When Rhett Brandt and Dave Gagliardi opened up their coffee shop, Secret, in a mall in East Williamsburg, they wanted it to be different. Gagliardi, who’s also a musician, suggested a big USM Haller shelving unit, made custom, to display the limited roasts and ephemera they sold along with their teas and espresso drinks. The piece—a variation of the about six-foot tall R2 unit—is a green étagère highlighting and hiding art books about Ferrari, New Order shirts, rare coffee batches from Montreal and the like. Next to the mud, it’s the shop’s centerpiece. "It’s our foil," Gagliardi says, "for telling people that we care about design."
He and Brandt built the system over months with USM Modular Furniture in their Manhattan office, giving their space a canny upgrade compared with run-of-the-mill minimalist coffee shop interiors, which lean on knockoff midcentury-modern furnishings. Most coffee shops don’t look like this.
Haller’s steel panel and chromed hardware construction is easy to recognize, but until lately it’s only been placed in a handful of contexts: discerning bookshops, art galleries, artists’ homes. (Consider the Swiss Institute’s all-Haller library, at once overpowering and inspiring.) Thanks to liquidated stock from offices peppering the secondhand marketplace and re-sale platforms, and higher visibility from collaborations, Haller has caught the eye of a city-dwelling millennial set interested in making a big leap beyond the Ikea aesthetic.
"When I moved into my apartment," says Nino Frank, a 30-year-old creative director in Brooklyn, "I couldn’t afford a Haller. But it’s always been on my mind." Frank was looking to replace an old teak credenza he’d been gifted whose vibe he’d outgrown. "It was too tall," he says, "like an entryway table. And it was too much set against our hardwood floors and wood cabinets and wooden tables." Around the holidays, Frank bought a forever upgrade. He landed on a custom credenza—silver, with two open panels and backing—after finding an Instagram shop that does customs, and sells secondhand Hallers at a markdown.
The purchase was half practical, half aesthetic. "Hallers hold value," says Frank. "If I’m in a pinch, I could sell it. But it also holds all my books, and blends in seamlessly with the apartment." Frank got the Haller bug early in his career while working in art book publishing. The aesthetic, he says, "felt really ubiquitous to art galleries and creative environments." And so it makes sense that he uses it to store a wealth of photography books.
Before making the shelving units it became famous for, USM Modular Furniture, founded in Switzerland in 1885, produced hinges and window fittings. Since moving onto its trademark steel pieces in 1963 (named after architect Fritz Haller, a co-designer), the storage—modular, powder-coated, lots of colors—has evolved into an enterprise business: custom work in infinite variations for galleries, jewelers, and retailers. Variations are subtle—how many shelves would you like to be closed? What color, what backing?—and clear, and, for a certain class of businesses, function by telegraphing design clout. Customers recognize it, or are moved by it, and the brand that buys it looks that much more impressive. With just enough options and an immediate aesthetic, USM storage is a bit like Louis Vuitton’s iterative monogram luggage, only more practical.
Both businesses and retail customers can choose between bespoke and off the rack, in which a number of shapes are available in a handfuls of colors. But USM’s shift from gallery spaces to brick and mortars and homes seems mostly to have come from Haller’s limited offerings and collaborations.
Limited Hallers—like this set of muted-green credenzas—offer a quieter aesthetic that was tougher to find off the rack. And a recent suite of collaborations—pink and blue towers designed by Pin-Up Home, and Noel Mercado’s more somber two-tone ideas—pushed that vibe even further. The collaboration that changed things the most, of course, was Supreme. The fashion brand with a loyal following of young skateboarders and older clotheshorses, whose stores have long been outfitted with USM hardware, released a limited credenza—logo, front and center—this past summer to immediate sales and discussion shift. Younger people know what Haller is now. "Ever since Supreme made the unit," says Rhett Brandt, who co-owns the coffee shop in Williamsburg, "there’s been more public awareness."
Increased secondhand availability may be explained by the drift to remote work. Offices that went virtual during the pandemic have gotten rid of their furniture, mostly through liquidators and consultants, who in turn have stepped in and specialized their offerings. Real, genuine Haller items now show up on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace and even auction sites, like LiveAuctioneers, at a higher clip than they did before the pandemic. And so when consumers who’ve worked in creative environments, or who just like good coffee see something they like, they can act.
Even at markdown, however, Hallers can be expensive; its standard credenza lists in the $3,600 range, and in Frank’s experience, secondhand discounts hover between 15 and 30 percent. Since the shelves are very well made, even compared to similarly-priced classics, they last very long, and hold their value. But it’s still a purchase that requires some thought.
To be sure, this bigger footprint has led to more fakes. Platforms like OfferUp and Marketplace don’t offer authentication for furniture, or explain what to look for when buying. My experience, as a seller and sourcer, is to ask for as many photos as possible. Getting pictures of stickers and the internal hardware is necessary. (It shows the seller has nothing to hide.) Going through trusted re-sellers, like Kevin Kay, who operates Custom USM Haller, which sold Frank his credenza, is also a good bet. Kay, who has been selling Haller for a decade, "doesn’t just randomly buy Hallers from people," but limits his purchases to larger lots of USM designs for corporate clients. (Say, banks or creative agencies.) Individual pieces have tells, as well: Kay looks for stickers on pieces’ right hand sides, and feels for hardware with a certain weight. Haller pieces, says Kay, are "extremely heavy." The rule on Hallers used to be that if a piece was anywhere below retail, it was fake. But these days there are exceptions.
It’s a new state of affairs, defined by more knowledge and more availability. And while future upgrades require some intention due to the price tag, once you start, it’s hard to stop. "I want to work with Kevin again," says Frank, "to build a USM coffee table and a side table."
If purchasing USM Haller shelving at retail feels out of reach, you can regularly find items marked down on auction websites like LiveAuctioneers. Below are a few of my favorite enduring artifacts bearing the USM stamp.
The classic two-by-two shape, perfect as a credenza or TV stand, is USM’s most visible and versatile offering of Haller shelving. It can pop up on auction sites in the low four figures, on a good day.
The T59 table feels quieter than Haller’s storage options but is about as elegant, and works anywhere in a house. They’re not as often sold secondhand—why get rid of one?—but can occasionally be found on LiveAuctioneers in the high hundreds.
One way to describe winning the lottery is to come upon a used, customized large Haller piece without paying the retail premium. Even a non-design auction house can discern these are worth something, and so they pop up on LiveAuctioneers every now and then, ending in the low five figures, which is still well below retail.
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