Peter Kapos

HfG Ulm 1953-1968




The Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) was established at Ulm, Southern Germany, in 1953. The school emerged from an education centre founded by writer and educationalist Inge Scholl and graphic designer Otl Aicher in 1946. Three years earlier, Scholl’s sister and brother had been executed by the Nazis for their central role in the student resistance movement ‘The White Rose’,

and this new centre was to commemorate them by contributing to the reconstruction of a progressive German culture. Following the arrival of the Swiss designer, architect and artist Max Bill, the curriculum became focused on industrial design. Whilst the initial emphasis on political education became less explicit, the school retained its social commitments and a strong utopian orientation towards the future.


Ties between the HfG and the Bauhaus (1919–33) were numerous. Bill, the architect of the school’s buildings and its first Rector, had received his training there, and the teaching staff included a number of former Bauhaus instructors such as artists Josef Albers and Helene Nonné-Schmidt.

However, the HfG Ulm differed fundamentally from the Bauhaus. The devastated condition of Europe demanded a more positive relation to industrial mass production; the Bauhaus’ project

of striking a balance between art and industry was dropped. It was replaced with 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. The Ulm Model was conceived to develop systematic methodologies and instil an interdisciplinary and collective approach to the solution of design problems. Industrial partners were courted, and a number of Development Groups were established within the school through which staff and students worked together in response to briefs set by corporate clients, such as Braun and Lufthansa.


Just as the HfG sought to systematise design education, so too the school developed an understanding of the objects it produced in terms of systems. These objects, whether they were films, magazine layouts, schemes for corporate visual identity or industrial products, came to be seen as structured functional units. The conditions of their use and circulation were taken to be socially formed, and thus best grasped according to the systematic totalisations of sociology, semiotics, formal logic and cybernetics. This radical reinterpretation of functionalism was called ‘systems design’.


It is a sad irony for an institution so committed to the ideals of rationality and objectivity that

its history is often narrated in terms of the bitter internecine disputes that fissured it and contributed in no small part to its premature collapse. For, whilst consensus held that the designer should not be considered an artist, precisely what the designer’s position should be within the production process remained contentious. Although now on altered terms, the disputed issue remained the proper relation of art and design. It is the premise of this exhibition, however, that, despite the many disavowals, something of the character of the artwork remained preserved within even the most scientistic of the school’s outputs.


Design’s subjective aspect, that is, the sense in which the designer’s activity might be imagined –

by clichéd analogy to that of the artist – as arising spontaneously from a uniquely personal and

intuitive source, had received robust correction at Ulm in the collectivisation and rationalisation

of the work process. However, the objective aspect of the modern artwork, that is, its apparent

existence as a self-sufficient whole persisted in Ulm systems design’s tendency to think in terms

of totalities. These were expressed as rationally determined groupings of industrially articulated

parts, harmoniously integrated within functional unities.


Although it may seem strange to say, it would not be incorrect to suggest that Hans Roericht’s

catering service consisting of various systematically related cups, saucers, plates and pots, as well

as offering durability and efficient storage, was at the same time a proposal for the reorganisation

of social life. This is to view Ulm systems design as a speculative and implicitly political form of practice, as much as it was, indeed, constituted as an attempt to address practical problems through the organisation of functional systems – whether those be desk fans, wallpaper patterns or sign systems.


Unfortunately, by the time the school was closed in 1968 such projections of the historically new

already appeared dull by the standards of novelty expected in the culture of consumerism thriving

under Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder, or ‘economic miracle’. The HfG was overtaken and finally engulfed by the forces of development it had sought to direct. The reason for showing these objects at Raven Row is not to present examples of industrial design as art. The distinction today is, in any case, increasingly meaningless. But it is 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.


Peter Kapos