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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTY SIX A Question of Design

On our last morning in Ulm, we are sitting in front of the Minster which has the tallest church spire in the world. The design is Gothic and if there was ever a style where form follows function, this is it. Pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses brought mastery over height and space and drew mind, spirit and prayer up to God.

The design allies architecture with technical progress, and the Minster was built to last. Jump forward six centuries to America after the Wall Street Crash and things have changed. Design became a route out of the Depression: sales could be improved through consumer engineering and its running dog, planned obsolescence. Design built on market research and behavioural psychology stimulated false needs through product differentiation: the 'latest' became necessary.

This onslaught on consumer behaviour was led by industrial designers such as Norman Bel Geddes, Harold Van Doren and, perhaps most famous of them all, Raymond Loewy - for whom a 'good design' was 'an upwards sales curve'. Loewy was a household name, on the front cover of Time Magazine in 1949. Most households had one or more of his streamline moderne designs: the Coldspot Refrigerator with its sleek aluminium lines or a Studebaker Avanti – reputedly the 'most beautiful car ever made'; and in England, the Hillman Minx.

Raymond Loewy on one of his designs (c)wikicommons

In Europe, many designers resisted American consumerist-orientation. For them, the functionalist view of design was paramount – form should follow function – and in Ulm, there was a man who particularly despised Loewy's streamlining, or "spurious surface simplication” as he called it. Max Bill came from a sterner school – educated at the Bauhaus under Kandinsky and Klee, he had gone on to chair the Swiss Werkbund. In 1950, he came to Ulm to run a unique educational establishment set up by Inge Scholl to honour Sophie and Hans, executed for their part in the White Rose resistance movement.

a Max Brill design - the Ulmer Hocker (c)wikicommons

The original Scholl project had aimed at nothing less than the moral and cultural reconstruction of German youth and, as it was a good fit with the wider denazification programme, the Americans were generous in their funding. The original curriculum set by Hans Werner Richter, a Marxist, aimed to achieve this reconstruction by a ‘universal education’: politics, journalism, radio and film, art, advertising and industrial design. But when Max Bill took charge, the scope narrowed to industrial design, and excluded politics and the other elements.

Bill believed that all design must have an ethical foundation, namely the fulfilment of genuine human needs - hence his vehement opposition to sales-driven Loewy. More than this, he thought this "sweet but dishonest" approach would lead to Kulturverfall ('collapse of culture') because design had an innate power to influence change in society. His reasoning was that because design is part of daily life, it necessarily exerts influence on society, so it was vital that:

bad, incompetent, or commercially minded artists ought never to be allowed to design for mass-produced goods ... this immensely responsible task should be exclusively reserved for those designers whose outstanding skill in craftsmanship is known to be governed by a high sense of moral duty to the community.

I wonder how closely the perspectives of Loewy and Bill still apply. Sixty years on, in the Germany of today, people tend towards Bill's point of view: they expect household machines to be reliable and to be susceptible to repair. But they also buy the latest iPhones – as prime an example of Loewy's principles as any.

Not that Loewy should be summarily dismissed. He certainly changed the look of America and his skills were even used by NASA. Between 1967 to 1973, Loewy was 'Habitability Consultant' for the first space station, Skylab. He designed the sleeping quarters each to be different; a table that suggested no hierarchy in its seating; cutlery with magnets; cheery colours; and a porthole where the lonely astronauts could look down on home.

Off to Augsburg this afternoon - the city known as Datschiburg after the pudding invented there, a baked pie where plums are pinched (datschen in the local dialect) into the dough. The Race Marshal has suggested she should go on ahead, for some reason.

Ulm Minster and its story -

Film of Raymond Loewy and some of his designs -

The difference between Art Deco and Streamline Moderne -

The Ulm School of Design with a section on the Ulmer Hocker -

Streamline by the Spanish techno band Newton -

A song about modernity -

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