The cult of German design tells of industrial strength driven by the functionalist legacy of the Bauhaus. But is this traditional narrative anything more than Cold War propaganda?
First shown in Doha this autumn, Driven by German Design was ex-V&A director Martin Roth’s last major project before his death. A handsome, generous enumeration of the country’s design achievements from the postwar period until today, the exhibition was initiated as part of Years of Culture, an annual programme run by Qatar Museums to develop stronger ties with countries through exchanges of art, culture, heritage and sport.
As such, it is unashamedly propaganda, funded by Volkswagen and boasting Germany’s foreign ministry and the Goethe Institute among its partners. Yet it leaves peripatetic, drum-beating efforts such as Japanese Design Today or 100 Objects of Italian Design in its wake, with scholarship and breadth that shames most museum displays. Promoted as a celebration of Germany’s greatest design icons, it achieves far more. Intelligently crafted films accompany its 365 exhibits, many of them studies or models. Objectives are educational as well as academic. Sets of research prototypes demonstrate the diverse ways that designers form and pursue ideas, as well as the wider roles they play in current industrial practice, and in our smart futures. And, of course, a hefty offering of gleaming German automobiles, along with an interactive engine room, ensures a primal appeal.
The propaganda aspect is relatively simple – definitions of good design are proffered; Germany’s design is chronicled; the two merge into one. But there are subtler messages. Thanks in large part to Bauhausian modernism, design has undergone ‘a paradigm shift … no longer the product, but the process, is at the heart of design practice’. German design, ‘famous for its emphasis on functionality’, has lead the way, yet ‘in no way neglects the form – on the contrary: it is precisely the reduction to what is important and the avoidance of everything that limits usability that is at the origin of the unique aesthetics German design is famous for’.
This narrative, and its presentation, are meticulous but traditional – Germany’s status as the undisputed nation of functionalism seems barely to require proof. In the manner of Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement, the exhibition proposes that the circle of design was completed with Gropius and the Bauhaus; that the Federal Republic of Germany inherited this mantle; and that a series of talented (male) individuals – Otl Aicher, Max Bill, Frei Otto, Dieter Rams, Richard Sapper, Hartmut Esslinger, Konstantin Grcic – has pursued it since, with the assistance of Germany’s far-sighted companies. Neomodernist design has been the handmaiden both of its postwar ‘economic miracle’ and of its continued industrial strength.
There are underlying truths in this account, so beloved of galleries and coffee-table books but, quite apart from its tendency to convenient syllogisms, there are also flaws – not least a blanket neglect of wider contexts. It is over 30 years since Adrian Forty wrote that ‘the history of design is also the history of societies’. You will not find society in this – or indeed almost any – design show. Nor will you find popular culture. Nor politics. Perhaps the most noticeable absence in this instance, however, is Germany’s tangled history. The genesis of the Volkswagen Beetle goes without note. All is immediate: inspiration, process, impact.
If design is to pretend to greater meaning (and it invariably does), it cannot present objects in this vacuum. But, counterintuitively, it is those objects missing from Driven by German Design that confirm this point. The German Democratic Republic merits around seven exhibits, depending on definition. The world’s ninth largest industrial nation had perhaps the richest creative scene in the Soviet sphere, renowned for graphics, cars and more, but rejected the ‘bourgeois formalism’ of the Bauhaus in favour of design that was ‘socialist in content and national in form’. Its output thus falls short of enduring curatorial dictats about correct national design, and the lives of millions of Germans are ignored. In turn, opportunities to explore intriguing, important questions are squandered. For instance, why did the new socialist state distance itself from such an internationally prestigious and leftist organisation as the Bauhaus?
The answer reveals as much about German design in the postwar era as all the show’s exhibits. Functionalism was denounced by GDR first secretary Walter Ulbricht in the 1950s as American ideological imperialism (and the Bauhaus as an ‘enemy of the people’) because that was, in short, what it was. The intense competition between East and West to prove the legitimacy and superiority of their dogmas and economies was directly quantifiable by their respective abilities to end wartime restrictions, provide abundant goods and improve lifestyles – material culture was of utmost importance. Assisted at least in part by the Marshall Plan, West German industry was swiftly rebuilt, a combination of free-market economy and welfare society promoted, and an extraordinarily vigorous consumer culture forged. The frugality of the ‘hunger years’ was supplanted by a belief, even pride, in consumption as a social, democratic duty.
To further this rehabilitation, modernist design was seized upon in West Germany as a means to establish an identity that was, unlike many cultural endeavours, untainted by the recent past. This effort was epitomised by the promotion of the Bauhaus, which offered a direct link to the Weimar Republic and, thanks to denunciations by the Nazis in the 1930s, to a ‘better Germany’. It also symbolised new transatlantic affiliations: America had inherited the leadership of modernism, thanks in large part to Bauhaus émigrés in Chicago, Illinois, Cambridge and North Carolina. Driven by the demands of the Cold War, the Bauhaus was transformed into a beacon of cultural liberalism. Its socialist leanings and accommodations with National Socialism were brushed under the carpet, and its legacy offered as visible proof of West German society’s newfound maturity and progressive ideals.
Not all of German intelligentsia proved compliant. Gropius anointed the famed Ulm School of Design (underwritten by the American High Command) as the ‘new Bauhaus’ at its 1953 launch, but the fledgling institution soon dropped its predecessor’s social, humanist and artistic ambitions, and shed its first rector, the Bauhaus alumnus Max Bill. His replacement, Otl Aicher, dismissed the Bauhaus as having ‘left more of a mark on the museum than on present-day technology and economy’, and introduced a quasi-scientific focus on industrialised mass-production, justified as a responsibility to a war-torn society: ‘the shaping of the everyday, the truly real [is] the platform for all human creativity’.
Even so, Bill’s ideal of ‘gute form’ – now shorn of artistic idealism – was preserved, offering a challenge to perceived ‘coca-colonisation’ by a debased US materialism, epitomised by the streamlined style. In this telling (largely rehashed in Doha), American design was a superficial, dishonest exercise, pandering to the consumer’s basest instincts. In contrast, German design – and Ulm’s contribution in particular – was a moral undertaking, an enlightened exercise in form-giving that would improve society and citizens. Certainly, its output received substantial state promotion, adorning government buildings, the state-owned Lufthansa airline, and exhibitions such as the 1957 Berlin Interbau show and Expo 58 in Brussels.
Yet it is telling that the German pavilion in Brussels, which garnered heady international praise for its strong emphasis on clean, modernist living, was met with jaded scorn at home for ditching the reality and regionalism of German life for restrained cool and an obsession with the ‘economically miraculous’. In truth, as Driven by German Design doesn’t tell you, ‘gute form’ was not a popular success. German industry thrived on exporting anonymous washing machines, vacuum cleaners and cookers, but high-end products from Braun, Vitsoe and Leica were associated with exclusivity not domesticity. They proliferated at propaganda displays but, in department stores and mail-order catalogues, other styles dominated, in particular the organic, asymmetrical forms of ‘Nierentisch culture’, named after a kidney-shaped, three-legged coffee table produced in the mid-1950s.
Ulm’s stringent design philosophy was in no way integral to sophisticated modern lifestyles, but modernist doctrine that mass taste is bourgeois, vulgar and meretricious has impressive staying power. As does the allure of Ulm-derived corporate branding around timelessness, economy, simplicity, durability and public service – the ‘Braun Line’. Its head of product design, Dieter Rams, was sincere about ‘less but better’, but absolutism and self-deception were also part of the deal. He lamented the ‘weakness of consumers’ and, forced by a struggling Braun to accept colour as a marketing tool, condemned it as ‘young, jaunty and à la mode’, decrying ‘the colour chaos that most people today wreak in their living environments’. The idea that users could find self-expression in products was anathema: ‘the real needs of users’, and good taste, were understood by the trained eye of the designer only.
Yet functionalism proved, despite its high ideals, to be little more than commodity styling: a means of marketing highly aestheticised consumer products to a well-heeled sector of society, cloaked in a design idealism that brooked no dissent. Braun’s domestic appliances were intended as ‘humble servants’, but proved to be expensive, uniform and utopian. Rams’s quest for formal perfection resulted in sculptural altars to minimalism that rejected ageing and patina, reducing functionality and lifespan. And even he had to admit that many of his furniture designs for Vitsoe, with their ‘specific vision of mankind’, were ‘total flops’.
The Bauhaus cult culminated in 1968 with the state-backed 50 Years Bauhaus exhibition, hailed as celebrating ‘Germany’s most significant gift of modern culture to America’. Ironically, 1968 is also cited as the year in which the golden era of German design ended. The previous year, Braun had been sold to Gillette, while the Design Council, founded in 1951 as a branch of the Ministry of Economics, closed. Ulm itself shut in 1968, a victim of in-fighting, regionalism and a refusal to abandon problem-solving and formal study for critical, political, popular and ecological design. And, at a time of student protest, its links to the capitalist status quo were becoming clear, as were the inherent contradictions of ethical functionalism in an affluent society. As full employment and prosperity became the norm, the national cult of consumerism was coming under attack, and with it democratic design, and even consensual democracy.
Understandably, Driven by German Design does not discuss this decline. As a result, the vibrant underground movements of the 1960s and 70s go unacknowledged. As does the cold shoulder offered to postmodernism – its concern with collective memory was perhaps too challenging at a time when the postwar compromise with fascist legacies was finally being questioned. It was also attacked as irresponsible and fashion-driven by ageing Ulm associates, and ignored by industry in favour of the neomodernism that had served it so well. Nonconformists such as Luigi Colani left the country or, like Ingo Maurer, handled their own production – Milan was now the centre of European design.
After a brief dip into New German Design, the show reverts to traditional German values, with occasional bits of art-design to leaven the load. By the end, surrounded by Porsche sunglasses, Rimowa suitcases and Jil Sander suits, the sensation is that of being stuck in the departure lounge of Frankfurt Airport. The collapse of the GDR, with its embrace of personal freedom and material desires, and the thrilling emergence of Berlin as the counter-cultural capital of Europe, are neglected for understated style and expansive wallets. It seems, despite the religious reverence in which it is held by disciples such as Naoto Fukasawa, Jony Ive and Jasper Morrison, that the lasting gift of neomodernism to Germany was its elevation of the engineer, which enabled industries to survive the rise of Asia. Following functionalist logic through to its conclusion, the designer had been designed out of the industrial process. Their true purpose in Germany proved to be, as in America, ‘to raise everyday objects to the status of luxury items’.
Driven by German Design has the unusual status, and excuse, of being state propaganda about a movement that was itself state propaganda. As an act of traditional scholarship and exhibition-making it is exemplary. But, like most of its peers, it could have been conceived in the 1930s. There seems to be an inbuilt insecurity that demands that design shows act as cheerleaders, with a myopic focus on the individual, the process and the object that keeps the profession closeted in the realm of the culturally elite. But the relevance design desperately seeks derives from the real world, not from asinine pretensions to timelessness. Shouldn’t the scholarship of the last three decades have been integrated into its curatorial offering by now? Because design means more that this. Or at least I hope it does.
Courtesy Das Programm. Photograph by Felicity McCabe
Volkswagen AG; Courtesy Max Bill: Aspects of his Work, Wilhelm Wagenfeld House, Bremen; © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008 (Photos: Max, Binia + Jakob Bill Foundation Adligenswil / Theres Bütler); Courtesy Peter Kapos / Das Program; Lufthansa; Brionvega; Courtesy Alessandro Rinaudo / 1972municholympics.co.uk; © Vitsoe