Despite the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm’s short life – it opened in southern Germany in 1953 and lasted until 1968 – the highly collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of its ethos proved to be universally influential. Many of the school’s theories and ideas can still be found in graphic and product design today – particularly in, albeit it altered versions, the work of companies such as Braun, Vitsoe and Lufthansa, through to Apple and Muji.
In many ways The Ulm Model is an unusual exhibition – and one that is all the better for that. There are no wall texts or captions, objects aren’t categorised or displayed chronologically; instead, they are grouped in ways that show how the Ulm approach could result in a wide range of forms and objects.
The information about each of the objects (alongside the school’s history) is contained within a booklet, while a more detailed essay on the school features in an accompanying publication, both designed by Cartlidge Levene. There are no display cases – everything is shown on table-like plinths or painted pine wood platforms designed by David Kohn Architects.
Rather than present a directly historical take on Ulm, the show is more about seeing how these designs form part of, or have informed, the current moment – and the kind of future they might still point to. “We tried to think about this as ‘What’s the relationship between this material and the present?'” says curator, Peter Kapos. “And given the present situation, how could this project still be of use?”
Take the contents of the first room: There’s a set of Hans Roericht’s famous TC 100 stacking crockery, alongside a tessellating group of oil canisters by Hans-Jürgen Lannoch and a children’s play system made up of box-like wooden components that fit together, designed by Hans Gugelot in 1954.
Here, industrial production and rational arrangements facilitate self-expression. “There’s a kind of relationship between rule and freedom, which children are being taught about,” says Kapos. “In some ways, that’s the lesson of all Ulm design; it’s about establishing a tension between rule and freedom – and that’s Utopian.”
The most widely-known link to many of the ideas and systems that came out of Ulm is via Braun and, in particular, through the work of designer Dieter Rams. In recent years, Apple’s apparent design philosophy appears to owe much to Rams, though the link to the school is much less in evidence.
“A lot of that interest has been soaked up by Braun and somehow hasn’t got back to Ulm,” says Kapos. “The way Braun is remembered historically tends to stop at Dieter Rams. It’s just a much simpler story to say ‘Rams’ than it is to think about a whole group of people, what were the conditions under which they were working and why were they doing it?
“Partly, I think there’s an embarrassment about the politics – [Ulm] had a really strong social programme that was there at the very beginning and then got more and more radical until the school closed.”
In the beginning, Ulm was in part a response to the post-war conditions in Germany and its reconstruction. There were thoughts, Kapos explains, about “how industrial design could shape the social world without having recourse to extremist politics”. What social impact could design have? How could internationalism move on and away from nationalism?
Yet, by the end of the 1960s, when Ulm was dissolved, forced to close from its mounting debts, “they were no longer thinking about reconstruction, they were thinking about how can industrial design curb the excesses of capitalism – which of course it can’t, and they began to realise that.”
As Kapos writes in his essay in the booklet, Ulm’s radicalism had been in seeking “an understanding of the designer as an essential, but no longer primary, coordinating point within a complex and communicative production structure that might also involve semioticians, logicians and engineers.
“Through what came to be known as the ‘Ulm Model’, this new conception of the designer’s role within the production process was reflected in the school’s curriculum and the structured relation of its departments: Product Design, Visual Communication, Information, Film and Industrialised Building.”
Upstairs at Raven Row there is a chair, a bed frame, a weighing machine, a radiograph, a model of a vacuum cleaner, through to smaller electrical items such as a torch, a razor and a desk fan. Despite the latter’s more modest appearance, the approach to something like the fan is to completely rethink it; to throw away preconceptions and create something new with the available materials and technology.
Kapos notes the “slight awkwardness” of the coffee grinder, too – its slight inelegance suggesting perhaps a more human touch. There’s an “equality” in it, he suggests – we somehow meet it in the middle.
Kapos talks of an honesty and openness about these objects – a way of being that would enhance the user’s life. Walter Zeischegg’s series of bookends and magazine racks, containers for desk organisation, for example, were designed in 1966-70, but look wholly contemporary.
“I think that Muji, more than Braun, is actually the successful industrial application of [all] this, because it’s really democratic, it’s really good design and it’s cheap,” says Kapos. There’s a coherence to Zeischegg’s beautiful set of objects, but each of them works on its own; a way of producing high street products that Muji knows all too well.
In his essay, Kapos writes that the work at Raven Row is presented not as a series of examples of industrial design as art but, rather, “in the hope that the socially oriented relation of art and design suggested at the HfG Ulm offers a resource for thinking towards a different future.” At the end of a tumultuous year, that vision seems to offer some hope still.