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Features / Graphic Design

The Ulm Model: a school and its pursuit of a critical design practice

Photography:

Connor Campbell

“My feeling is that the Bauhaus being conveniently located before the Second World War makes it safely historical,” says Dr. Peter Kapos. “Its objects have an antique character that is about as threatening as Arts and Crafts, whereas the problem with the Ulm School is that it’s too relevant. The questions raised about industrial design [still apply], and its project failed – its social project being particularly disappointing – which leaves awkward questions about where we are in the present.”

Kapos discovered the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, or Ulm School, through his research into the German manufacturing company Braun, the representation of which is a specialism of his archive, das programm. The industrial design school had developed out of a community college founded by educationalist Inge Scholl and graphic designer Otl Aicher in 1946. It was established, as Kapos writes in the book accompanying the Raven Row exhibition, The Ulm Model, “with the express purpose of curbing what nationalistic and militaristic tendencies still remained [in post-war Germany], and making a progressive contribution to the reconstruction of German social life.”

The Ulm School closed in 1968, having undergone various forms of pedagogy and leadership, crises in structure and personality. Nor the faculty or student-body found resolution to the problems inherent to industrial design’s claim to social legitimacy – “how the designer could be thoroughly integrated within the production process at an operational level and at the same time adopt a critically reflective position on the social process of production.” But while the Ulm School and the Ulm Model collapsed, it remains an important resource, “it’s useful, even if the project can’t be restarted, because it was never going to succeed, the attempt is something worth recovering. Particularly today, under very difficult conditions.”

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Foundation Course exercise
Student: Hans von Klier
Instructor: Helene Nonné-Schmidt 1955
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

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Foundation Course exercise
Student: Bertus Mulder
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

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Foundation Course exercise
Student: M. Buch
Instructor: Tomás Maldonado
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

Max Bill, a graduate of the Bauhaus and then president of the Swiss Werkbund, arrived at Ulm in 1950, having been recruited partly in the hope that his international profile would attract badly needed funding. He tightened the previously broad curriculum, established by Marxist writer Hans Werner Richter, around design, mirroring the practices of his alma mater.

Bill’s rectorship ran from 1955-58, during which “there was no tension between the way he designed and the requirements of the market”. The principle of the designer as artist, a popular notion of the Bauhaus, curbed the “alienating nature of industrial production”. Due perhaps in part to the trauma of WW2, people hadn’t been ready to allow technology into the home that declared itself as technology.

“The result of that was record players and radios smuggled into the home, hidden in what looked like other pieces of furniture, with walnut veneers and golden tassels.” Bill’s way of thinking didn’t necessarily reflect the aesthetic, but it wasn’t at all challenging politically. “So in some ways that’s really straight-forward and unproblematic – and he’s a fantastic designer, an extraordinary architect, an amazing graphic designer, and a great artist – but he wasn’t radical enough. What he was trying to do with industrial design wasn’t taking up the challenge.”

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Foundation Course exercise
Student: John Lottes
Instructor: Anthony Frøshaug
1958-59
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

In 1958 Bill stepped down having failed to “grasp the reality of industrial production simply at a technical and operational level… [or] recognise its emancipatory potential.” The industrial process had grown in complexity, and the prospect of rebuilding socially was too vast for single individuals to manage. It was no longer possible for the artist-designer to sit outside of the production process, because the new requirements were so complex. “You had to be absolutely within the process, and there had to be a team of disciplinary specialists — not only of material, but circulation and consumption, which was also partly sociological. It was a different way of thinking about form and its relation to product.”

After Bill’s departure, Tomás Maldonado, an instructor at the school, “set out the implications for a design education adequate to the realities of professional practice.” Changes were made to the curriculum that reflected a critically reflective design practice, which he referred to as ‘scientific operationalism’ and subjects such as ‘the instruction of colour’, were dropped. Between 1960-62, the Ulm Model was introduced: “a novel form of design pedagogy that combined formal, theoretical and practical instruction with work in so-called ‘Development Groups’ for industrial clients under the direction of lecturers.” And it was during this period that the issue of industrial design’s problematic relationship to industry came to a head.

“You had to be absolutely within the process, and there had to be a team of disciplinary specialists – not only of material, but circulation and consumption, which was also partly sociological. It was a different way of thinking about form and its relation to product.”

– Peter Kapos

In 1959, a year prior to the Ulm Model’s formal introduction, Herbert Lindinger, a student from a Development Group working with Braun, designed an audio system. A set of transistor equipment, it made no apologies for its technology, and looked like a piece of engineering. His audio system became the model for Braun’s 1960s audio programme, “but Lindinger didn’t receive any credit for it, and Braun’s most successful designs from the period derived from an implementation of his project. It’s sad for him but it’s also sad for Ulm design because this had been a collective project.”

The history of the Braun audio programme was written as being defined by Dieter Rams, “a single individual — he’s an important designer, and a very good manager of people, he kept the language consistent — but Braun design of the 60s is not a manifestation of his genius, or his vision.” And the project became an indication of why the Ulm project would ultimately fail, “when recalling it, you end up with a singular genius expressing the marvel of their mind, rather than something that was actually a collective project to achieve something social.”

An advantage of Bill’s teaching model had been the space outside of the industrial process, “which is the space that offers the possibility of criticality. Not that he exercised it. But by relinquishing that space, [the Ulm School] ended up so integrated in the process that they couldn’t criticise it.” They realised the contradiction between Ulm design and consumer capitalism, which had been developing along the same timeline. “Those at the school became dissatisfied with the idea of design furnishing market positions, constantly producing cycles of consumptive acts, and they struggled to resolve it.”

The school’s project had been to make the world rational and complete, industrially-based and free. “Instead they were producing something prison-like, individuals were becoming increasingly separate from each other and unable to see over their horizon.” In the Ulm Journal, the school’s sporadic, tactically published magazine that covered happenings at, and the evolving thinking and pedagogical approach of Ulm, Marxist thinking had become an increasingly important reference. “It was key to their understanding the context they were acting in, and if that thinking had been developed it would have led to an interesting and different kind of design, which they never got round to filling in. But they created a space for it.”

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Foundation Course exercise
Student: Hans von Klier
Instructor: Tomás Maldonado
1956
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

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Foundation Course exercise (detail)
Student: Hans von Klier
Instructor: Tomás Maldonado
1956
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

“[A Marxian approach] would inevitably lead you out of design in some way. And the Ulm Model, the title of the Raven Row exhibition, is slightly ironic because it isn’t really a model for anything, and I think they understood that towards the end. They started to consider critical design as something that had to not resemble design in its recognised form. It would be nominally designed, the categories by which it was generally intelligible would need to be dismantled.”

The school’s funding was equally problematic, while their independence from the state facilitated their ability to validate their social purpose, the private foundation that provided their income was funded by industry commissions and indirect government funding from the regional legislator. “Although they were only partially dependent on government money, they accrued so much debt that in the end they were entirely dependent on it. The school was becoming increasingly radical politically, and the more radical it became, the more its own relation to capitalism became problematic. Their industry commissions tied them to the market, the Ulm Model didn’t work out, and their numbers didn’t add up.”

The Ulm School closed in 1968, when state funding was entirely withdrawn, and its functionalist ideals were in crisis. Abraham Moles, an instructor at the school, had previously asserted the inconsistency arising from the practice of functionalism under the conditions of ‘the affluent society’, “which for the sake of ever expanding production requires that needs remain unsatisfied.” And although he had encouraged the school to anticipate and respond to the problem, so as to be the “subject instead of the object of a crisis”; he hadn’t offered concrete ideas on how that might be achieved.

But correcting the course of capitalist infrastructure isn’t something the Ulm School could have been expected to achieve, “and although the project was ill-construed, it is productive as a resource for thinking about what a critical design practice could be in relation to capitalism.” What’s interesting about the Ulm Model today is their consideration of the purpose of education, and their questioning of whether it should merely reflect the current state of things – “preparing a workforce for essentially increasing the GDP; and establishing the efficiency of contributing sectors in a kind of diabolical utilitarianism.”

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Ulm Journal of the Hochschule für Gestaltung

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Foundation Course exercise (detail)
Student: Bertus Mulder
1956-57
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

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Foundation Course exercise
Student: Hans von Klier
Instructor: Tomás Maldonado
1956
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

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Foundation Course exercise (detail)
Student: Bertus Mulder
Date unknown
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

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Foundation Course exercise
Student: Hans von Klier
Instructor: Tomás Maldonado
1956
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum

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Foundation Course exercise (detail)
Student: Hans von Klier
Instructor: Helene Nonné-Schmidt
Date unknown
Courtesy HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum