The Genius That Was Ulm

The German brand consultant and design scholar Dr. René Spitz just published a new book that examines what happened in Ulm, Germany, after the closing of the legendary Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung, HfG, 1953–68). Like the Bauhaus, its historical value to the integration of design disciplines in terms of education and practice is extraordinary. Spitz’s book of dense history and analysis— titled HfG IUP IFG: Ulm 1898-2008—is currently available in German and English. (Another book on the work at Ulm can be found here). I asked Spitz to explain his thesis for us.

Is the Ulm School of Design the spiritual or physical extension of the Bauhaus? If so, how? If not, how does it diverge from the other?

It differed fundamentally in a programmatic way. The intention of the HfG founders was not to succeed the Bauhaus. Walter Gropius put the Dessau Bauhaus under the motto: “Art and technology – a new unity”. Which meant that art (or a new kind of art) should be the reference point of all design activities: “The ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! The last goal of the Bauhaus is the unity of arts.”

Otl Aicher [one of Ulm’s founders along with Inge Scholl and Max Bill] set two goals: Civic education [was essential] to independent thinking and cultural and technical civilization [must progress] without imitating either technical or cultural traditions. Civilization should be developed in its own terms (this formula is a mantra of modernism). Precisely because the circumstances of the 1950s differed totally from those of the 1920s, Aicher rejected the idea of a seamless continuity to the Bauhaus.

In his eyes the development of mass production in the technology-driven industrial society — media, products, cities — should neither be dominated by the artist nor the engineer (and not the merchant). It had to be organized by a new expert — the designer.

In the 1950s a HfG brochure explained:

 “The comparison between Bauhaus and HfG may apply, regarded to the decided modernity of both schools. Nevertheless, there are fundamental differences. The Bauhaus pursued with missionary zeal, an idea (reactivation of the arts under the primacy of architecture), while the Ulm School of Design propagates no idea but would like to give a constructive response to urgent, yet unresolved problems in our technological age.”

What was the principle “uniqueness” about HfG Ulm that sets it apart from all other design institutions?

There are three main characteristics that distinguish HfG from every school of design. First, it was based more than any other school on dealing with the question of what the social responsibility of designers is. Second, it was a strong impulse for the development of design as a research-based activity. Third, the HFG Ulm integrated all disciplines, not only within  design, but also humanities, engineering, sciences, politics and economy. The designer should work as a team player, not as an artist.

The headline to your introduction is “Ulm is not Ulm.” What then is Ulm?

Ulm is a projection. Most designers think of the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung, HfG, 1953-1968) when they hear or read “Ulm.” But what was this HfG? It was a multi-faceted phenomenon with many players who have objected passionately. So when I say: “Ulm” was not Ulm, I urge to question the stereotype that “Ulm” is mainly connected to the HfG.

Now, I’m confused. Help me out . . .

There is a new link, which is tempting in its brevity, but also falsifying. Today we are happy about the contribution of design to the economic success of Apple. It is known that Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs appreciated the work of Dieter Rams. Dieter Rams is considered “Mr. Braun.” And Braun design is unthinkable without the impulse of HfG. So a new stereotype is everywhere: “Ulm-Brown-Rams-Apple.” The image of “Ulm” is reduced to this notion, which is too superficial. Ulm is much more. It represents an attitude, an approach that reaches far beyond the formal aesthetic of the surface. It reaches out into society.

This approach was also pursued in Ulm after the closing of HfG in 1968: First in the Institute of Environmental Planning (IUP, 1969-1972) and then in the International Design Forum (Internationales Forum für Gestaltung IFG, since 1988).

So Ulm is the spirit of progressive and encompassing design. Were all HfG Ulm disciplines integrally intertwined?

The integration of various forms of creative activity was a major feature of the HfG Ulm. The objective was not the technical idiot, but the generalist, based on strong critical judgment and solid experience.

From 1953 to 1962 there was a mandatory, common first year of study, the so-called Grundlehre. As a result, the students learned to recognize inter-relationships. Only then, the students chose one of the four directions: visual communication, product design, building and information, and later film. But there were also students who changed their discipline. And since the school was small, separation of each other was impossible.

There were also many collaborations among the lecturers. For example, the work for Braun was a joint project of product and communication design (Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher).

Now to graphic design. How would you describe the methodology? Is it “Swiss?”

“Swiss” is called a rational approach to design. Therefore, the objective argument is preferred to emotional overwhelming. Information is more important than emotion. The series is more important than the original. Affordable mass production is more valuable than exclusivity. Swiss typography and HFG Ulm share this attitude. It is based on the belief that the world can be understood and that rational solutions for their problems can be constructed: construction makes sense. This rationality is an attempt to respond to the inhumanity of the Nazi regime.

Where did the basic typographic identity come from? I’m thinking of the ulm journal, would you call this typical of the institution?

The ulm journal was absolutely typical. It was the official medium of self-manifestation of HfG. This design expresses the attitude of HfG. If you see who was responsible for texts and layout and if you compare it with the publication which Otl Aicher made about his famous “development group 5” (Entwicklungsgruppe 5, the group which developed the Lufthansa Corporate Design 1962), you see that Aicher stood behind it.

The journal was launched in 1958 to inform politicians and economy about their activities. The texts came from Tomás Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepe. The first version with a square page format was designed by Anthony Froshaug (issues 1-5, 1958/59). Then there was a pause of two years. Starting in 1962, the journal was published in DIN A4 format, designed by Tomás Gonda (issues 6-7). This layout was maintained until the end of the publication (issue 21, April 1968) by the designers who were responsible in the following years: Herbert W. Kapitzki, Eckhard Jung, Jacob Heiner and Manfred Winter.

What is the distinction between the IFG and IUP Ulm?

IUP (Institut für Umweltplanung, Institute of Environmental Planning) was a department of the University of Stuttgart (1969-1972). It was kept for one reason: Officially, HfG Ulm closed its doors on 30 September 1968. What was to become of the recently matriculated students who had not yet completed their studies when HfG closed? For that reason above all, formal teaching was to be re-established at the premises of HfG under public control as soon as possible. IUP should offer a project-based course on the subject of the environment, in contrast to the classical system of seminars, lectures and exercises. The projects included research into people’s needs, high-density housing, leisure, the workplace, children’s books and planning theory. The students joined one of these project groups. The precise nature of the project was to be defined in joint discussions, plans of action established and the work apportioned.

IFG (Internationales Forum für Gestaltung, International Design Forum) is the platform from which the HfG Foundation is doing their activities. It is the same foundation that already had the HfG financed. It still exists. After 1968, the Foundation took over 15 years to consolidate its financial position and restore its capacity to act. In 1987 the Foundation established the IFG. It was still undecided whether continuous university operations should be re-established in Ulm. The Foundation and the Advisory Board of IFG decided against that idea, although seen from the outside it seemed temptingly obvious. IFG hosted 16 conferences in an annual sequence from 1988 to 2003. They always took place in mid-September, which is why they rapidly came to be known unofficially as the “September conferences.” In 2004 I changed this program and IFG established the award “Designing Politics – The Politics of Design,” worth 50,000 euros.

What prompted you to write this history of the institution?

I have been associated with Ulm ever since I came across a book by Otl Aicher in my father’s library in 1985. From 1989 to 1991, in parallel with my studies of history and German in Munich, I worked together with Aicher and his associate Albrecht Hotz for the South Tyrolean company durst. Those who had ever experienced the way Aicher tended to treat his clients inevitably wondered how a person can reach such professional prominence that he can sacrifice personal considerations to the absolute quality of his work.

How did Otl Aicher gain this prominence? When he was appointed chief designer for the 1972 Olympic Summer Games in Munich he was catapulted to the foremost ranks of international designers. Why was he given the job? This is how I stumbled upon the history of the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG), the Ulm School of Design. Why was the HfG established, why is it no longer in existence? In existing literature, these questions have hardly been asked or satisfactorily answered – an answer can be found only if one does not disregard the hard facts of life: money, position, power, the protective zones of institutions, spheres of influence.

Following my publication on the political history of HfG Ulm, the Hochschule für Gestaltung Foundation invited me in autumn 2003 to become involved as a member of the IFG Advisory Board. Only a few weeks later, I was appointed Chairman of the Advisory Board with responsibility for realigning the activities of IFG. I ended that appointment in the summer of 2007. In early 2012, when I was asked by Regula Stämpfli, my successor as Director of IFG, whether I could compile a documentation on “Ulm up to 2008” for IFG, I was delighted by the opportunity to shed a light on the complexity and multifacetedness of Ulm. My intention in that context was not to sweep the conflicts typical of “Ulm” under the carpet, but to put them up for discussion and permit dissent.

Your book is a lot about the people, even more than the work. Why this perspective?

An important result of HfG is the importance of the design process. Today we know that design is not a linear activity — problem-idea-solution. But that design is a complex activity in which it comes to the study of relationships. It’s about contradictions and conflicts. A linear method, however, does not solve problems, but increases them. This insight leads to the result that the exchange of experts (a better word in German is Wissensträger) has become more important than ever. So Ulm practices this for 25 years. That’s why I made the people visible. The book is a starting point — when I get to know the people, I get to know their ideas.

Can you define the most lasting result of the Ulm experience?

Ulm has elaborated that designers must face up to their societal responsibility. They have to start with analyzing the context and forget about the romantic idea of creating isolated forms. Designers are involved in all sectors of the economy. Therefore, they are also part of all the problems we have to deal with today, resources, pollution, energy, etc.

Why did IUP Ulm close in 1972?

In the summer semester of 1971, the last HfG students submitted their diploma theses at IUP. At the same time, in May 1971, the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Education imposed a freeze on admissions for students applying to take the courses at IUP. At that time, IUP had 60 students and 4 lecturers. The state parliament of Baden-Württemberg decided on 27 January 1972 to stop teaching on 30 September 1972.

This last question is more for me than the average reader. I know that Sophie Scholl, the heroine of The White Rose, an anti-Nazi resistance group, was connected to Ulm in some way. Otl Aicher was married to her sister. Is there more of a connection?

 Otl Aicher knew the Scholl family since his youth. Aicher was one of very few pupils in Nazi Germany who had refused to join the Hitler Jugend. Therefore, he could not get his diploma from the secondary school qualifying for university admission or matriculation (Abitur). Aicher loved Sophie Scholl. He reports about it in his autobiographical sketch “innenseiten des kriegs.” The marriage with her older sister Inge then appears as a surrogate activity.

Aicher knew about The White Rose and Hans and Sophie Scholl’s involvement. Aicher escaped his own arrest by a most fortunate circumstance – he would have been as well executed.

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