HomeBienneFrom Swatch Intern to Chief Design Officer at On: Interview with Thilo Alex Brunner

When I first came across On shoes, over a decade ago, I was living in Senegal and visiting the Silicon Valley for work. I was immediately struck by the unique futuristic yet comforting looks. I certainly did not expect that, half a dozen pairs later, I would be living in the town where the man behind the iconic Cloud design was born and raised. Even less that I’d be sitting with him, at the now megabrand’s headquarters, talking about watches, shoes and our favorite city, Bienne.

Thilo Alex Brunner, On’s Chief Design Officer exemplifies Biel/Bienne in a wonderful way. He seamlessly switches between German and French, or, for the interview, English. By definition, as a multi-award winning designer, he is highly creative. He has seen the world, in both its wildest and most urban forms, and yet he is deeply attached to his home roots. And even if he works in a mostly unrelated industry, watchmaking is never very far. 

We sat in a cozy conference room with a huge round glass window overlooking an internal amphitheater. With a MoonSwatch on his wrist and an outfit otherwise completely designed with his teams, Brunner casually shared the experiences and learnings from his early days as an intern at Swatch to now leading design at one of the world’s most prominent sportswear brands. 

Tell us about your childhood in Bienne…

I think the word that sums it up is “creative.” Bienne is a city that always lets you do things, even without a budget. There are a lot of open spaces you can use, and it’s easy to meet people. Many communities and subcultures mix together. I also love the setting. Cycling, skiing and snowboarding in the Jura mountains. A 10 minute drive and you’re in a completely different world. The lake also has so much to offer, with barely any construction around it. Even though I’ve been living in Zurich for 22 years now, I go back about every 6 weeks. 

What exactly did you do at Swatch? 

I worked with Swatch Group on two occasions. First, at Swatch itself, from 1997 to 2001. It started as an internship in product management. As I was determined to go on and study design, I never expected to stay more than 6 months. But I ended up interacting so much with the design teams, working on innovation and development, that I decided to continue much longer. It was a remarkable experience. It still amazes me that people flying so high would trust someone just out of school the way they did.

I then worked again in 2005 with the Swatch Group, this time as a design intern, for their new product development center, CDNP, in Grenchen. I came up with a pop-up store design concept that I eventually ended up running for  Swatch between 2005 and 2009 in all major European cities. It was pretty wild. I can’t emphasize enough how much the creative freedom that was given to me at a young age contributed to my development as a designer and I am eternally grateful for it.

We’re sitting right now in On Labs, aka the brand’s global HQ. How did you end up leading design here? 

In 2009, the founders of On approached me to ask if I wanted to be part of a little design competition. They had this crazy shoe project out of Switzerland. The rest is history.

What was the vision? How did you translate it into design?  

I was briefed about their idea for the now-iconic Cloud shoe concept. The company was not even formed yet, and there was no budget for the upper section of the shoe. The design goal was to find a way for people to understand what the shoe does, and make them want to try it on (editor’s note: On Clouds are popular among runners for their bouncy, springy sensation while being incredibly lightweight). As we knew the shoe felt special, we were confident the conversion rate would be really high. At first, people thought it looked a bit weird. That was a necessary trade-off for showing what it does. Over the years, as acceptance grew, the visual identity became the signature and set a trend across the industry. 

You’ve designed and received awards for products ranging from knives to water bottles and shoes. What do they all have in common? 

I have a bit of a thing for traditional Swiss brands. They’re generally based on solid history and solid design, from household objects to furniture or outdoor products. But only looking at the history of something is not enough – I’m all about evolving things over time and giving objects a temporary twist. And then of course, there is this commitment to how well things are made. I like things that are built with precision, like a watch. Whether it’s a shoe or a bike, it has to be on point. The object must trigger a great feeling when you have it in hand. Back when I had my agency, for example, we created 3 families of screws just to show the furniture industry they didn’t need to spend so much trying to hide them. 

What learnings from your days at Swatch are still useful to you today?

One thing is having been in product management, providing briefs to design teams, before becoming a designer myself. I know what it’s like to be on the other side. Then, the two industries have in common the importance of story-telling. I’m always amazed at how watch brands generate so much enthusiasm for a product that has lost most of its necessity from a purely functional perspective. 

What are the most iconic watches you remember from your Swatch days?

The 1983 OG is certainly one of them. I was also very impressed with the technologies we were developing back then. Swatch Access, which led the path to Swatch Pay. And the Swatch Talk, a watch you could call with, at the beginning of this century! The watches dedicated to the Proteam, also. Swatch was very advanced in sponsoring and sports ambassadors, way ahead of their time. 

What are your favorite watch brands?

My Mom worked at Omega in the 70s, so I definitely have a sweet spot there. Also, when I was at Swatch, the offices were connected to Omega’s, in the old building. Omega to me is synonymous with Bienne. Rolex, despite not having had a personal connection to it, in Bienne, is never far either. The historical buildings with the iconic logos are beautiful and I saw them every day on my way to school and back home. Swatch, Omega, Rolex.  A bit cliché, but a line-up to be pretty proud of being from Bienne, isn’t it? You could say that on one hand I am very proud to be from a town that started so many traditions – but I am very proud too having worked for a brand that has questioned them all.

You’re wearing a MoonSwatch right now…

For me, with the personal history I just explained, it’s the perfect match. I have to admit that when I learned about it, I was surprised. The guts that it took to launch this reminded me of the vibes from the days when I worked at Swatch. It was great for Omega too, making the brand more aspirational while bringing it closer to many. 

Back to shoes… Which is your favorite that you designed?

I’d have to say different ones for different reasons. Of course, the Cloud, for how crazily it spread around the world. Then, the Cloudnova (editor’s note: above), with its very unique silhouette that could have gone totally wrong but people finally accepted. Cloudstratus and Cloudmonster also come to mind. Both saw instant, far-reaching success, and laid a certain aesthetic foundation that was used in other projects, internally or elsewhere. 

Any plans for an On watch? 

No. We have grown nicely but still have an important core mission. Apparel, along with accessories, has also become an integral part of our offering. There’s still a huge amount to do within our space!

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Helvetic Reader
Helvetic Reader
1 month ago

Great read. Mr Brunner does a wonderful job representing and explaining the best of Swiss design in today’s day and age. Maybe one day design a watch?

1 month ago

Very pleasant read! I really liked the fil rouge connecting traditional and modern Swiss brands through the eyes of a designer like Mr. Brunner. And would surely be curious to see how a(nother) watch coming out of his pencil (or, most likely, some form of digital device) would look like!

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