effective design, worked both internally and externally was the real financial winner.
He died on 12th December 1996.
Today its Otto’s ‘cylinder house’, Villa Kolb which excites the most interest. It gained protected status in 2012 and is rumoured to have even been scoped out at one point as a potential location for a James Bond film.
All images unless otherwise noted: Philippe Stuebi Architekten ETH BSA SIA GMBH
Find Philippe on his website at www.philippestuebl.ch