“It is always about atmosphere."

— Yusuf Sert

The Tour of Inspiration Idea

The Tour of Inspiration is a walk combined with curated experiences. This tour is intended to open up one's perspective and, by setting curated impulses, to strengthen strategic business decisions and promote personal development. A physical tour guarantees the best results, however impulses can also be shared throughout a conversation within the Zero Senses Method as a companion. What is valuable is the active exchange that arises during this tour, which includes encounters with artists (broadly defined) and their stories. In the following interview with Yusuf Sert, an interior designer from Zurich, you will gain insights about what such an impulse can look like. Translating the newly gained insights into one's own business life is the artisan work, while Zero Senses offers a methodology.

A Conversation with Yusuf Sert - Interior Atelier, Zurich

Yusuf, tell us, how did this beautiful interior design atelier in the middle of Zurich's old town come into being? I took over this atelier four years ago. After almost a lifetime as an employee, that was when I decided to become an entrepreneur.

Would you mind sharing a bit more about your story? I have to go back a little further here... When I was very young, my father was convinced that the future would be about electronics. He was not completely wrong, because we are talking about the 90s, when we were experiencing the rise of technology companies and computers, like Apple with its Macintosh, etc. I followed the advice of my dad, but even while I was still an electrical engineer, I knew it wasn’t for me. On construction sites, I was fascinated by the plans instead of concentrating on electronics and my master’s degree. Something creative, working in design – that was what I wanted to do. So my next step brought me to lighting design.

How did you get from there to the showroom of a luxury furniture store? The creative side was always deeply rooted within me. Everything that had to do with interior design caught my interest. At the age of 16, I was already building my own lighting fixtures. Everything in my room I’d built myself. So I tried to get into the furniture and interior design business, but they weren’t interested in me and as I wasn’t admitted to the vocational school, I had to find another way to pursue my quest.

What was it like for you to know where you wanted to go, but to feel that the "normal" way was a dead end? I knew I had to get there somehow. I applied to a certain furniture store over and over again, but was rejected again and again due to my lack of experience. One day I discovered an advertisement from one of the furniture stores in Zurich. The unconventional boss – an American – invited me to an interview along with eight other applicants. Miraculously, a short time later I was hired, and that was how I got into the industry.

So you started working in one of the top furniture stores in Zurich without any experience. How did that go? I've never learned so much in my life. There are various things that contribute to how something comes about – I call it fate. In this case, I was alone in the furniture store after three months: everyone had quit. This was certainly the beginning of the end for the store, but for me it was probably the beginning of my most intense phase of learning. The furniture industry is a small one, and suddenly I was in direct contact with all the important actors in it, some of whom became contacts that have remained with me to this day. And in the end, I had the opportunity to follow through the entire liquidation process of the company. I can tell you how this kind of sale has to work. While liquidation is a field of its own, I can still apply this knowledge today. From then on I was firmly anchored in the industry.

What happened then? I used my network to find a new job. From that point on, I never applied for a job again. I gained self-confidence and learned to apply my knowledge in new situations, sometimes without being asked. My new employer was about to create a new lighting concept, and I was of course able to bring in my experience in lighting design. I "worked my way up" relatively quickly, and stayed with this shop for 13 years.

In the midst of all this success, how did you get the urge to do something of your own? I was living a double life. Whenever I went to furniture fairs, I shopped for the store, but also for myself in my mind. I kept a mental file of the pieces I would have liked to buy for myself, albeit still at the imaginary level. I knew that at some point in my life I would have my own shop. I always carried this idea in me.

Now here we are, sitting in your shop. What was the path that led you from your dream job back then to becoming an entrepreneur? The furniture business is a small world – I knew where I wanted to go and where I didn't want to go. For me, still today, it’s very important to know what you don’t want. And I’d peaked within the industry. There was nothing new that interested me anymore. I’d reached a turning point.

One day, the owner of the shop that we’re sitting in today called me and asked if we could meet. He came right out and asked me if I want to buy his shop, and we wrote the contract straight away on a napkin. There were of course other interested parties, but he seemed to have the best connection with me. He was about to retire, and I offered him the opportunity to keep a desk in the shop as long as he wanted.

How did it feel to suddenly have your own shop? I was a new person. I’m an entrepreneur, not a manager.

What is the difference in thinking like an entrepreneur and like a manager? I once said to a manager, "You always make me feel like I'm doing everything wrong." Managers have to be guided by facts. Everything needs a report, every decision has to be justified, preferably with market analyses, while feelings are completely irrelevant in the decision making process. That's not how I work.

An entrepreneur is not only concerned with the best margin. I can't just buy the top selling stock. I have to pick things that suit me. What fits my DNA? What doesn’t? Are there things that make me wince a bit when I order them? This is the exciting part. We have to show the customer what they might want. This can mean going a bit outside the DNA in order to be one step ahead, but always keeping the spirit of the times in mind. That's our job.

And how do you "manage" today? Everything goes a hundred times faster. For example, when I buy something new, I’m never sure if the product will work. I can make spontaneous decisions; I might decide while I’m unpacking it whether to keep it or use it differently than originally planned. My work is all about split-second decisions based on gut feelings – not on major market analyses.

Is using this gut feeling something that can be learned? Yes, you have to learn to choose from your gut and decide from your head. It’s a combination.

Where do you get your inspiration from? It's the combination that matters, that's very important. German, Italian, French and English magazines have always been a source of inspiration for me. But not only that: I always ask my friends to bring home magazines when they go on holiday. Each country has a different approach or mentality. You can even see the difference between the French-speaking part of Switzerland and how we do things here in Zurich. And I put a lot of thought into the issue of beauty. What does aesthetics mean, what’s behind a customer’s "I like it" or "I don't like it"? Also, I’m a bit of fan of Oliver Jan and AD Germany.

Is there a person who has particularly shaped or inspired you? There are many. In general, I've noticed the greater of an expert someone is, the less likely they will say, "this isn’t possible". Confident “amateurs” are the ones who judge immediately. But true experts allow for a diversity of approaches. They’re open to other perspectives and give them a chance. This is how good concepts are created. I think that almost nothing is ugly. Our task is to create the right context.

Just to illustrate that, here’s an example: In our industry, 85% find minimalist tables with thin legs aesthetically appealing, but in America, only 1% of people would say that’s beautiful. The world is so different, and our design world is so small. We have to be open and listen to what the customer wants. In Mexico, our atelier would look like the entrance to a prison, because there the driving aesthetic is opulence, not simplicity.

Does your inspiration fit into any geographical categories? The Italians were the first to conquer the design market, but the "new" Scandinavians offer incredible spectacular works. They're a bit ruthless, but they do strike a chord. Otherwise I look to Switzerland for precise design, to England for anything with a Heritage resonance and to France for a Bohemian touch.

Where is the design market heading? Towards a warm minimalism.

Have you ever regretted any step you made? My father was right, all my colleagues from back then have made careers in technology companies. But I have to tell you, I've never felt better: I feel young and completely in my element.


Yusuf Sert, interior and lighting designer, has his studio on Oberdorfstrasse in Zurich. He is known for the unique atmospheres that he creates for his private and corporate clients, using his own designs and those of prominent manufacturers.