What is German about German design – in search of a national ldentity

in: Cultural Identity and Design, IFG Ulm (International Design Forum Ulm), Publisher Ernst & Sohn 1989

Are questions about national identity in design political questions, and are they legitimate? Are they at all appropriate in view of globalization of markets, internationalization of our consumer habits, and efforts aimed at an Europe united economically and politically? I think the answer is yes.

I think the answer is yes if one does not see the question as an excuse for defending economic positions, but as a contribution to an international product culture which a country brings in from its political and cultural history. Before I put the question about national identity, I should like to say in advance that as far as I can see manifestations of the world of goods are first determined by time and only secondly by national considerations.
I should like to approach the question of what is German about German design from four different points of view:

1. As a view of what we consider outstanding, professional design achievements ourselves:
I therefore begin, and remain in the twentieth century, with some old, familiar evergreens: Peter Behrens, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Wilhelm Wagenfeld or Hans Gugelot.
If one now asks oneself what is German about this, whether that is recognizable, what one can see as a typical German shape or German style, one is at a loss.
It would be possible without further ado to add Charles Eames, Marcello Nizzoli or Norman Foster to this list, without causing noticeable stylistic incongruity.
I suspect that our notion of German design bears the stamp of a very specific and limited concept of design.
In Germany we attach the idea of design to individual performances that were prototypical in character and to something that was seen as German pioneer achievement with international repercussions. The people who originated it wanted to be international and were not concerned with national identity.

2. As a view of what is everyday and is perhaps seen by others as typically German: litre beer-mugs, cuckoo-clocks, pretzels, Bavarian jackets, Volkswagen.
Perhaps you will agree with me that there is a shimmer of identity from objects of everyday culture, things we handle and are familiar with, and regard as a piece of national product culture.
These are products that emerge from traditional life habits, that are practical, reasonably priced, tasty or merely lovable, and have thus made people like them. They can be considered products of national individuality.
Nationally typical products of everyday culture cannot be subjected to superficial morphological considerations.

3. As a view of what artists think and the statements they make to the world of products: Kunstflug, Möbel perdu etc.
It is understandable that furniture is in the foreground here because it is affected by taste and laden with symbolism, and stylistic trends can be associated with it. It is the barometer of the Zeitgeist and I therefore agree with Wolfgang Schepers when he recommends that we ‘take a look at the history of furniture created by artists, because this is the very point at which free contact with things is expressed’.
What is German about this international movement? Perhaps that an element of nostalgia appears in some of the work, German idylls like allotments or a Romantic longing for unspoiled nature and an archaic love of fire?
This excursion into art takes us into European circles, led by Italy, and national identity can only be discerned in hints.

4. As a view, or better reflection, of the nature of German design, as put forward in manifestos and statements.
On looking at the history of ideas as represented in actions and programmatic statements, I have come across two ideas that are a constant feature, which I see as running like a thread through the philosophy of German design and which I consider to be typically German.

Firstly: the idea of becoming the accepted thing, making an educational impact and translating philosophical ideas into didactic form, and disseminating them. Muthesius began with a recommendation to found schools. The Deutscher Werkbund strove for the ‘ennoblement of industrial work’. The choice of a word which is as lacking in modernity as ‘ennoblement’ is certainly something to do with German idealism. ‘Propaganda’ was another term to be found in the constitution of the Werkbund, as well as the requirement of giving the public a sense of ‘quality of form and materials’.
The foreword to the information about goods published by the Werkbund contains intentions clearly aimed at the education of the people. It speaks of raising German taste, and of treatises upon it.
The Bauhaus can be seen as the prototype of a school in the visual field, and despite liquidation, elements of its basic course can still be seen in our schools.
The Ulm school wanted to become the accepted thing too, with its aim of presenting the design process methodically, and making it open to objectivization. Maldonado identified the point in retrospect by saying ‘many of us were prepared to take on the role and above all the rhetoric of the preacher, in short we were prepared to be more Catholic than the Pope. ‘
Pragmatism was not considered a virtue by classical German modernism. It was normative, and felt it had good reason to be so because it derived its philosophy of design from humanitarian and idealistic values. This position laid it open to the charge of being didactic, but also gave it credibility, character and the power to convince.

Secondly: an obsession with simplicity of form and the conviction that it educates people. One not only comes across this among German-speaking peoples, it found its most radical expression there.
Adolf Loos formulated it very radically. He proclaimed simplicity of form as a value in itself and said that evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of Ornament from objects in everyday use.
Statements of this kind are reminiscent of Luther and Calvin, of the Shakers, however much we may admire them, or of the Puritans with their worship of work and restraint of pleasure – worthy and abstemious. One then also establishes that most Protestant movements emerged north of the Alps, well away from Rome.
One would actually have to assume that these movements put their stamp not only on religious life, but also on everyday life and our work ethic.
I therefore suggest that twentieth century design, and classic Modern German design in particular, has Protestant features. This is the only way in which I can explain its introversion and fear of sensuality, and German admiration of ltalian design. New German Design wants to get rid of all this, it wants us to be more sensual and more Catholic.
If I have diagnosed German design as ‘schoolmasterly’ and ‘Protestant’ I mean this to express that it cannot be pinned down by stylistic features (German product culture is far too heterogeneous for that), but rather by an attitude, a view of design, a spiritual and intellectual legacy.
By ‘schoolmasterly’ I mean it can be anything from didactic to moralizing. It expresses its social purpose, to which the designer feels a obligation, but also a striving for universal validity and openness to objectivization.

By ‘Protestant’ I mean that it can be ascetic, inimical to life, averse to sensuality, radical and transcendental, but express a willingness for renewal that has traits redolent of enlightenment and humanism.
Questions about the meaning of life and morality are asked more frequently here than elsewhere.
When non-European countries talk about European design they mean national strengths as presented in export markets by quality products: ltalian furniture, cars, Swiss chocolate, shops and machine tools, German household goods and perhaps furniture Systems, Scandinavian textiles and wooden goods, English trenchcoats and Jaguars, French perfume and Citroen, Austrian ice-axes and skis.
The fact that Porsche is associated with Germany is not to the national credit but to the credit of an innovative engineer and a business that showed the will to perform well, has manufacturing potency and presence of mind. Anyone who sets standards also puts his mark on their form and gains identity. But high-flying performances like these in our industrial culture are produced only within a social and cultural infrastructure in which teaching and research have their correct Status, and in which training and further training, the will to achieve and to be aware of quality are firmly anchored. Socio-cultural context is the actual asset that should be cared for and nurtured.

The question of what could be is overshadowed by the question of ecological management of our future which is certainly not a national problem.
However, there are many precedents in the history of German ideas that have prepared the ground for strong awareness of the environment. The Romantics, with their new understanding of nature, rambling clubs, the youth movement, alternative fashion movements, down to the foundation of a Green political Party. Small and medium-sized catastrophes in a densely populated industrial landscape have additionally helped to raise our environmental consciousness.

Alternative design still has no contours. It is not yet presentable in international circles, a role in the vanguard would suit us very well, and would be in the best German tradition, ‘moral’ and – perhaps – a sensible contribution to global product culture.

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