By: Heidi Powell-Prera-iF Magazine
Today I have the honor of being the guest of the Hon. Mr. John Bernhard at his home. My gracious host is a true renaissance man with many interests and hobbies in addition to serving as the Honorary Consul General of Switzerland for the past three years. Before we went into the interview, he gave me a tour of the home he had designed. A photographer, artist, and collector, he has an extensive collection of works of art in addition to his own art work. He is the publisher of ArtHouston, a local magazine that focuses on the artists and events in Houston’s growing art scene. Being an avid reader and author, Hon. Mr. Bernhard has an impressive library in his home. This active and prolific host also enjoys relaxing by riding his motorcycle which he says gives him the feeling of flying and makes him feel alive and free. After the tour, we settled into comfortable chairs with espressos.
Heidi Powell: First, tell us about yourself, and walk us through your background?
Hon. John Bernhard: I was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland and immigrated to the U.S. over 40 years ago. I had dreamt of traveling to America for as long as I could remember. So in 1978, I took a year to backpack through 43 states, learning about the people and the culture. I fell in love with Texas and settled in Houston in 1980. Soon after, in the middle of the oil boom, I opened my business in the advertising field, creating design and photography to enhance corporate identities for a vast array of clients nationally and internationally.
Heidi Powell: How long have you served as Honorary Consul?
Hon. John Bernhard: This is my third year.
Heidi Powell: What services do you provide Swiss citizens?
Hon. John Bernhard: As Honorary Consul, I am the official representative of Switzerland, acting to assist and protect Swiss citizens. I am also the first point of contact for Swiss citizens in distress in Texas. Those can be fellow Swiss that have lost their passport or have been detained by border security for some reason, or Swiss citizens that are exposed to other forms of catastrophes or emergencies like we have experienced here in Houston. As a member of the Swiss Honorary Consular Corps, I see my role as a service to the country and as a way to give back to the Swiss community.
Heidi Powell: What special services do you provide Houston businesses who would like to do business with Switzerland?
Hon. John Bernhard: Currently, we do not have a Trade Commissioner in Houston. This is handled out of the Consulate in Atlanta. But we have an official international trade and investment promotion agency, “The Swiss Business Hub”. Part of the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York and with offices in San Francisco, Atlanta and Boston, it is responsible for implementing Swiss export strategies in the U.S. and for promoting Switzerland as a business location.
Working with an experienced team of trade commissioners, and with access to senior government officials and the global diplomatic community, I am in a good position to help the requests of businesses by directing them down the right path.
Heidi Powell: What areas does your office cover?
Hon. John Bernhard: I cover Houston and Harris County predominantly, but also anywhere in Texas.
Heidi Powell: Other than your service as an Honorary Consul General, what other interests are you involved with?
Hon. John Bernhard: I am an artist, designer, photographer, and curator. I like versatility! Personally, wearing many hats stimulates my creativity and gives me a sense of accomplishment.
I am also the publisher and editor-in-chief of ArtHouston, a print magazine distributed locally for the past five years. As Houston continues to flourish nationally and internationally as a culturally rich city, I feel that ArtHouston magazine is a needed asset and provides residents and visitors with a singular source of information covering the art fields.
On another level, I love riding my motorcycle in and around Texas. When I ride my bike, I feel like I’m flying, above the landscape; all my senses are alive. I love reaching that pure state of mind I call “the zone” where the sky is the limit!
Heidi Powell: What future goals do you have for Swiss and U. S. relations?
Hon. John Bernhard: Strengthening and improving Swiss-American relations is the objective of what we are doing. Switzerland and the United States have more in common than many of us would think. Swiss constitutional thinking influenced the lively constitutional debates during the founding of the United States. Likewise the U.S. Constitution (of 1789) had an important impact on the Swiss Constitution. Unlike other countries, the U.S. and Switzerland are not based on ethnicity, religion, or a common culture; but, on political ideas and political institutions. That is why we should still use the term “Sister Republics” in speaking about our bilateral relations.
In trade and investment, Switzerland is not a small player in the United States.
In early 2019, Switzerland was the 6th largest foreign investor in the United States, with 309 billion USD in investments, which creates almost half a million jobs.
Switzerland also ranked as the world’s most innovative country in the 2019 UN report. Following Switzerland in the rankings is Sweden; and in third place, the United States.
I am sorry but I had to brag a bit about Switzerland! My goals are to continue to work hard in fulfilling my duties and promoting Switzerland, with a special focus on cultural affairs.
Heidi Powell: Are there any events coming up in 2020 that Houstonians should be aware of?
Hon. John Bernhard: Last year I was part of the organizing team of the famous roving table. This event is sponsored by the “SwissTouch on the Road campaign”, where they bring a round table discussion to address pertinent issues to select cities throughout the U.S. The panel discussion launched at Rice University was such a success that I am planning to create another in 2020.
We will also have a creative violin performance by a visiting artist from Geneva, Maximilian Haft, at Lawndale Art Center, on March 16. And we are again, partnering with the French Cultures Festival coordinated by the Cultural Service of the French Consulate in Houston. The Festival will be officially launched with a free concert on Friday, March 6, at Discovery Green. You can save these dates; it will be a very busy month of March!
Heidi Powell: Thank you. We will save that date. We appreciate your taking the time to talk with us today, and we look forward to working with you in the future.
For more information contact Hon. John Bernhard at: email@example.com