Notes from the Unexpected: The Rote Fabrik

Images and text: DB Miller

Another day, another train ride—and the whoosh of brick, graffiti and thicket still makes little sense. A constant of the commute and Zürich’s most unlikely landmark, the sprawling red jumble not only follows its own logic, but dares to do so on what is now prime lakefront property.

Then again, the Rote Fabrik got here first.


At one time a silk-weaving mill on the outskirts, the ‘red factory’ dodged the wrecking ball in the early 1970s to eke out a new life as a cultural center. Its real rebirth came in 1980, when throngs of the young and forgotten rejected the establishment definition of culture—which infamously excluded rock music and the more experimental youth arts scene. Words mattered when the lavish funding went elsewhere, mainly to the Zürich Opera House. But history ran its course: riots ensued, the Fabrik got its subsidies and, within a generation, unsuspecting opera audiences might catch some full-frontal before the night was through.

Today, the Rote Fabrik churns out a packed program of theater and dance, as well as reams of rock, indie, rap and jazz gigs. The organization behind the cultural center is also responsible for the themed events, from poetry slams to debates about the migrant crisis. With its bustling agenda, the place has its fans. Or maybe it’s just because the Rote Fabrik is the only spot I know where the heavily-inked, stroller-bound and chess-playing are equally welcome to grab some homemade carrot cake and mill around the still-drying tags. For some, it’s all a bit messy.


“Like the zoo,” says Sarah, one of 17 in the management team, “I think sometimes people see us as a zoo. As in, what we do over here is just about acceptable, but at least it’s contained.”

NFTU RF3 The site does appear unruly, with its concert halls, artists’ studios and sailing school, not to mention the bike shop, kindergarten, museum and restaurant. As much of this is tucked away or camouflaged by graffiti, extra time must be budgeted to find the right door. And then, there is the exotic way things run: as a collective.

Here, equal salaries reign and inexperience counts. As Sarah puts it, “It’s not as easy to understand as a bank.” But rules are in place—the team is adamant that tolerance not be confused with anarchy—and those who become a member of the Rote Fabrik get to shape it.

I look through the industrial-sized windows at the lake. Just out of view, a new multi-million-franc walkway juts into the water and connects the Rote Fabrik to more familiar shores. A marina, swanky restaurant and boutiques are only five minutes away—and their counterpoint, five back.

* Seestrasse 395, 8038 Zürich


 DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Notes from the Unexpected: Les Millionnaires

Images and text by D.B. Miller

On a prim cobblestone lane that makes nearby Bahnhofstrasse look like a strip mall, there is a showroom. It stands out a bit, what with the kaleidoscopic marble arches and golden sweep of letters announcing, in case there was any doubt, that those who enter have arrived. Inside, however, the hush and impeccable glass cases suggest a typical Old Town affair—for about a second.

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 3 BW

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 2Les Millionnaires. This is the jeweler steeped in the tradition of turning Zürich’s discreet aesthetic on its head, yet appealing to folks who, if held upside down, might start raining coins—to adapt an image furnished by co-founder Urs. But long before the acclaim, international expansion or foray into watchmaking, Les Millionnaires boasted just five rings and an ironic name. That was over 30 years ago, when Urs, designer Francine and goldsmith Ernst were sure of only one thing: they had no idea what they were doing.

“We’re a little crazy, all three of us,” says Francine, not without a hint of pride, while trying to recount exactly how jewelry inspired by fairytales, the animal kingdom and the dark sparks of their imagination took them this far.

Les M by DB Miller

The first three Millionnaires: Ernst, Francine and Urs

“My designs can’t always be sold,” she goes on, happy enough to defer to the experts, in particular Ernst. With his magic hands and years of experience, he is better placed to work out which ideas can be painstakingly brought to life for a limited series, one-off, or not at all. I think of the startling sculpture with the snail perched on an olive-sized stone—around here, called “a ring”—and have to wonder what never made it past the cast. Are there limits as to what can and can’t be done?

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 1 BW“No,” she says, right before Ernst quips, “Yes.” And then they laugh in the way people who have spent hundreds of thousands of hours working together, might.


In the atelier across the river, five craftsmen hunch over precious metal. They hammer and file, one thumbing through a plastic tub of diamonds, just as other Old Town jewelers once did before striking out on their own. In this métier, timeworn techniques die hard, even if they are now accompanied by tinny pop music and the stops and screeches of machinery.

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 2 BW

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 1Just off the basement workshop lined with tarnished rods and helmets, Urs weaves past the floor-to-ceiling shelves. They overflow with a jumble of twine, scraps and crates stuffed with the makings of Les Millionnaires’ offbeat displays. Elsewhere: dusty cases of champagne, swaths of iridescent velvet and wooden gift boxes, each carved by hand.

“Everything we’ve ever done,” says Urs, “comes from the gut.” 

We are a long way from the sleek and sterile—from creativity that can be deconstructed or cloned in bulk. Every glittering beetle, seahorse and gargoyle is birthed in this bunker. Every dream and walk in the woods lives in metal and stone. A geometrically imprecise shape is sometimes the most perfect, and a patch of shadow can split into a thousand tiny stars.

“The eye,” says Ernst, “tends to linger on what it can’t work out.”

*, Storchengasse 13, 8001 Zürich

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 4

DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Notes from the Unexpected: Zürich’s one and only lake speaks up

by D.B. Miller

On certain days, it’s uncanny: the turquoise shallows, cobalt drop and unrelenting shimmer for as far as the neck can crane. The Mediterranean, you could swear it—with a squint and some imagination, maybe even a cove around St. Tropez. Toss in a few gulls and those Boesch motorboats that cost as much as a watch, and you’re living the dream.


Except the dream is right here, in a landlocked country, fertilizing the shores and giving the lucky people who live on them something to look at. On this, the locals and transient folk agree: Zürisee is the city’s crowning asset. Once an international trade route, today a playground, but still: 88 square kilometers of alpine aqua pura are reason enough to be proud, if not a bit punchy.

Because some have the nerve to call it small—but tell that to the gent who couldn’t quite get to shore on a morning swim. While it was traumatic for that poor girl, wading into his corpse at the Badi, he had to go! When you’re classified as potable, you have a reputation to uphold.

And is “banana-shaped” really the best the guide books can do? Show me the banana that can hike up rents, wow UNESCO and host spaghetti-themed cruises without irony. Show me any fruit that can turn from green to purple to steel in an hour, creeping to the edges like silence or a thousand little blades.

Mix it up, keep them guessing, show them who’s boss. Kick up the surf and blame the boats. Turn up the temp and call out the fleas. For every record-breaking heatwave, there’s ice in living memory. For every preening swan, a coot squeaks like bicycle brakes and never gets the bread. The banks that now teem with people once swarmed with disease. Come in, the water’s fine, but the parent who loses sight of a child for one second ages five years.

Postcards lie, but nature doesn’t. You just keep moving—east to west, glacier to river, liquid to cloud, surface to floor. You’re more than a pretty picture: you’re as deep as the darkness 136 meters down. So the next time your eye skips over the void to gaze at the twinkling hills, remember: lights seem brighter when they’re mirrored in black.


DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Gallery of Zürisee images from @libby_ol‘s Instagram.

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Notes from the Unexpected: Backstage at Kaufleuten

Text and images: DB Miller

Reflections Kaufleuten-styleUnder the glare of tube lighting, down the stairs off backstage left, the casualties from the weekend wait their turn. A red velvet stool rests on a table, its foot glued and clamped. Above a tangle of broken chairs, three chipped disco balls sag like rotting fruit. If the furniture could speak, oh, the tales! Then again, it’s just another day here in the Kaufleuten workshop—another reminder that for all the excitement of a Kaufleuten night, there’s always a morning after.

Kaufleuten“Something’s usually not working,” says Corina Freudiger, laughing but wary of the crystal chandelier that has been temporarily jacked up between a ladder and a speaker stack. The head of Kaufleuten’s cultural events and I are now in the concert hall, one of the lush spaces she and her team aim to fill—at least before bedtime. The Kultur department isn’t responsible for the nocturnal shindigs of the famed club, but rather the 200-odd concerts, author readings, cabarets and heady discussions the venue hosts each year. Ever since Lenin, Joyce and the Dadaists graced the stage nearly a century ago, Kaufleuten has been pulling in a mix of hotshots, rookies and loose cannons. And then there are the performers.

The Kaufleuten touchFrom Patti Smith and Cat Power to Michael Ondaatje and Amélie Nothomb, Kaufleuten has a knack for booking legends, sometimes before they’re called that, but anything can happen when the lights dim. Meltdowns, mutinies and flashes of soul-searing perfection are possible on any given night, even the same night. Wing nuts in the audience, an impromptu striptease on stage—Corina has seen a lot over the years and, clocking in at over 40 events, so have I.

And yet, there are no regrets. It’s part of, as Corina puts it, the “magic of the live moment,” if not the strategy. Kaufleuten, after all, is a business.

“We’re here to entertain people at a high level,” she explains, but later cracks a smile and adds, “I would like to experiment more, especially when it comes to the readings. I think a writer’s words are between the reader and the writer, but how you present the writing is important. It doesn’t always have to be the author on stage, telling the audience ‘the truth’ … I mean, when people come here for two hours, something has to happen.”

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

The urge to liven things up also goes for concerts, and not only to compensate for the glut of backstage requests for vegan and non-alcoholic fare. Audiences are changing too and, for some, maybe an old-fashioned rush of euphoria no longer cuts it. This could explain the rise in themed events, such as the open-air literary festival in the Old Botanical Gardens (co-run with the Literaturhaus) and the new three-day offshoot of Zermatt Unplugged.

Kaufleuten moodAll good, so long as I can still get my swirl of velvet, brass and beer straight from the bottle while art—or someone’s vision of it—unfolds and explodes across the room. Corina says just as much: “Glamour is part of the Kaufleuten myth, but messy is interesting.”


By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Notes from the Unexpected: The floating venue with heart

Text and images: D.B. Miller 

Just up from Sechseläutenplatz, where 110,000 blocks of superior Vals quartzite can be trampled underfoot, there is a boat. It is spired, asymmetrical and, weighing in at 85 tons, as aerodynamic as a gingerbread house. But if it’s bobbing on water, it must be a boat. 

Herzbaracke by land

When November comes, and the “Herzbaracke” arrives via tugboat for its four-and-a-half-month Zürich run, any Alemannic reserve goes right out the tinted window—at least, once the 40-odd people constituting a full house come aboard for dinner and a show. On land, it can still take the “captain” a little time to re-adjust. “Even last night,” says Federico Emanuel Pfaffen, “I was told, ‘Don’t talk so loud! Don’t laugh so loud!’ I am so sick of all this uptightness,” he barks, unable to finish the mock tirade in his chair.

Image @libby_ol

Image courtesy: Libby O’Loghlin

Mostly, though, this is a story of love that seeps out of the plush quarters where every nook is spoken for (just ask the taxidermy owl), and love that pulls in the crowds. They cross the gangplank for jazz, classical and folk, for Piaf, tango and swing, or maybe because they can. Nearly two decades ago, after all, Herzbaracke was just a late-night, genie-in-the-wine-bottle vision—but not for long. Getting permission from the authorities for a do-it-yourself, Belle Epoque-themed floating venue was, to hear Federico’s account, a no-brainer. Just another one of his impossible projects made possible by a rather poorly-concealed weapon: “I really like people,” he confesses, stopping there because, every once in a while, less is more. 

Nicole and Federico

Nicole Gabathuler and Federico Emanuel Pfaffen

The “people” embraced by Herzbaracke not only include the cool-headed Zürich types who, undone by the kitchen’s famous soup or the blues in such close proximity, have been known to break character. Federico and co-director Nicole Gabathuler haven’t forgotten about those further down the lake, or out there yonder, who just don’t feel the need to grapple with Waiting for Godot or some such high culture, thank you very much. Different people, different problems—but no matter where the anchor drops, they manage to find each other and, under the right conditions, grow, thrive and create something much bigger than the upright piano dwarfing the stage.

For Federico, it’s just ecology. “We’re not event organizers,” he says. “We’re a biotope.”

“Or a habitat, like a pond,” adds Nicole, in a measured tone at odds with her art. For seven years, she has created the graphics that bring the Herzbaracke aesthetic to life—a burst of swirling waves, butterflies and sighs, an existence unfettered by logic. Over the faint cry of gulls, she says, “It’s a shame there isn’t more room in this culture for the unpredictable. On the other hand, it’s given us the clean design, the typography …” And, as Federico is the first to admit, the boatloads of Herzbaracke fans.

“Around here,” he says, getting worked up again, “everything needs to have a function. People don’t see the point of something that has no point … But,” he is smiling now, “that makes us exotic.”

As one half of tonight’s entertainment tunes his cello, Federico fiddles around on stage. A couple pops in for a look, taking a minute to get their bearings. Then the boat rocks, someone breaks into song and the lure of solid ground, in all its enduring, enlightened beauty, slips away.

In Stäfa, Zürich, Rapperswil and Thalwil

(In Zürich until mid-March)

By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter
 Herzbaracke by 'See' 2

Notes from the Unexpected: The voices of Radio LoRa

Text and images: D.B. Miller

It’s Friday morning, just after nine, and the 31 trolleybus lurches down Militärstrasse into parts of Zurich not featured in guide books. As a man rushes past with an open can of Feldschlösschen, I think, Welcome to the neighborhood, until it occurs to me that the ladies at the Bürkliplatz market are probably knocking back their first flutes of Prosecco. At least he has somewhere he needs to be.


This scruffy sense of urgency is just as palpable steps away, at the studios of Switzerland’s first and Zurich’s only community radio station, Radio LoRa (a derivative of “alternative local radio”). The station, on air well before its first licensed broadcast in 1983, is still hell-bent on Continue reading

Notes from the Unexpected: Gitarren Total from the ground up

Text and images: DB Miller

Gitarren Total - Duncan James and Tyko Runesson BW

Down in the basement, where half a dozen guitars hang in the corner like spiders, Gitarren Total general manager Patrick Geser and I are talking metal—or, more precisely, nickel, chrome and whatever else was galvanized for weapons and parts in this very space. That was a long time ago, back when rock ‘n’ roll was new and few of the amplifiers now stacked against the cinderblock had reason to exist. The room is still equipped with Cold War-era dials and knobs and enough power, as Patrick puts it, “to blow up the Eiffel Tower,” but today it serves a different industry. Not that anyone around here would call it that.

“Certain sounds can’t replicate very easily,” Patrick continues, delving into a comparison of tube amps with the more modern transistor and digital models. After a cheerful tangent about the U.S. Army’s radio transceivers, he pauses, maybe aware of my struggle to keep up. “Every single thing you see here,” he finally says, “somebody really likes.”

Gitarren Total - Patrick Geser BWThis is both understatement and code. Only a steady surge of earnest, pre-Facebook likes could have taken a business that started off “repairing crap guitars” this far. It is also clear that somebody may very well include the people who work here, all serious guitar players involved in multiple bands. Patrick has cut back to two, what with his ten hand operations and re-prioritization around work and family, and they both are doing well. His punk band even opened for Dead Kennedys’ legendary frontman Jello Biafra a few weeks earlier, though this he only mentions when I comment on his shirt.

“It’s really terrible music,” he says, quick to keep my awe in check. “We only do two or three gigs a year because nobody wants to hear it. It’s not like one-two-three-four dugga dugga dugga dugga … But it’s a lot of fun to play.”

We wind past the bass nook and guitar-case cranny, which used to store the building’s coal until Patrick cleared it out. A few steps further, and we’re in the place where fantasies are fueled. Hundreds of guitars climb the walls and catch the light, each burning with promise. After another factual interlude about technology in the service of craftsmanship, Patrick informs me, with no less authority, that guitars get “mojo and soul” only after years of play. They can lose it, too.

Gitarren Total - Guitars ALT BW

“Some of my guitars I put away for two or three years… I can’t get a sound out of anymore. Even if I toured with one for a few years, if I take it out of the case today …” he pretends to gag, “I can’t play it.”

“Maybe you’ve changed,” I offer. “Or do you think the guitar has?”

He stops, quiet for the longest stretch since my arrival. “Well, yeah. Both. Absolutely.”


In the workshop one floor up, the Les Pauls give way to orthopedic shoes and fumes. Duncan James and Tyko Runesson are on duty today, tending to repairs in uncustomary silence. Duncan, who grew up fixing his guitar with fork and knife, first came to Gitarren Total with a broken neck – his guitar had been caught in the unforgiving doors of the Paris metro. That was fifteen years ago, and he joined the team not long after.

He is hunched over the task at hand, which involves an Allen wrench and a Rickenbacker pick-up. The job is one of the 1,500 the team handles every year, though a few are turned down at the door.

Gitarren Total - Workshop BW

“(It’s) when a customer asks for something that’s against our ethic,” Duncan explains, eying the shelf where the disabled guitars line up like patients. “He brings in a really nice old vintage piece and says, ‘I want this repainted …’” Duncan gives me a moment to grasp the severity of the offense. “But, no … You’re only borrowing that guitar while you’re here on Earth, and when you’re gone that guitar will go to somebody else. So, if you go and do that to it now, you’re destroying it.”

This comes across more as hard-earned wisdom than bluster. Like Patrick, Duncan and Tyko have been playing in bands and overlapping side projects for years. Duncan says, “Here, you have to.”

Tyko, who builds acoustic guitars and folk-dances on the side, agrees. “Then you know when it’s finished. Otherwise you have no real feel for it. By the book, it’s not enough.”

Gitarren Total - Duncan JamesDuncan adds, “You’re always holding some kind of Platonic ideal of what a particular model could and should sound like, and you’re comparing it to the one that you’ve got in your hand …” He points to the table. “I’ve got a pretty good idea of how that Rickenbacker should sound, and I won’t be guessing. Everybody here has amassed a huge library of sounds in their head.”

Tyko begins dismantling a sparkly turquoise number near the window, and Duncan walks over to take a look. Tyko gingerly probes the innards and points out the jack plugs, not unlike those used in old telephone switchboards.

Duncan goes back to the pick-up. Over the pulse of soldering, I ask him what a good day is.

“A good day is getting up in the morning and, while I’m eating my cornflakes, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got to do that today,’ and I’ll immediately start thinking about it with a little part of my brain. And when I get here, I pick up the guitar and it’s just a complete, seamless kind of transition from coming to work and picking up the thing. You know exactly what you’ve got to do with it and you’ve actually planned the whole thing out. But I guess practically every day’s a good day.”

The soldering stops. Tyko lifts the jack plug to his face and squints. For a few seconds, the only movement comes from the swaying leaves outside the window. All these tools and scraps, all these machines and parts – but, sooner or later, it’s only about wood and wire and, in the right hands, the power of something much harder to name.
Aemtlerstrasse 15, 8003 Zürich

By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter