Now part of a Japanese manufacturing concern, Elna sewing machines were first manufactured by Tavaro SA, a former manufacturer of precision military equipment based in Geneva, Switzerland. Towards the end of World War II (during which it provided both sides of the conflict with clockwork fuses), the company sought to diversify its activities by acquiring the patent for a new type of sewing machine invented by a young Spanish engineer named Ramon Casas. Contrary to its heavy and bulky predecessors, the Elna was lightweight and portable, painted a cheerful green colour, and pioneered several of the features of today’s domestic sewing machines, such as the free arm, tread tension control and integrated light source. Later models introduced improvements such as reverse feed and zig-zag stitches. Starting production in 1942, the Elna was a commercial success after the war and led to the rapid expansion of Tavaro’s operations.
Bolstered by international success, the company commissioned architect Georges Addor to expand their manufacturing complex in Geneva’s Charmilles neighbourhood. Built between 1954 and 1956 for Tavaro’s administration and sales divisions, Addor’s building is a textbook rendition of international-style midcentury Modernism inspired by Le Corbusier’s ideals. Occupying the narrow plot of land between Châtelaine avenue and Tavaro’s production site, the office block takes advantage of its orientation by ensuring optimal sunlight to offices, all aligned on the south-facing facade while relegating circulation and sanitary blocks against the north facade. To the south, a garden featuring a small bean-shaped pond and planted with poplar trees served to separate the offices from the manufacturing plant. The street-facing facade to the north was designed with representation in mind, with exhibition halls and entrance lobby occupying brick pavilions joining the street level with the rest of the structure raised on tapered stilts.
Rising international competition, a decline in interest for domestic sewing equipment and the 1974 energy crisis marked the beginning of the end for the Elna success story. In 1995, Tavaro SA declared bankruptcy and production on the site ceased. While the manufacturing halls remained empty, the office building remained in activity by renting out space to a variety of tenants. In 2003, the site is purchased by financier Bénédict Hentsch with the objective of redeveloping the neighbourhood. Recognizing the exceptional quality of Addor’s office building, which had been dubbed the “Palais Royal” by construction workers, Hentsch had the structure carefully restored by Olivier Gallay of TJCA for his own private bank headquarters.
In 2017, the site was transferred to the Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD) and work started to transform the former production halls and administrative offices to welcome the institution. In 2018, Addor’s building benefited from another round of careful renovation by atelier d’ici. This superbly maintained symbol of Swiss industrial history was eventually transformed to welcome the school’s administration, research and representation services, as well as its library. The new HEAD campus opened in 2022.
Open to the public on weekdays, the HEAD library offers a rich collection of over 40,000 monographs, DVDs and active journal subscriptions on contemporary art, cinema and design. Its bright and elegant spaces pay homage to their exceptional setting and are well worth a visit!
The images shown here date from my visit in October 2023.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!