A new school of thought

A concise history of the Ulm School of Design reveals its influence on education and practice, but is incomplete

The Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG), the School of Design based in the southern German city of Ulm, was established in the aftermath of the second world war, in a similar way to the Bauhaus after the first world war. Both were idealistic counter reactions to pre-war models. Though the HfG lasted only 15 years, between 1953 and 1968, it has had an enduring significance for design education, and in the design of numerous products. I was one of a small number of Anglophone students at the HfG, and although I spent only one year there, from 1960 to 1961, it was a formative experience.

A new book, HfG Ulm: Concise History of the Ulm School of Design, owes its existence to student enthusiasm for a seminar based on co-author René Spitz’s PhD on the HfG (a fact revealed in the book’s ‘epilogue’ that would be better placed within a preface). But the Fachhoschule Düsseldorf is to be commended for its interest in documenting and publishing communication design history; and initiating a series of A5 ‘small handbooks’ in association with Lars Müller Publishers, which includes this title. A preface to the book would benefit also by including reference to Spitz’s collection of photographs by Hans G Conrad, which provide the majority of the illustrations.

The first four sections describe the origins and evolution of the school and a clear account is provided of the roles played by its founders Inge Aicher-Scholl, Otl Aicher and Max Bill. The subsequent differences leading to Bill’s departure are described; as is the school’s strong socially responsible ethos. The section on the demise of the school during 1967-8 provides a detailed account of the sad tale. Unhappily though, the inconsistent presentation of the text in German and English disrupts the narrative.

The remainder of the book comprises numerous monochrome illustrations accompanied by diminutive and barely legible text. A description of some of the notable staff and visitors is followed by brief introductions to the departments – yet these give a false impression, as no differentiation is made between student projects and staff practice. (Similarly, full-time staff and visiting lecturers are not identified.) In fact, the HfG followed the Bauhaus model of maintaining a close relationship with industry, hence several HfG staff had professional offices with small teams in the school. These were designated as ‘development groups’, where many team members were former students. The most notable groups were those lead by the product designer Hans Gugelot and the graphic designer Aicher. In turn they provided the majority of the iconic products and identities produced at the HfG which have endured from that time – most notable is the innovative work for Braun and Lufthansa.

Another feature of the school carried over from its Bauhaus forerunner was a year-long Foundation course (originally it was of a shorter duration), which produced some of the HfG’s most intriguing images – even though it closed in 1961. But of the initial departments – of Industrialised Building, Visual Communication, and Information, joined later by a small but very well regarded department of Film – it was the Product Design department that became the most influential internationally. Several transport-related projects were amongst some of the most innovative student projects. The best of these was the Autonova in 1965 (the first multipurpose vehicle, sadly not included here). Probably the best known student project was Nick Roericht’s TC 100 stackable canteen crockery (shown on the following page), produced for many years by Rosenthal/Thomas.

The work of the Visual Communication department is presented rather thinly, however. The majority of the examples are posters, with the two most significant projects being by staff, such as Tomás Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepes’ symbols for Olivetti, and Aicher’s Lufthansa identity. Photography is presented here as though it was a separate department, which it was not. Indeed, one of the most telling experiences for me was to watch Wolfgang Siol, the photography workshop technician, lighting Roericht’s crockery; the absence of shadows or dazzling highlights on its glazed surfaces was spellbinding.

Christian Staub, a colourful Swiss photographer, was responsible for the photographic curriculum and is credited with taking a lead in 2 3 establishing the Film department, the first to be set up in what was then West Germany. It focused on documentary and advocated the author/director’s control of the total process. The most influential staff – Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz, who went on to direct the mammoth 32-episode television series, Heimat – took a lead in what became known as the Oberhausen Manifesto, which promoted film as a factual rather than entertainment medium. Colleagues in the Visual Communication and Information departments (the latter sought to train journalists and ‘publicists’ to work in the mass media), were instrumental in establishing Film as an independent department from 1961 onwards.

Unfortunately the book contains no reference to one of the features of the curriculum which impressed me most – namely the ‘Wednesday Seminars’. Students from across the school (including the foundation year) could attend presentations from the many distinguished visitors who briefly attended. Coming from a monotechnic (the then London School of Printing and Graphic Arts), these seminars, where one mixed with staff and students from all years – of architecture, product design and journalism – was a heady mix; particularly as many of the speakers were internationally renowned visitors from a similar range of subjects. I was struck also by the international mix of the student body. It is difficult to appreciate today, but at the time British higher education was less cosmopolitan than this remote provincial school, perched on a hill overlooking the Danube valley.

Another curious omission is any reference to the Perception Laboratory, which featured prominently in much of the School’s publicity. It both attracted me to study there, and presented the opportunity to experience eerie demonstrations of the fallibility of one’s eyes. Mervyn Perrine, the 2 3 American psychologist who established the lab, and was a full-time member of staff from 1958-61, is not mentioned.

And an omission which some British designers might find troubling is the absence of a mention of the role played by the graphic design and typographer, Anthony Froshaug. Although he is referred to, his influence on the Grundlehre (‘Basic Course’) is not evident; nor that he was recruited by Maldonado to establish the typography workshop. Certainly, his authorship of the school’s journal ‘ulm’ is venerated as a classic example of the organisation’s interest in visual methodology. (Incidentally, it was while at Ulm that Froshaug became Frøshaug, adopting the Norwegian ‘ø’ possibly because his surname in German resembles ‘frog’s eyes’ – a detail which some students irreverently picked up on.)

Turning to the presentation, the book is let down by the English translation which grates, and is littered with errors. Not the least of these is the constant reference to the school simply as “HfG”, rather than “the HfG”. Some of the howlers are bizarre, for example the plaster workshop (‘Gips’ in German), is translated as “concrete workshop”. A major gripe is the unkind typography of the majority of the book, where one has to struggle with a tiny typesize. Purist ‘Ulmers’ would also be dismayed by the prelims set totally in capitals; and – shock horror – the cover shows the title with a centred subtitle! The best feature of the book’s design, however, is the dust jacket. It unfolds to reveal an illustration of the first five numbers of Froshaug’s ‘ulm’ in actual size (the image used is shown below, top right).

Despite its brief duration and its tiny size, the HfG was vastly significant; not merely for design education and practice, but for the media more generally in German-speaking Europe. Its signature is on the white goods departments of European department stores; much of German public and private transport; and is said to have influenced indirectly figures such as Steve Jobs. Any addition to the literature on the School in English is valuable, but regrettably this does not do it justice. Readers who require a more rigorous and comprehensive account should consult Herbert Lindinger’s book, published in English in 1991, Ulm Design: The Morality of Objects.

Professor Ian McLaren attended the HfG from 1960 to 1961 and went on to work as joint deputy art director of the 1972 Munich Olympics under Otl Aicher. He is currently a research consultant and designer. HfG Ulm: Concise History of the Ulm School of Design by Jens Müller and René Spitz is published by Lars Müller Publishers; €28. lars-mueller-publishers.com, a5design.de.

More from CR

This Brutal House

Graphic designer Peter Chadwick has launched a website dedicated to brutalism. This Brutal House will include a photographic archive of brutalist architecture and graphic design projects inspired by the movement.

Chanel’s Supermodel Supermarket

For its 2014 Fall/Winter fashion show at Paris Fashion Week, Chanel turned the Grand Palais into the world’s glitziest supermarket complete with 500 Chanel-branded products in packaging designed specially for the show

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency